A recent article posted on the Daily Beast website reported on how “Music Shields a Child’s Psyche in a Time of War”. The article describes a moment when Palestinian music students reach a road block assembled by Israeli soldiers, and in the midst of the tensions inherent in the conflict of the region, a student and a soldier each learn that the other can play the violin and they play for each other at the armed checkpoint.
Parts of the Daily Beast article probably could be viewed as controversial by some, as the conflicts in that part of the world have existed for centuries and we all have our deeply held views on world issues. But what is not controversial is that music has the power to unite even the most disparate of ideologies and soothe the deepest of conflicts, if only for a passing moment in the midst of profoundly ingrained conflict.
The posting also quoted from the collection of essays Music, Music Therapy and Trauma: International Perspectives, saying “Music, by raising the threshold for anxiety, can reduce the likelihood of resurgence of traumatic memories.” Another quote was cited, saying that creativity can serve as a “fundamental part of healing…it is the refusal of victimhood and helplessness. Creating something new is an act of defiance in the face of destruction.”
At a time when we are reminded of world conflicts through an unceasing din of 24-hour cable news channels, I am forever inspired and heartened by the fact that music continues to have the ability to unite people, and continues to be a force for change and strength for the people of all nations.
This month, to commemorate the centennial of an historical atrocity, one that has become known as the Armenian Genocide, 123 orchestral musicians from 43 nations gathered in the Armenian capital of Yerevan to perform a concert called Renaissance. Musicians of other genres also performed to remind the world of this event that must not be forgotten by future generations.
And in Baltimore, less than 48 hours after civil unrest spread through the city, the Baltimore Symphony performed a unifying outdoor free concert as a demonstration of peace in their city. Music Director Marin Alsop wrote: “With so much need alongside so much possibility, I hope we can use any opportunities we get to set an example and inspire others to join us in trying to change the world.”
Music is a powerful tool for positive change in the world, and music education empowers creativity in all fields. The musicians of our orchestras must articulate this message tirelessly.
But music education is discouragingly underfunded in our own country. Robert Fitzpatrick, former dean at the Curtis Institute of Music, recently wrote that the past 50 years “have led to a decline in the quality of education in general, and an abandoning of the arts and arts education in particular.”
Still, there are some signs of hope. I enjoyed a recent account of remarks made by Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, who said “If you want the kids’ test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get kids actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test.” Our friends at Americans for the Arts recently posted an article titled “Arts Education Poised for Comeback in Nation’s Largest School Districts.” As more states adopt Common Core, they are implementing a program that mentions the arts approximately 75 times in its education standards. And, earlier this month, music was recognized as a core subject in draft federal education policy for the first time in history as part of the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, which is designed to make adjustments to the policies of No Child Left Behind.
In New Orleans, a music education program called Trumpets Not Guns is providing musical instruments to students in communities that are at risk for falling prey to violence. A report from the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence indicates that last year, handguns killed 10,728 people in America, as opposed to 58 in Israel, and 8 in Great Britain. Disproportionally at risk is the African American community. The New York Times recently wrote that “More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life due to early deaths or incarceration.”
Through innovative programs like Trumpets Not Guns, music education can inspire young people to reach for a higher ideal than the violence that too often surrounds them, proving that creativity is a positive act of defiance in the face of negativity. It is no exaggeration to say that music education saves lives.
If only I were naïve enough to believe it is that simple though. I have no delusions that we can eradicate violence from the world, and when I rise each morning I am aware that new accounts of human suffering will greet me should I turn on the television or read the paper. But I do believe that every concert we perform is an act of defiance in the face of destruction. Every note we play advocates peace. Every lesson we teach advocates knowledge. Every piece of music we learn and share advocates understanding.
We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams. The musicians of our orchestras must lead this effort to change education, and change the world, just as musicians always have.
The life of a performing classical musician is difficult. It requires discipline, and an almost unnatural combination of confidence and self-criticism. It is easy for us to have moments of futility and apathy. After all, only fools never doubt. But the lives we have chosen to lead stand for unity and understanding in a fragile world. We must constantly renew our dedication, and we must constantly renew our hope.
As long as a single violin has the ability to unite Israelis and Palestinians, if only for a fleeting moment at a roadside blockade, I will remain hopeful for the world.