Writer


JoAnn Falletta is a regular contributor to Portfolio Magazine in Virginia and Traffic East Magazine in Buffalo, and has had several articles published in Symphony Magazine and the Virginian Pilot. Her first book, Love Letters to Music, is a collection of her original poetry written as a tribute to the extraordinary musicians with whom she has worked.
Love Letters to Music
Cover: Detail, “Concert Night”
by Susan Crave Rosen
Poems from
“Love Letters to Music”

    by JoAnn Falletta
Message in a Bottle
Mother Goose
To the audience
Prelude
Music Could Not Stop a War
If Beethoven Were Emperor
Articles
    by JoAnn Falletta
In Troubled Times: The Case for the Arts
The Compleat Music Director
Are You Listening?
Music and the Mind
Love Letters to Music, a book of poems by JoAnn Falletta, can be purchased from the Virginia Arts Festival by sending a check for $25 (including postage and handling) to:
Virginia Arts Festival, Attn: Ann Bierman, P.O. Box 3595, Norfolk, VA 23514
Checks should be made payable to Virginia Arts Festival.
For more information, contact ahirtz@vafest.org



 
In Troubled Times: The Case for the Arts
© JoAnn Falletta

I am a musician. I have known that simple fact since my seventh birthday, when I wrapped my arms around the little guitar that had been a gift from my father, when I breathed the dusky fragrance of wood and varnish, when I touched the grainy fingerboard that would become my personal road to enchantment. Despite challenges, I have never had one moment of regret about that calling, nor a second of doubt about the vital role that music plays in the world around us. As a conductor, I have witnessed thousands of audiences—literally millions of listeners—come to the concert hall and leave, two hours later, in a place they would never have been able to imagine when they arrived frazzled and distracted, earlier that evening.

I feel a certain conflict of emotions as I write this essay—gratitude certainly, for being given this opportunity to talk about the importance of the art form, but also a profound sorrow that classical music somehow finds itself desperately in need of advocates. Why should that be especially so in troubled economic times? We feel betrayed perhaps by Wall Street greed, by ineffectual governance, by political leadership. But music has never betrayed us, never let us down. It constantly gives back to us, as a boundlessly beautiful repository of the past or a vibrant mirror of our current society. The need for music is not learned—it is “hard-wired” into our being. Even infants respond to it and understand it. As we grow, our exposure to music sharpens our brains, awakens a heightened sense of individual awareness, helps us develop an appreciation for beauty and value.

The ancient Greeks in their extraordinarily sophisticated society understood the tremendous power of music. Plato himself espoused careful planning of the number of hours young people should listen to music in certain keys—so powerful was the influence of each key that it would have strong affects on the long-term personality and character of the young listeners! In my many visits to schools, I have observed that the musicians in the orchestra, band, or chorus are most often the students on the dean’s list, on the student council, in clubs and after-school activities and are often involved in community service as well. A strange coincidence? I don’t think so—I am convinced that the making of music teaches them the skills—discipline, patience, respect and dedication—that enable them to succeed in all their endeavors.

We remain for all of our lives extremely sensitive to that power of music, whether or not we choose to (or even can) articulate that power. I have always been fond of Garrison Keillor’s words: “An orchestra concert is where people go to find their souls. Having worked so hard to lose them, people come and sit in the dark under the spell of music and are reminded of their humanity.” What happens? That room full of people—all with different issues on their minds—experiences together a force that we can never fully explain. Listening, our sense of time changes, our focus sharpens, our problems fade, our priorities shift.

We all know that the “music business” has a strong positive affect on our economy. Facts and figures will bear out the statement that concerts bring many times their cost back to the community. But that is truly besides the point. Music has a profound affect on our psyche, our understanding of ourselves, our view of a world grown astonishingly small. In a global community where solutions will be found through creativity, ingenuity and imagination, music holds the key to nurturing the values that will help us find answers to seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Why do we need music as a nation, as citizens of the United States? There are those that would claim that Americans are not an artistic people. I could not disagree more strongly. Americans invented film, jazz, modern dance, musical theater, country music, abstract impressionism. We are an expressive, innovative, imaginative—even audacious people. Our art echoes our essential American-ness—our willingness to experiment and to take risks, our desire to share and borrow and change, our egalitarianism, our inclusiveness, our endless curiosity and humor. This American art echoes every culture in the world, and has spread to the furthest reaches of the globe. The arts are how we explain ourselves and come to know ourselves. They are woven into the very fabric of our complicated democracy and into the lives of our people. They are, in a very real way, the sum of our collective soul. The American orchestra is at the center of the arts in our country, and the cornerstone of our cultural society. Orchestras preserve our heritage, foster diversity, encourage creativity, and stand as a shining paradigm for excellence.

