Our sense of the world and our place in it expands by the hour. This 21st-century jungle is incomprehensible in its complexity and fullness; the Earth is saturated with people and information. Just think about how much stuff is out there, from scientific and medical discoveries, books written, works of art created, the 500 recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto – the inordinate documentations of our collective pasts, and the continuous stream of current inventions is overwhelming.
We also have so many things in every shape, size, colour and form conceivable, and for every purpose imaginable. And many of these things are designed not to last. Mobile phones are downgraded through a process called “upgrading” – the companies that do it have admitted it!
But what about a thing that does last and is intended to? Do we understand the weight or value of a timeless thing? “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” wrote TS Eliot in 1934. If he felt that then, I wonder what he would be saying about us now.
I believe that people still want to feel, and to be moved. They want to communicate with loved ones better and we all want to feel we are not alone in the world. Even though more and more young people seem content in the worlds of their phones – adults, too – I meet plenty more still committed to community and to the enriching experience of creating something collectively. Yes it’s an effort, but that effort is the sacrifice that seals lasting bonds and allows for deeper, more profound and lasting experience.
But I am not bemoaning the present and lusting after the past. The amassed insights, information and resources at our disposal now give us phenomenal potential for a conscious and deliberate shaping of the directions we wish to go in. I believe we have a better opportunity than ever before to reacquaint ourselves with all the most enlightened areas of our past and develop a deeper relationship with the profound intelligence of our intuition. Classical music sits in a very interesting place in this evolution of humankind: it is a grand and beautiful dialogue between instinct and intelligence.
Music comes from so deep inside that it’s able to speak ancient truths in our modern language. Like learning how to deal with heartbreak, or how to trust – things that are not going to be discovered more truthfully through an equation or formula or data. Music can tell facts of our humanity that may seem imprecise, but are actually as precise as it’s possible to be because they can only be what they are. This of course is old wisdom, but old never means it’s less.
The teaching and sharing of music is important because, put simply, music is important. Before it was notated, codified, refined, studied and given names, it was a gift from the depth of one person’s soul to another, or the capturing of a moment’s emotion, or a lifetime’s devotion to a god, or simply improvised expression and a means of communication.
It is the art of all the things we can’t see or touch. It is feelings and thoughts, offerings of generosity, vulnerability and openness. It addresses us, communicates and passes invisible things from people creating sound to people receiving sound. It has the power to capture us, to make us feel many complex things. It can lift us high into optimism and accompany us during feelings of hurt and pain. The making of music can be described as healing, invigorating, exhausting and all-consuming. It brings millions together through the basic act of listening and thousands together through the act of making melody, rhythm and harmony in the practice and service of collective expression.
So what about education? My duo partner Alexei Grynyuk studied in Kyiv with a strict teacher who was the ultimate authority – what she said was how it was going to go. He then came to study at the Royal Academy [of Music] and was shocked to discover there could be dialogue in learning, and that he could determine the answers to questions himself. Watching Alexei teach now is basically an entire series of questions. He is uninterested in forcing an idea on a student, unless that idea is that they must think for themselves.
For Socrates, the role of a teacher was akin to that of a midwife, implying that you have something within you that only requires bringing forth. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said that teaching is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality. In other words, through education, are we trying to open windows into worlds you would never dream of yourself? Interacting with, and ultimately embracing, the “other” or that which is radically different to you.
Is education preparing us to become units of production taking up our place in the workforce? Or is education simply, as we often experience now, a process of giving systematic instruction? The Matthew Arnold notion of passing on the best of what’s been thought and written in our culture.
Music and education can be a tricky combination. Music, so unquantifiable and very difficult to test. So reliant on creativity, individuality, freedom and expression, and the untidy messiness of life. Education is so often experienced as something more structured, controlled and systematic.
We are all accustomed to hearing that music teaches empathy, coordination, concentration, cooperation, how to listen while expressing something, how to express ourselves more confidently, how to be definitive while staying flexible, how to communicate and relate. We hear that it improves confidence and personal satisfaction, it boosts all-round academic attainment and lifts morale, our physical and spiritual wellbeing are affected, our sense of achievement and ownership over something is nurtured.
We hear about the opening up of our creativity – creativity in problem-solving, in thought, in how to make it through a day that bit better or that bit more easily – it addresses the releasing of blocked channels in our minds and our hearts, our ability to trust and stay resilient and positive, even when things don’t go our way, even when nothing goes our way. We know it can also give us early exposure to the idea of “professionalism”, in our attempt to make it through a difficult piece in front of our friends and teachers (and keep a straight face when something goes wrong), or in how to set up the hall, and try to make sure the Christmas concert lasts two hours instead of four!
Learning an instrument demands learning how to practise. Practice itself can teach us uncommon discipline, persistence and patience. We know that caring for our instrument teaches us responsibility. That technical work and accuracy, playing in tune, coming in on time, paying attention to accents, dots, crescendos and sound production – all while trying to express something collectively – teaches us loud and clear about balancing opposites and staying afloat.
Music can teach us about meaning. Music fires the imagination in young minds. On some occasions, I have learnt more about the pieces I’m playing from critiques of four-year-olds than from years of studying with learned professors.
Music’s power is born out of its social practice and the art of creation and interaction. It is conversation.
Music teaches us about our connections to the thoughts, feelings and voices of those from other countries and eras. It puts us in the mind and space of those who seem to experience lives very far from our own. It allows us to strip away all that separates us and urges us to see and feel what unites us. Ultimately our biggest challenge on this planet is to understand, empathise and elevate one another in pursuit of our common humanity. There is no greater challenge or reward.
•This is an edited extract from a speech Nicola Benedetti gave to the Royal Philharmonic Society on 5 November.
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