Winds of change
The deadline for this column arrived as the Boston Marathon attack unfolded. For five days we watched madness spread across a city, paralyzing the Athens of America, usurping thought and rationality as horror reigned supreme.
At the same time, I happened to be attending the finals of a high level piano competition. Five gifted, exceedingly well-trained young pianists, all desirous of a prize worth more than $100,000, played their best, jumping through the hoops erected to display their talents. They were the same age as the Tsarnaev brothers.
Such a gulf is hard to fathom, yet this is the world we live in. In one case, two young men brought a city to a standstill and gripped the nation's attention through acts of incomprehensible violence. They acted alone (or so it seems as I write), killing and maiming for who knows what inner purpose. In the other, five young people played the piano in a marathon of another sort. They too acted alone, but behind them stood years of support from parents and teachers, untold hours of dedication to a craft, and the attention of audiences small and large who cared enough to come hear the results of this quest for personal excellence.Alas, very few Americans knew anything of these five musicians as we collectively trembled over the insanity in Boston.
Perhaps some of our fellow citizens turned to music for solace during that week. It is the arts that help us define ourselves, help us understand who we are and how we feel. Those of us around music everyday know that it makes us better people. It would be the perfect time to mount a campaign for the return of arts education in the schools, but another sector of the populace would want proof, just as the N.R.A. claims that banning assault rifles would not save lives. There is insanity everywhere.
At times like this we feel helpless as activists for a better world. We practice, teach, and immerse ourselves in the daily demands of our art centered existence. We feel blessed to live such lives. Generally we stay among our own kind. We feel our influence is slight.
I am convinced this does not have to be the case. Musicians have many skills the world needs. We just have to be willing to come out from our comfort zones.
We are trained to see the big picture, holding the scope of an entire piece in mind while simultaneously tending to the smallest detail. Despite this, we don't often think globally. We are content to stay in our safe communities of fellow musicians, whether that is the local teachers' group, a college faculty, or a garage band. Our music doesn't seem very important to the world around us, so we hide in our affinity groups, satisfied by occasional successes like a student winning a competition, or getting a better-paying job, or selling a few CDs. In the larger scheme of things, these goals are insignificant. Perhaps we should redefine "success."
I urge you to listen to Yo-Yo Ma's talk, "Art for Life's Sake," this year's Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center.1 In it Ma offered a decidedly global approach to what musicians can do for society, encouraged as he was by Senator Edward Kennedy to pursue public service as a musician. He also cited Pablo Casals as an inspiration, who once told him, "I am a human being first, a musician second, and a cellist third."
Unafraid of big ideas, Ma seldom stays in his comfort zone. An idea I found particularly compelling concerns the "edge effect:"
In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the
savannah, the point of intersection is the site of "edge effect." In that
transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities
have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the
greatest number of new life forms.2
What does this say about our safe little affinity groups? Is it any wonder we feel impotent within them? But get out to the edge and mingle with another set of bioforms, and look out. Creativity will happen.
"The edge effect," Ma said, "is where those of varied backgrounds come together in a zone of transition: a region of less structure, more diversity and more possibility. The edge is a time and place of transformation and movement."3
Here's a recipe for change in our profession if there ever was one. Imagine: MTNA groups with members of different backgrounds; college curricula with less structure (thereby spawning graduates with different backgrounds!). More possibility. But it only happens at the edge, not in the safe center where things stay the same.
Imagine something even more challenging: musicians who go out to the edge where things are less predictable, even dangerous. An edge where poverty is the norm, say. And the musicians don't just play for the children and run back to their comfort zones—they engage them in music-making—at their level. This is El Sistema, the revolutionary music education program begun in Venezuela by José Antonio Abreu thirty-three years ago with only eleven students in a parking garage in Caracas. Today more than 300,000 students are learning to play orchestral instruments and perform together in ensembles of every level throughout the country. Many of these students
come from very poor backgrounds; the success of El Sistema has transformed whole communities.
Abreu has said, "The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty. From the minute a child's taught to play an instrument, he's no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who'll later become a citizen."4
Yo-Yo Ma referred often in his speech to the "citizen-musician." Note the order of the words.
Might things have been different if the Tsarnaev brothers played music instead of wrestled and boxed? What if they had been drawn into a musical ensemble that gave them the sense of family and acceptance
they so sorely missed? We will never reach potential students like these unless we get out of our boxes of safety and conformity. We don't have to do it alone. Real change occurs not so much by one person's efforts as by an intermingling of many. Ma's Silk Road Project is the "edge effect" in action, artistically in the crosscultural influences of many musical styles as well as in the kinds of programs the Project sponsors. Many are educational, grass-roots events that meet the young students where they live. Here's just one example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elm16AXW_sE.
If you watch the video, you'll see the founder of the Project, Yo-Yo Ma himself, blending into the fabric of the whole. He is one of many, the citizen-musician connecting at the edge.
2 Transcribed from the speech by RW.