What do we remember and value from great civilizations of the past? Certainly it is not their business plans, their economic challenges, their financial success; not their wars, their fleeting conquests, their eventual collapse. We remember the beautiful legacy of their artistic life—the paintings, poetry, architecture, music, gleaming as brightly centuries after their creation, still able to move and touch us. Through their art, we realize that these long-dead creatures were really not so very different from us, filling their small parcel of life with as much beauty as they could. What will our great-grandchildren inherit from us? What will they remember? Will the economic recession of the early 21st century color their world? Or will the next century—most probably more complex and more intense than ours—still look to the nobility in the arts as a touchstone for what is truly valuable?

In times of economic difficulty, the arts, rather than languishing as a discretionary luxury, becomes more vital to the human condition. Through the arts, we honor our past, celebrate our present and dream our future. The very best of who we are is inherent in the arts, and the arts are at the core of the continual reinvigoration of our humanity.



 
Message in a Bottle
© JoAnn Falletta

Vivaldi wraps his gift in parchment
and sends it
like a message in a green glass bottle
traveling through time
bobbing through a roiling sea of three hundred years
through the industrial revolution
through the rise of princes and the fall of empires
through the dark heart of the 20th century.

We unwrap it
and birds fly out
streams burst forth
bright and bulging
the sun dazzles us
in this strange and beautiful letter from the dead.

We are just bones now
    scrapes of hair and ashes
But we are not so different from you
21st century being.

After centuries of territories explored,
    Depths plumbed, boarder breached
that bottle message tells the truth:
    we are still the same.
And the most terrifying landscape remains
    the unreachable frontier
       inside of us.

(Vivaldi Four Seasons)



 
Mother Goose
© JoAnn Falletta

Ravel collected trinkets
perfect musical baubles
toys and contraptions and mechanical miniatures
buzzing and twirling on top of his polished piano
the lid streaming with color when the sun lit upon them
not one dust mote daring to mar that kaleidoscopic perfection

Porcelain nightingales and crystal shell-sized lutes
lilliputian orchestral instruments whirring and tinkling
glistening, glinting, reflecting with cold precision
    the thin Parisian sunlight
a collection of frozen dreams
shimmering with a transparent delicacy
    too fragile to touch.

And like a gleaming ebony spider
Ravel spins his fairy tales
crystalline pizzicato and disembodied harmonics
hovering like soap bubbles
over pastel smudges of sound
shifting and turning with lazy elegance
cloaked in exotic textures
and the silkiest of trappings

Only in darkness
When the twinkling is damped and
    the glistening extinguished
Do we sense the aloneness
the utter poignant detachment
of a man
surrounded by beauty in a terrible world.

(Ravel Mother Goose Suite)



JoAnn Falletta
Photo: Mark Dellas
 
To the audience
© JoAnn Falletta

The rehearsals are not enough
We need witnesses
Faces turned up like sunflowers
expectant ears wide open
sharp eyes following our fingers
    as they race over strings and keys.

Tell us that it means something to you
this music
these years of practice and difficulties and frustrations
Watch us
as even the shyest among us
become timid exhibitionists
wanting to be under your closest scrutiny.
We long to tell you something
how important this is to us
how astonishing is this music under our fingers.

Look at us as we play
We need witnesses to our music
We need witnesses to our lives
To tell us that they matter

To tell us that even with our flawed gifts
    with our insecurities
    with all that we can never do
We can still give you a little bit of ecstasy.




 
Prelude
© JoAnn Falletta

I always come to the concert early
to not miss the jangling introduction.
Musicians warming up on stage
loudly clanging against one another
discordant snippets of music
jumbled together like flowers scooped up
    and tossed into a vase
in spectacular dishevelment
fragrances banging up against each other
in a harmonious perfumed cacophony.

