By Dr. Shelley Zuckerman, Director of Upper School Choir
Albert Einstein was once asked how he discovered the Theory of Relativity. He said “I didn’t discover it. I was listening to music and the whole thing dropped in.” Don’t we all wish that kind of clarity just ‘happened’ to us!? To a greater or lesser extent, it does. Music is an invisible expression of the universe, and being able to dabble in it is just one little way we work with the cosmos working with us. In children and adults alike, music often simply “makes sense.” It’s not even that it is deciphered cognitively at first, it just resonates with us as true. We often are touched by the sense that it makes before we understand how it happened or how to reproduce it happening.
The process of educating in music is a journey of leading another both to listen well and to make music themselves. For children, everything is learning, and learning means growing, which feels good. Toddlers learn to stand and then walk and then jump by watching and trying and trying again. I remember the sheer delight my daughter radiated when, after dogged perseverance, she achieved lift and was airborne in a jump for the first time. The basic coordination and precarious balance that eventually become stylish flare are a result of practice, practice, practice and building muscle memory. That is true of making any kind of music, whether it is singing or playing an instrument. The brain and the body work together, fine-tuning each other until the effort becomes play. We play instruments – we don’t work them. Kids seem to know this intuitively despite the corporate industry music is today – music is play, even at its most elegant and profound. Children can participate in it without necessarily understanding it, like Mozart, “bibbling, scribbling, scribbling bibbling,” writing out his symphonies.
If you are going to grow as a musician, you have to love music and love the athletic coordination of singing or playing something well. You have to love it enough to hone your self-discipline and wrestle it until you get it. Getting body and mind coordinated is essential and it’s a struggle, but it is incomplete without emotion or character. For any music to come to life, it requires that enigmatic part of each of us that is "soul". In Blue’s Clues: The Big Musical Movie Ray Charles, as the voice of “G-Clef,” croons this wisdom to his preschool audience, “Now you got the pieces, but they don’t make a whole. In order to make music, you have got to give it soul. Yeah…reach down deep inside you and pull up something real. That’s what makes it special, something you can feel!”
Pull up something real…that’s why most of us care so much about our music. It causes us to realize an intangible part of who we are. Expressing ourselves through music, especially through singing, brings out a personal part of our interior self and makes it real to the outside world – which means to our neighbors too. It reveals something about who we are, which can be risky. Singing makes us vulnerable, sometimes even in the safety of numbers. It can tap into an emotion that we don’t want to put on display, it can feel too intimate for the public, and it can expose us to ridicule. Why would anyone reveal the underbelly of what they love? But there is strength and identity in claiming what you love. It can be what precipitates a fifth-grader to make her voice heard, to swell with courage, or to reach out with uncommon loyalty. It can take down the walls of social divides that seemed unscalable. Singing together requires individuals to cooperate – life is not a solo. The nature of an ensemble (“together”) is that everyone contributes and everyone listens. We make adjustments according to who is involved – it’s a working dynamic, an intertwining community, and the reward is that for all, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is grounding to be part of something larger than yourself, particularly when what you bring to it is your personal truth, sung with your unique voice, as no one else now or ever can do.
It feels good to participate in the consonance of working with a system. Music is pattern and sequence and numbers that line up. It is finding your groove in a way that is self-propelling, and it expresses well-being when life is going well. It can also affect how life is experienced when it’s not going well. Music forms us, even as we form the music. It is dissonance and the interruption of pattern that creates discord – like life. It’s one of the reasons making music is, and needs to be, so authenticating and honest. It expresses the ache of loss, regret, disappointment, despair, even anger – and is both comforting and cathartic. Music is part of the fundamental design of creation, the harmony of the spheres. From the teenager drumming his heart out to the grandma listening with closed eyes, entering into music opens us up to ourselves, to each other, and to the universe. All things being relative, who knows what will drop in?