What is music for? Is it a pastime, a diversion? Is it a luxury, an amusement for the privileged?
Or is it something more?
In our schools, we try to ensure that children are at least given some small introduction to the great artistic accomplishments of history, mainly the classics of the written word. I went to public school, and remember being assigned to read a few Shakespeare plays, a work or two of the ancient Greeks and several of the notable "coming of age" novels of the 20th century.
But never once was I told to listen to a Beethoven symphony.
As a society, we recognize that the written word can be an artistic form of immense emotional power and intellectual value. I cannot imagine a civilized society that did not see the value in educating their young in at least some classic literature. But we ignore the great music that has moved nations and inspired our most profound thinkers to their greatest heights. Why?
Beethoven's music has inspired writers, scientists and politicians. When the Berlin Wall fell, his Symphony No. 9 was performed on the spot, as this was seen as the most appropriate response to one of the most important events in modern history. Yet, most young people in North America know nothing of his music, apart from what they may have heard coming out of Schroeder's piano on a Peanuts cartoon special. Three works of Bach were included on the "golden records" sent into the cosmos on the Voyager spacecraft, but his music is unknown to the vast majority of our children. Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky? These are names to many young people, but nothing more.
I am not by any means alone in lamenting the lack of music education in our schools. But I am not only saddened that there seems to be no time in current curricula, nor money in current budgets, for the possibility of instrumental instruction, but also by the fact that many school boards seem reluctant to even recognize the value and importance of great music as one of mankind's greatest cultural achievements.
If a child were to reach the end of their schooling having never been exposed to a word of Shakespeare, Dickens,or Dostoyevsky, we would accuse their schools of failure. Is this because the written word has greater emotional or intellectual importance than music?
The amazing story of Kwasi Enin, the 17-year-old from Long Island, NY, who was accepted into all eight Ivy League universities, has been well-covered by the press. I think it is worth noting that the subject of his college essay, "A Life in Music," is how music became the spark of his intellectual curiosity.
I was lucky to have a wonderful teacher in 4th and 5th grades, Mr. Don Cuggy, who took it upon himself to introduce his students to great music. For just a few minutes a day, he would play musical masterpieces from his own collection. He remains my favorite teacher from my childhood.
Music is notoriously difficult to talk about. I can fully understand the challenges of creating "assignments" in conjunction with the experience of listening to music. One's emotional and intellectual response to great music cannot be tested or graded. But this does not absolve our education system from the responsibility of exposing our youth to some of the greatest artistic accomplishments in human history.