JoAnn Falletta
Photo: Mark Dellas
Difficult bits of phrases played over and over
Stand partners oblivious to each other,
scraping bows across different excerpts
The clarinetist soars, satisfied, on his solo
ignoring the trombones blaring behind him
the oboist glares at his reed
    and tries the octave again
horns carefully tune their chord
   in the chaos around them

A musical bedlam
unplanned, unscripted, unrepeatable
Every musician recklessly
pulling his thread
    from the tapestry,
each hanging loose and dangling
from the fabric like tattered and ragged blooms
    in some haphazard bower

The conductor will change all that
Everything will be in order
filaments gathered up and knit together
every shining petal in place
pristine and polished
pruned like a sculpted French garden
pressed into a perfect mold

That will be beautiful
But I would never miss
the private, unconscious pandemonium
of the orchestral prelude.




 
Music Could Not Stop a War
© JoAnn Falletta

Music could not stop a war
could not deflect a single bullet
could not prevent one death

No, music could not stop a war
but in its cloistered monastery
it lies dormant
protecting a fragment of nobility
all but forgotten in that time.

When we return
wounded and heartbroken
we find in that music
some misplaced part of us

Music cannot stop a war
But it can save us from the death of all we are.



 
If Beethoven Were Emperor
© JoAnn Falletta

If Beethoven were emperor
D major trumpet chords
would announce his majesty’s arrival
and he,
eschewing the royal table
would take his place amidst the poets and troubadours.

If Beethoven were emperor
We would find magic flutes in cereal boxes
Cafes would name desserts for composers
and musicians would always eat for free

If Beethoven were emperor
his warplanes would float packages down
to rest beside pastoral brooks
packages bearing poetry and chocolate and sweet brown ale.
Statues of statesmen would make way for
busts of Goethe and Schiller and Mary Oliver
in parks fragrant with the wildflowers of this Wiener Wald.
Playwrights and minstrels would make decisions of state
Actors would sit in the legislature
And every meeting would end in Eb major
ringing with nobility.

If Beethoven were emperor
music would be wrapped around us
woodwinds playing us into the world in birthing rooms
and strings easing our last passage home.
That solitary deaf King
would throw open the doors of his royal palace
The entrance fee: a whistled ode to joy.
 


 
The Compleat Music Director
© JoAnn Falletta

The Compleat Music Director One of the most vivid memories of my days as a young conducting student at Juilliard is of an article lauding the mystique of a certain music director of one of the finest orchestras in our country. The maestro, the newspaper maintained, was so important and so private that he was never seen anywhere in the city except on the podium of his orchestra. Even when he left the concert hall after a performance he retreated to a favorite restaurant where a secluded table in the back room was provided for him, away from his throng of fans. The orchestra itself seemed rather proud of this—it meant, of course, that one had to purchase a concert ticket to enjoy even a glimpse of their charismatic conductor.

For my four conducting colleagues and myself, the description of the life of the maestro could not have been more dissimilar than that of our own harried existences—dealing with the scarcely concealed contempt of the Juilliard Conductors Orchestra, the scathing (and uncomfortably accurate) criticism of our teacher, the humiliation of cajoling, pleading and bribing our classmates into forming reluctant and disorganized groups over which we could wield our incipient batons. For myself, fifteen years and four music directorships later, the maestro’s enviable situation seems even further from reality than it did then.

I am convinced that no one leaves the conservatory with more than the sketchiest idea of the meaning of the title music director. To be honest, one scarcely knows how to conduct, in the real sense—the deepest musical understanding, analytical aptitude and psychological skills develop slowly as one studies, works and matures. But even the most profound grasp of a score, the most elegant technique hardly prepare the young maestro for the duties that descend upon his or her shoulders the moment the music director search committee reaches its decision. We acknowledge that the choice of a music director is probably one of the most significant decisions any orchestra will make; the thought that the chosen one may have little to no idea about the actual job is cause for some alarm.

We stand upon the gateway of a 21st century even the wildest visionary could not have imagined at the beginning of the 20th. It seems an appropriate time to acknowledge the extraordinary changes that the last hundred years have wrought in the arts. It certainly has been a period of extraordinary artistic innovation, mirroring rapid developments in science and technology. Composers have risen to the challenge of expressing our changing world, creating new and complex works that reflect life in this century. The last hundred years have been a time of unprecedented social and political upheaval. Once again, composers have responded with works that mirror the dreams and the terrors of contemporary life. In this time of rapid and unpredictable change in the arts, it is no surprise that the music director entering the 21st century bears markedly different responsibilities than did his 19th century predecessor.

