Friday, January 8, 2010

Brahms' Requiem, Pools of Luck, and the Rainbow Connection

One of the Top Ten Moments of My Life so Far was performing Brahms' "Ein Deutsches Requiem" with a 100+ voice choir and full orchestra in a college gymnasium in the middle of Kansas. The setting, of course, is not the important part, although the fact that it was so ordinary made the transcendent power of the music even more evident.

I remember, maybe two-thirds of the way through the performance, coming to the awareness that (a) much time had passed but (b) it didn't feel like it because (c) I was sitting in a pure shining pool of good luck to be alive, making this music with 150 other people.

Ah... I hear a high horse stamping outside my window. It's delivering a copy of an editorial I once wrote about how great music is for impractical things like feeling good. The Monteverdi Choir has just finished singing the Brahms on my stereo, so I'll go get the epistle and reproduce it below for your pleasure.

When [the children's music reviewer] and I were discussing [the magazine's music-review column], the issue of “educational value” came up. Heavy-handedly, I said I didn’t want to use that as a criterion for review. So you’ll see albums rated on how good they are for dancing or relaxing to, how well adult ears might tolerate them and how good they might be for months or years of play.

Why won’t you see a rating for how educational a recording is? I have two strong opinions on this topic, and since they’re a little contradictory, I will explain myself.

First, I believe all music is educational. Second, I believe “educational value” is overrated.

Especially for young children, music is educational in the same way that play is: stealthily. Exposure to melody, harmony and rhythm—whether by Rachmaninoff, Raffi or R.E.M.—lays the foundation for understanding language, numbers and turn-taking. It also develops discriminatory listening skills and encourages verbal and motor expression.
Further, music is so deeply a part of our humanity that we learn things which are more essential even than counting or clapping in time. We discover our individuality and our likeness to others at an emotional level. ...   

Because this kind of learning is so hard to articulate and is non-quantifiable, I think it gets overlooked in favor of music’s more explicitly educational aspects. The value of playing Mozart to sleeping children can’t be quantified, either, but the potential benefits are usually described in quantifiable terms designed to make parents believe they’re creating geniuses by simply pushing “Play”: increased math skills, advanced reasoning, and so on.

Older children are subjected to music’s ability to accommodate lyrics about colors, weather, grammar, history, morality, insects, the alphabet and tooth-brushing. Now, I have nothing against Conjunction Junction, and I think music could be used as a vehicle for teaching classroom knowledge even more than it is.

But don’t place a higher value on this music than on, for example, the amazingly, horrifyingly, riotously uneducational music of Marvin Suggs and his Muppaphone! (In our house, we all love classic Muppet Show tunes. And sometimes, when the mood is right, I choke up over “Rainbow Connection.”)

“My Hair had a Party Last Night” by Trout Fishing in America—another household favorite—does not teach the importance of personal hygiene, thank goodness. Its only redeeming values are the great tune, the charming mandolin-picking, the bouncy bass thwacks and the funny lyrics.

Then there’s the classic craziness: “Here We Go Looby-Loo” or “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” What do they teach? Nothing!

So here’s to uneducational music! ...

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