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Reflections on music's life lessons

I imagine that, in one way or another, you are caught up in the drama of politics these days. My feelings have been impassioned and vocal around the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). It is not unusual for me to write when my sensitivities feel challenged, as is currently the case. Recently, I wrote two articles, published in The Huffington Post, about why it is not in the best interest of our country, our freedom of artistic expression, and our music profession to abolish the NEA. This would be wrong, and I hope will not be enacted into law.

While this federal agency, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, does not contribute mega dollars to the arts and is a tiny slice of the federal budget, the NEA meaningfully has supported creative projects, arts research, and audience outreach for music and musicians for fifty-two years.

In the process of writing about the NEA, I began to reflect upon my own experiences in music as a student, a piano teacher, a performer, and subsequently as a psychologist and psychoanalyst. How did I get from "then" to "now?" Who assisted me along my winding journey? Do you ever wonder these things about yourself? In the process of my reflections, my Clavier Companion deadline approached, but I had been drawing blanks on a topic. Quite unexpectedly, this article took shape.

About this time, I happened upon a tweet. I know that tweets are commonplace from the White House these days, often announcing some reaction from the President. I am not referring to one of those, but to a link on Twitter that led me to an article by Tom Jacobs, "The Lifelong Effect of Music and Arts Classes" (in Pacific Standard, April 7, 2017).1

Mr. Jacobs cited an NEA-funded 2012 research study on Public Participation in the Artswhich "examined childhood experiences with music and arts education" as well as more "recent experiences as an audience member and/or creator." The bottom line of the data compiled by Kenneth Elpus at The University of Maryland strongly emphasized, "If one aim of music education...is to engender a lifelong connection with the arts, the results of this study suggest that music—and arts education more broadly—is achieving this aim for many alumni."Data analysis included 9,482 American adults who were surveyed about their childhood experiences with music and art. These data are compatible with my repeated assertions that music lessons involve more than playing an instrument. Music lessons are life lessons.

Are you surprised with these findings? I am not, nor, do I suspect, are you. Jacob's article led me to reflect upon my music teachers and early experiences that have become so much a part of who I am today. I will share some of my memories with you and hope you will take a few minutes to recall your own.

I hasten to add at the outset, I cannot mention everyone who has had an impact on music in my musical life—there are so many people who have encouraged and taught me, including my former students. I think of my very first music teacher—M. A.—who began my formal journey at the piano when I was six years old. I had begun to pick out tunes and compose songs at age four, but Ms. A. was my first music teacher. She was a sweet, kind lady, and had the advantage of owning a cute little Pekinese dog who would lap up coffee (with cream) on the floor by the piano pedals during my lessons. I had my first memory slip when working with her. I remember it vividly. Unfortunately, I stopped making progress, and was losing interest in playing the piano. My mother started looking for another teacher.

She located a wonderful man, S.P., who was professor of piano at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, not far from my hometown. He was more sophisticated and knowledgeable about teaching, and he remained my teacher until I auditioned and was accepted at Juilliard. Even during my first year at Juilliard, I recall always playing for Mr. P. every time I went home on break. 

Before Juilliard, I had wonderful music teachers in public school music—particularly J.L., my high school choir teacher. I was the accompanist of the chorus, an activity I loved. Mr. L. was fun to work with in choir, and he often tutored me privately in theory. I realized much later how valuable these lessons were, but even at the time, I found them challenging and interesting. He also signed my yearbook with the message "be sure to keep your options open," a message to which I took offense, because I thought he was telling me that I could not "make it" as a pianist. In hindsight, it was some of the best advice I have ever gotten. I have pursued many options since those days and have created a very gratifying career blending music and psychology. Thank you, Mr. L.

J.R., my teacher at Juilliard, initiated me into a larger world of music and piano playing. Mr. R. also treated me like a family member. He invited me to his home for family dinners, and one time he told me that I "wore too much eye makeup." (He had two daughters to whom he said he could not give this advice.) I disagreed with him! I recall detailed and intense lessons; I learned more repertoire than I thought I could handle, performed in studio classes and public recitals, and went to his apartment on Riverside Drive for fabulous afterglow parties. I learned to love green grapes with brie cheese at these receptions. I watched him show off his cat, Tosca, imploring her to "roll over" as her brilliant trick. (Eventually she would roll over, as most cats do, to his glee.)

Aside from Mr. L., none of my music teachers are alive anymore. Yet all of my music teachers, singly and as a group, are alive inside my mind and in my life as I am today. All were instrumental in my musical development. The far-reaching effects of teaching and learning music reverberate forever.

I cannot imagine the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Its presence is a beacon and an affirmation of the importance of music in our lives.

Please take a few moments to revisit your memories as a music student and as a music teacher. How has a career in music affected your life? I would love to hear from you. 


1) Jacobs, T. (Apr. 7, 2017), "The lifelong effects of music and arts classes." Pacific Standard. goo.gl/o1TkEx 

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