Across the country, symphony orchestras are facing what appear to be the most difficult times in their collective history. Often the very survival of the institution will hinge on the skill of the maestro—not only his musical talent, but his leadership ability, interpersonal communication and management acumen in planning, scheduling, interacting with staff and musicians, dealing with conflict and fostering feelings of solidarity, community and common purpose. Added requirements are a broad artistic vision, a clear understanding of the musical objectives of the organization, and the courage to explore new possibilities and options coupled with the wisdom to preserve the best of tradition. Some of you may recall candidate Eugene McCarthy’s response to a 1968 query as to whether he was qualified to be President of the United States—he replied that when you got right down to it, probably nobody was qualified. The same might be said for the music director at the beginning of the 21st Century. Probably no one has the complete set of skills the job demands. But a solid understanding of the responsibilities of the position can and should help music directors develop their personal resources within the framework of each one’s unique talents, personality and charisma.

The single most important truth for the music director to remember is that any orchestra’s personality grows out of its musicians. They have the longest tenure of any facet of the organization. The value of the music grows out of the lives of those musicians—their set of cultural and social values, their communities, their interests, their ideals, their hopes for the orchestra. The conductor should embrace this musical mosaic of extraordinary people with an overarching artistic philosophy. That philosophy can be as simple—and as profound—as creating a situation that allows room for excellence to thrive. More specifically, that philosophy should engender an environment in which musicians are motivated and inspired to achieve individual artistic satisfaction through their commitment to their orchestra and to their community.

The responsibility for a vibrant philosophy rests largely upon the music director and his skills. Of these, the most important—musical talent—remains the most mysterious and least quantifiable commodity in terms of a conductor. Certainly, even an unsophisticated audience can surmise that the violin soloist has poor intonation or that the pianist is having difficulty with the technical demands of a concerto. Can most audience members assess the skill of the maestro? Does a flamboyant podium presence equate to a prodigious talent? Does conducting from memory insure deep musical understanding? Do exaggerated tempos and dynamic changes imply a unique and revelatory interpretation? The true assessment of a maestro’s musical skill often rests with the musicians over which he presides. Can they play comfortably and expressively, feeling neither confined nor abandoned? Perhaps the ideal performance situation is one in which each musician can feel free to play as if on his own, yet enjoy all the while the comfort of the framework of an interpretation that makes complete musical sense. In such an ideal performance the audience senses (rather than defines) a “rightness” about the experience—a subconscious structure, a pacing, a unified artistic conception, an inevitability that create a depth and excitement that go beyond the surface level. Certainly that “ideal situation” is far from commonplace. The musical understanding—indeed, the life understanding that it presupposes are the goals to which conductors should aspire all their musical lives. The deeper and broader an individual’s background, the richer and more profoundly evident are both the specific, unique qualities of his work and its greater significance. Leonard Bernstein once stated that “any composer’s writing is the sum of himself, all his roots and all his influences”. The same is true of the work of any conductor. The value of his music grows out of the very life of the artist himself, his own particular set of cultural and social values, the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. The conductor must make his art an expression of his inner and outer world, and dedicate his life to the enrichment of both. Any conductor who does not fully devote himself to the constant development of his musical understanding is failing to recognize the single most significant requirement of his profession.

Secondary to the depth of one’s musical aptitude is the communication of that knowledge—to orchestra, to audience and to community. The technical and personal communication skills required on the podium are enormous—and completely individual. The often mentioned but little understood concepts of “charisma” and “chemistry” enter in the question—and it is acknowledged that not every conductor works equally well with every ensemble. Hopefully, the music director establishes a productive working relationship with his own orchestra—a relationship based on mutual respect, trust and a desire to foster what is best in the organization. He or she is called upon to make extraordinarily difficult personnel decisions, to inspire one hundred diverse personalities, and to conduct Bach and Varese with equal aplomb! The only hope for success, I am certain, is for the conductor to be completely himself on the podium—whether humorous, dignified, intense, energetic, tranquil or otherwise. Integrity seems to be the one characteristic that no orchestral ensemble is willing to overlook. “Style”—as long as it is based on sincerity—can and should be as different as each maestro is to the next.

