In defense of the arts

I teach piano lessons, and I don’t care if your children are particularly talented. Music might just save the world.

I get an up-close view of kids’ grappling with the discipline of arts every afternoon, and the results it can yield. It isn’t pretty. It’s too real to be pretty. It’s closer to breathtaking.

Students of mine schlep in unprepared, lying about being prepared (this is my karma) or practiced, but mostly the first two. I hear about their week: school, friends, family. If the parents knew what their kids happily reveal about their home life, they’d probably die. Kids are wide open.

The under-eights come to lessons fresh off the school bus. For this crowd, music lessons are a wonder, once they settle. Their learning is swift, if they’ve practiced at all, and they all swear they have. I have ears, I tell them. Be real.

The tween and teen students are a force. There’s no pretense with this group either; they walk in elated or openly annoyed, with the stress of the day still on them. Sometimes, when they play, it’s an unfocused attempt. An assortment of notes. Sometimes, though, with practice and a certain commitment to the moment, they find something- something that’s really good. The real triumph is that they absolutely know the difference. For these kids “I hear what you’re trying to do- trust your instincts” is the comment that floats them. Screw the perfect playing- this is about the confidence to be creative. To get lost in it. They want to be encouraged to be brave. 

I got a card from a mom of a piano student the other day that read:”Yesterday I dropped off a sullen teen for piano, but picked up a centered, articulate child. Yes. art.” Today a chirpy girl announced to me that when she starts to fight with her little brother, she goes downstairs to practice the piano. “It calms me down,” she said.  This past winter, a bi-racial middle school student walked through the door asking why she should be required to attend a school named after the man who opposed its desegregation. There are no words at these moments. She just opened her book and played. Thank the world of music and the gods responsible–the kids shake off their day. Or they reorder it into something more manageable. Her music didn’t change the subject. She wasn’t using it to change the subject; she was using it to elevate it. Brave.

Do you know what’s wrong with kids today? Nothing. They have a stunning capacity to create and share and give. They aren’t immune to the stresses of life, but they also aren’t impervious to beauty that can neutralize its sting. They feel both and absorb both like sponges, and the honesty  they apply is breathtaking.

Through the arts, I’m watching children choose nuance over brashness, vulnerability over defensiveness, and sincerity over opportunism.  So let your aspiring architect, teacher, attorney, and businessperson study in the arts. Talent be damned. Let this bravery inform public policies, business deals, environmental concerns, and every interaction. Arts can foster the critical thinking that solves global challenges, encourage a spirit that breeds inclusivity and a wideness that witnesses incidents but identifies trends.

Musical prowess is secondary, and maybe even further down the list than that. Most of us aren’t going to change music. Music changes us. I’ll take it.


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