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Amidst the process of teaching and practicing musical works and concepts, it is worthwhile from time to time to remember why music is important to our lives. We who are music teachers enjoy teaching music, and our students have fun in our classes and ensembles, but it is important that music classes and rehearsals be more than just a good time. What is it about music that warrants taking part of the school day to teach it? Why should our students take our music classes seriously as an academic subject and beyond just having a good time? As I went through the past week, I was reminded that there are at least two reasons. We celebrate important events with music, and we are deeply moved by and deeply move others with music.
During the past week, both my son and I celebrated our birthdays. On both occasions, family and friends sang “Happy Birthday” to me. It was part of a ceremony of sorts. A cake with lighted candles is brought into the darkened room where I am seated, everyone sings this song, and then I make a wish and blow out all the candles. I have cake at other times of the year, but not with candles in it, and not while having this song sung to me. The musical significance goes further. That exact same song is also sung to countless others when it is their birthday. The song marks the occasion of a person’s birthday. Even in restaraunts, when the servers know it is a customer’s birthday, a group of them all go to the table with a dessert lit with a candle, and sing a birthday song. Singing to the person having a birthday is part of the ceremony. When you think about, our most important days are all marked and celebrated with songs, many of them dedicated to that particular day. For example, “Silent NIght” at Christmas, “Now Thank We All” for Thanksgiving, and “Dayenu” for Passover. Notice that most of these are holidays and are religious. Music, celebrations and religion have a long history together, and remind us that our major life events all have music and community in common. The way music draws people together is in itself an important reason for being a proficient music maker.
In another sort of celebration with music, some great works have been composed to mark important historical events, especially military victories. “Hava Nagila” was written in 1918 to celebrate the British victory in Palestine during world war one. Tchaikovsky wrote the now famous “1812 Overture” to commemorate Russia’s successful defense against Napoleon in that year, and Beethoven wrote “Wellington’s Victory” to celebrate Duke Wellington’s victory over Josepah Bonaparte at the Batle of Vitoria in 1813. More recently, in 2003, John Adams wrote “On The Transmigration of Souls” on a commission from the New York Philharmonic to honor those lost in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. Other important days are celebrated with parades that include marching musical units, with the singing or playing of a national anthem or other patriotic song, and with the ringing of church bells to honor fallen heroes.
Many times, the music of our celebrations and ceremonies moves us deeply; however there are many other instances of music moving us deeply apart from specific events and celebrations. Imagine going to a rock band concert where all of the lyrics were just spoken–an unexpected poetry slam of sorts. No drums, no rhythm such as rappers use, just spoken lyrics. The words would be the same, but the expressive impact would be vastly different. Now imagine going to a symphony orchestra concert, where all of the pieces were described by an actor-narrator. The speech is expressive and at times even dramatic, but inevitably would fall far short of the expressive impact the actural music would have on us. Give me back the singers and the band, give me back the orchestra and the musical masterpieces I want to hear over and over again. Give me back my music.
How does music get to be so important and impactful in our lives? It does so in a couple of ways. It is, because of its use in important celebrations, associated with highly personal life events that we are naturally emotionally attached to. It is because important people in our lives value it, and because we value them, we learn to value music as they do too. It is because the very nature of music grabs us deep down–it captures our heartbeat, our emotions, our bodies and minds. Music is as close to being a spiritual experience as anything can get without actually being one. The more we experience the gripping expressiveness of music, the more we are attracted to it, and the more we gain inner strength from it. All of this comes to us as we gain in proficiency as listeners, singers, players of musical instruments, improvisers, composers, and responders. Very little of it comes to us if the closest we get to music is as a background to other activities. Music has much to give, but it requires our full attention if we are to receive its offering. As I finish on this Easter day a week of singing and being sung to in celebrations, I am pleased to be reminded of how special our relationship to music is, and how worthy the cause of bringing my students into that relationship.