One of the most telling reflections of the music director’s vision and personality lies in the choice of repertoire for the orchestra. Other factors may influence the final shape of the symphony’s programming, but the music director ultimately bears the overall responsibility for the complexion and texture of the season’s offerings. Are the choices simply the pieces the conductor would like to perform? Or do they truly reflect a certain character, mission or vision? As much as they might be somewhat constrained by financial limitations, choices should, at the core, be artistically motivated. What repertoire will help the orchestra develop, grow, challenge itself, stretch stylistically? It need not be the repertoire with the largest demands: a good performance a Mozart symphony, for example, is much harder to achieve than one of Orff’s Carmina Burana. A balance should be struck in presenting repertoire from all periods, and a sense of overall logic and motivation behind the repertoire choices is critical. Selections should support and complement the expressed objectives of the orchestra and, in the long run, contribute to the vitality and vibrancy of the organization. In addition, music directors must seek the reintegration of the living composer into society at large. The orchestra exists not only as a beautiful reflection of a musical past but as an unerring mirror of current society. A living, breathing, dynamic institution, the symphony is constantly developing exciting repertoire. If we succumb to the suggestion that we should only perform music written between 1750 and 1900, are we not invalidating ourselves as an institution—and as a culture? Certainly music directors should not embrace new music indiscriminately. The half-hearted performance of a new work can drastically weaken the case for an ongoing repertoire. But would it not be possible for each music director to find a handful of living composers whose work speaks to him or her personally—and to champion these voices? Aaron Copland told us that our country will only achieve a true artistic maturity when the composer feels himself affirmed and buoyed by his community, when living music means something, in the deepest sense, to everyone. The music director can help the orchestra and its community celebrate the privilege of experiencing and appreciating music of all times—through thoughtful selection, inclusive presentation and most of all, committed and vivid performance.

Often the conductor becomes the fulcrum around which swirls the conflict of balancing artistic goals with monetary considerations. I am convinced that in times of financial challenge the artistic integrity and vision must be even more clearly defined and upheld. The goal of any orchestra is to serve the needs of its community. To accomplish this, the music director must strive to forge a strong community within the orchestra family, fostering the concept of artistic integrity as a shared vision. No music director, whether he spends 8 or 48 weeks with his orchestra, can abdicate his responsibility to uphold the highest musical standards. We cannot always create an ideal situation. But through creativity and plain hard work we can create an environment in which artistic achievement can flourish. Does artistic achievement necessarily equate to expense? I don’t believe so. But it does equate to hours and weeks and months of planning, of prioritizing, of refining and polishing a vision for the organization. Artistic integrity is not about playing the largest pieces in the repertoire. It is not about featuring the most expensive soloists; it is not about having the greatest number of string players. Artistic integrity as music director is helping to release the vibrant energy within each player, enabling each musician to achieve his or her musical best. Artistic integrity is recognizing that orchestras do not develop through the splashy applause of concert nights. Rather, orchestras develop slowly—through every valuable minute of rehearsal, through every score we choose, through every audition we hold. The music director must build artistic integrity into all the little bits and pieces of the orchestra’s activity. That attitude, that search for excellence does not necessarily cost more financially but it does cost in time, work, commitment, dedication, cooperation and communication. The return, both individually and collectively, is beyond any price.

It is the rare conductor who has significant marketing or development experience when he accepts his position with the orchestra. Even rarer is the music director who will not spend, over the course of his tenure, countless hours with his experts in those fields, analyzing, fund-raising, reaching out to his community constituency. The details of this commitment are myriad—from the creation of special programs or festivals, pre- or post-concert discussions, speaking at countless civic groups, design and implementation of educational activities, media visibility and cooperation, to active involvement in grant writing and corporate and individual fundraising. It is only through a vital artistic partnership with the community can the maestro hope to make the symphony a vibrant thread in the tapestry of life there.

The conductor must have the courage to rethink widely held assumptions. We may not know what the concert hall of 2050 will be like. But all of us have faith in the serious investigation of our art, of musical sound. As our organizations undergo striking metamorphoses, they will look to the music director for leadership—for artistic ability, honesty, vision, creativity, communication, energy, sense of mission, collaboration, and total involvement. In extraordinary times, it is extraordinary action which makes the difference. The 21st century is not a time for maintenance of the status quo, but rather the time to make a decisive and focused commitment to the values which are at the core of our art. To do any less would be to leave our orchestral world defenseless to those who perceive the arts as trivial and non-essential. The music director of the 21st Century must be a teacher in the purest sense—a teacher who has internalized his art so completely that its manifestation becomes the persona of the artist. As a leader and a communicator, the conductor must present an artistic endeavor with an energy that is as inspiring and compelling as the art form itself.

