Life is all about relationships. Relationships with people, with God, with things we enjoy doing and making. Being alone is not good. Music is so powerful in the lives of people because it offers us multiple relationships. First, each individual person has a relationship with music. Our musical experiences are always interactive. Music elicits movement, emotion, and physical response such as a change in heart rate. Our human brains are stimulated enough for us to always be actively engaged with music we hear or make, even if we are just sitting in a chair listening. There really is no such thing as passive listening.
If this were the only relationship we had with music, it would be quite enough to count music as one of life’s more important delights. But there is more. Music is nearly always performed with other people. We hear music played by bands, orchestras, choirs, quartets, sextets, octets and dozens of other combinations of people. Even solo classical works aren’t really solos at all, but a featured musician playing with one or more other musicians, such as in a sonata or concerto. Solo singers in a band often have backup singers, and popular artists frequently have audiences that sing, clap, dance, and even shout along, as they participate in the music making experience.
As groups of people make music together, they discover the expressive intent of the composer, and emote it in a united interpretation that only strengthens the bond between performers, and between performers and the music they are performing. It is an intense experience in which people find a temporary bond in the process of making and coordinating the parts from which a musical piece is composed and forming them in community into the artistic whole that is the musical performance.
The economics of our times have frequently necessitated producing music that requires only small numbers of musicians. Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Du Soldat was written for chamber orchestra because that was what was available in the post-war era in which it was written. John Cage’s pieces for prepared piano made the sounds of whole percussion sections possible with only a single player. More recently, musical theater has relied more and more on pre-recorded orchestra parts, giving the sonic illusion of a large orchestra, but in actuality realized by a small number of musicians. Such practices and trends have extracted much of the community out of music making, pushing it ever closer to an isolated and ever more potentially depressing enterprise for the few left to perform. Musicians now record albums from disparate locations who only meet on line or not at all except for the producer who assembles all the sent tracks. In all of this, the power of music making is challenged, as it becomes less and less about the actions of a creative community making music, and more and more about manufactured musical product.
For all of these reasons, it is essential that music educators remain faithful to music ensembles through which music making in community is experienced. Traditional school music ensembles are sometimes criticized as being no longer relevant and in need of reform or replacement. I submit that making music together in groups, unlike some repertoire, is never irrelevant. Given exciting literature to play and sing composed by an active and engaged community of composers, ensembles in schools is as relevant and important as ever. Students who have meaningful experience making music with others are enriched in a way that never leaves and is always treasured for a lifetime.