As an artist in a pluralistic, competitive society, the music director cannot afford to remain aloof from his audience. He or she must be involved, not only in raising dollars, but in raising consciousness. As performing artists we share a fundamental belief that there is a significant community with an appetite for our art, a discriminating, renewable public. The alarming reality is that this audience of appreciative listeners is at risk. If we are not careful, we will find that we have been diligently trained to answer a question that is no longer being asked.

In times of financial and social challenge for our orchestras, is there truly a valid place for the enigmatic maestro of my Juilliard memory? Is it not imperative for the music director to communicate through every possible means the belief that music is an integral part of our lives and of our community? We stand on the threshold of a new millennium, a temporal landmark holding tremendous metaphorical and spiritual significance. As we move forward, the most exciting development for the 21st Century seems not to be technological advancement, but rather an expanding concept of what it means to be a human being. The music director and his orchestra can eloquently and passionately articulate the conviction that music is at the core of the continual reinvigoration of the human spirit.



 
Are You Listening?
© JoAnn Falletta

JoAnn Falletta
Photo: David Adam Beloff
We stand upon the threshold of a twenty-first century even the wildest visionary could not have imagined at the beginning of the twentieth. As our thoughts turn to the temporal landmark of the new millennium, it seems an appropriate time to acknowledge the extraordinary changes that the last hundred years have wrought in the world of music. It certainly has been a period of stunning artistic innovation, mirroring unprecedented developments in technology. The last hundred years have brought us astonishing advancement in our ability to appreciate music—or have they? We certainly enter the next millennium armed with a prodigious array of technological achievements. Are we leaving anything behind?

In a society in which we are continually besieged with visual stimulation, assaulted with noise of all forms, battered with an unceasing stream of sensory overload from a myriad of sources, why should we go to a concert? What real and vital place in our lives does a Mozart concerto, an Elgar symphony or a Debussy tone poem hold? Has our world progressed beyond the point where classical music can communicate something uniquely precious to us?

Life in 2000 revolves ever-increasingly around our sense of sight. Products are sold through visual stimulation, classes are taught with more and more reliance on visual aids, and entertainment options are sight-oriented to an ever greater degree. Even in terms of musical enjoyment tapes and CDs seem not to be sufficient—video discs are fast gaining in popularity. Have we forgotten how to listen?

A century ago, a concert was a very different experience than what we have come to expect. Listeners were disappointed if the duration of a concert was less than three hours, and performances of four hours or more were not uncommon. Some may remember that even a scant three or four decades ago, many a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon were contentedly spent in listening—just listening—to the radio. Could many people today spend three hours listening to a symphony broadcast or to an opera on CD without reading, or working, or “supplementing” the experience in some other way? Has progress robbed us of our ability to have a satisfying, purely aural experience?

The problem of “good listening” is a complex one. Part of it lies in the fact that we live in an world that has a much higher ambient decibel level than the environment of our ancestors. We have become so accustomed to this fact that we scarcely notice that we are surrounded by a constant din of sound waves. Can you hear it? If you are like most of us, you cannot.

Yet I am convinced that a time traveler catapulted from 2000 into the year 1200 would be amazed first by the incredible, wonderful quiet of a pre-machinery age. On the other hand, the unfortunate medieval peasant who found himself in any large city today might easily lose his hearing from the shock of the suddenly increased decibel level. Bombarded with noise pollution as we are, it is small wonder that we are not accustomed to sheer, unadulterated, intensive listening..

Another aspect of the problem lies in the fact that the progress of our communications technology has made that most wonderful of aural experiences—the enjoyment of music—almost too accessible. In the past, a concert or a broadcast was a special experience, one to be anticipated, relished and remembered. A musical event was exactly that—an event - unaccompanied by other trappings.

Today, we can hardly escape from the “music” that has become a background noise to every other aspect of our lives. In elevators, in stores, in cars, in office buildings, at the dentist, our ears are never free from a continuous stream of music specifically designed to be nondescript. As a result, we have become desensitized to that most wonderful of art forms.

The very nature of music contributes to this dilemma. Music is the only art form that exist completely in time. Visual art, once created, is fixed and unchanging. We can study Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, for example, at our leisure, assimilating it at our own pace. This is not the case with music, however. Once a series of notes has passed by our ears, they are gone. If we’ve missed the melody, or a beautiful harmonic transition, or a shimmering blend of instrumental color, the moment is lost until the next performance. And since all these moments are inextricably connected and interwoven, our inability to listen may mean that we’ve missed the overall shape of the piece.

This quality of tenuous evanescence, of exquisite fragility, of fleeting impermanence is part of what makes music so special. Should we be content to deny ourselves an experience that can deeply enrich us because our noisy world has taught us not to listen?

Our ears are the most flexible, the least limiting of all our senses. They require no education, no training, no special talent to communicate to our brains a uniquely personal interpretation of the sound waves that set them resonating. Every listener brings his or her own life experience and personality to a concert, and the aural communication of sound to brain is an intensely individual one. This experience, too subtle and subconscious to be expressed verbally, is unique to each of us; one listener’s personal emotional reaction to a Beethoven symphony, for example, can never be exactly duplicated by any other human being.

All of us have the necessary gift to be able to appreciate good music: our humanness. As living, breathing men and women we possess everything we need to understand music fully, to relish an experience that can be immensely ennobling and enriching. If we can open our ears and listen, we are the heirs to an art that can move us, can touch us, can deepen our humanity as nothing in our lives can.



 
Music and the Mind
© JoAnn Falletta

We are living in remarkable times, in a period perhaps unprecedented in human history. Not only are these times of difficulty and challenge, but they are times that present extraordinary opportunity.

In some ways we seem to be at an auspicious turning point in human history. Who will shape the direction humanity will take? Who will create the future? Much of it will fall to the next generation, the young people in our midst everyday. But how will we prepare this next generation for that overwhelming responsibility, for the enlightened vision needed to guide the direction of the future?

In the recent past, a number of reports examining the level of excellence in education in the United States have been published, sharing important evaluations of the quality of education in this country. In terms of education we are, quite simply, a nation at risk. Reports state that the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our future as a nation and as a people. Although these reports are mainly concerned with evidence that young people are not fully trained to perform basic skills, many of them addressed the importance of art in education, raising an issue that has been dear to my heart : that music and art are imperative to the education of all. I firmly believe that music and art are at the center of the human psyche, the surest road to knowing ourselves and to understanding the world around us.

The reports raise the alarming fact that in not providing arts education, we are no longer nurturing the creativity of young people. Creativity is key to our future—and that beautiful, personal gift of all human beings is often stifled. Children—who are born with an extraordinary curiosity, who hate to go to sleep at night because being awake is such a wonderful adventure, whose artistic and literary creations are so filled with imagination and dimension—grow increasingly more concerned with approval and become less poetic, more analytic, more predictable. Somehow we turn their art into homework ; their imagination into routine.

The non-nurturing of creativity is a true crisis, one of the most serious concerns facing us. If problems facing our world are to be solved, they will be solved by creative people with creative ideas. If we are going to make advances in medicine, psychology, physical science and technology, these discoveries will be made, as well, by creative people. If we are ever to allow a golden age to flower through its art and music and literature, this too will be brought about by creative people.

How can we nurture what is truly our most precious resource: the creativity of the human being?

Anthropologists and historians have studied a great number of societies. Before the 20th century, virtually every society they have analyzed has placed at the center of its priorities music, art and religious experience. The only way we know many of these past cultures is through the beautiful and telling remnants of their artistic life.

What happened in the 20th century? What is happening in our own society? And, most important, how can we nurture the creative process to rectify our skewed priorities? I feel strongly that music holds the key to that process, that reclaiming of creativity.

Recent research about the structure of the brain and nervous system and their relationship to music has yielded astounding results. Different aspects of music—tone, pitch, melody and rhythm—are processed in different parts of the brain, making music one of the most complex experiences the brain encounters. Practicing an instrument actually triggers physical changes in the brain. Intensive practicing of an instrument leads to a discernable enlargement of parts of the cerebral cortex, the layer of gray matter closely associated with higher brain function. Many of the world’s doctors, scientists and mathematicians have played musical instruments since childhood.

Let me use Albert Einstein as an example. As he would often explain, his music was in some ways an extension of his thinking process, a method of allowing the subconscious to solve particularly difficult problems. Einstein’s son remembered that whenever his father felt that he had become ensnared in an especially daunting problem or situation in his work, he would take refuge in his music. This, he found, would usually resolve all difficulties.

Albert Einstein’s wife shared an especially interesting memory. “The Doctor (as she referred to Einstein in public) came down in his dressing gown as usual for breakfast but he hardly touched a thing. I thought something was wrong, so I asked him what was troubling him. Darling, he said, I have a wonderful idea. And after drinking his coffee, he went to the piano and started playing. Now and again he would stop, make a few notes and report: I’ve got a wonderful idea, a marvelous idea. I said: then for goodness sake tell me, don’t keep me in suspense. He said: it’s difficult; I still must work it out.” Mrs. Einstein told us that Einstein continued playing the piano and making notes, then went upstairs to his study, remaining there for two weeks. Every day she sent up his meals, and every evening he would come downstairs, play the piano, and then return to his work. Eventually, Mrs. Einstein said, he came down from his study looking very pale. “That’s it”, he told her, wearily putting two sheets of paper on the table. And that was the theory of relativity.

My personal experience with Nobel Laureate Dr. Herbert Hauptmann was also very telling. I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Hauptmann during a panel discussion concerning the nature of creativity. After the session, he spoke to me privately about an experience he had had that he had found interesting and rather mystifying. He had been struggling with a very difficult problem without much success, and, feeling discouraged, had decided to set his studies aside for the day and return home. While driving, he switched on the radio to the classical station, and listened with pleasure to Bach’s sixth Brandenburg Concerto. When he arrived home, he sat for a while in his car to be able to finish listening. When the piece ended, Dr. Hauptmann told me that he suddenly realized that he had unlocked the answer to his puzzle. It subsequently took him 17 hours to write it out in full, yet at that moment he knew that he had found the path to the solution.

On a more mundane level, research conducted at the University of California at Irvine has shown that exposure to music—simply listening to music—actually enhanced intellectual ability. Not only did listening to Mozart improve test performance, but young people who study piano were found to perform better in science and math than their counterparts who don’t.

Why should this be so? One obvious reason is that both scientists and artists are creative individuals who must learn to pay close attention—both to detail and to the broader context. Scientists, like artists, are people who notice things. They not only see things that other people ignore, they frequently can discern hidden links among disparate aspects of reality.

Studying music helps put things in context, sharpen details, hone observations. It sorts the essential from the peripheral, forges connections, finds patterns and discovers new ways of seeing familiar things—exactly the tools any creative person needs.

I remember that when I was about to receive my master’s degree, our college was visited by a number of computer companies, recruiting musicians for high-level training in computer science. Why would they seek musicians, most of whom knew nothing about computers? The simple and powerful reason is that musicians are trained to be problem solvers, to work diligently at solutions, to understand one of the most fundamental lessons of life—that things that are worthwhile take time, energy, patience and dedication. Those personal skills were exactly the traits sought by computer science firms.

The age of instant gratification in which we find ourselves does not foster creativity. The myriad of options for entertainment is not conducive to the very important lessons of hard work and dedication. But music does teach those skills. I find that those young people in the school band or orchestras are most often the ones on the honor roll, on the student council, on the dean’s list. Why? I am certain it is because music has taught them the skills that help them succeed at all their endeavors—cooperation, discipline, respect for themselves and for others, dedication, and the value of hard work. Best of all, those lessons are learned within a context of great joy. There are frankly few things as inspiring as the satisfaction and happiness on the faces of young musicians after performing.

This leads to the aspect of our emotional response to music—as players or listeners. We know that music can affect levels of various hormones such as cortisol, testosterone, and oxytocin and can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates. Using PET scanners, scientists have shown that the parts of the brain involved in processing emotion “light up” with activity when a subject hears music.

We have just begun to scratch the surface of the mystery of music and the brain. I am certainly not a scientist, but I absolutely believe that music can have a tremendously beneficial affect on life and on learning. Music changes us. It allows us to discover parts of ourselves we have not discovered before. It can transform us. It can nurture and stimulate all aspects of creativity. And, at a time when the very survival of the human race seems threatened, few things could be more important than nurturing creativity, humanity and appreciation for beauty. I believe that children who learn to appreciate beauty will never destroy it.

I often tell parents that music education is one of the single greatest gifts they can give their children. A music education encourages high achievement, fosters a suppleness of mind, a tolerance for ambiguity, a appreciation for nuance. It helps us to think and work across traditional disciplines, to integrate knowledge in unique ways. It teaches us to work cooperatively. It builds an understanding of diversity and the multi-cultural dimensions of our world.

Music can help us to truly understand the concepts of quality, excellence and beauty. As the only art form existing solely in time, music is the least limiting. Sibelius said “music begins where words end”, and that sense of wordless communication is powerful. Listening to music offers a tremendous personal freedom. Every person’s response to music is unique and irreplicable, drawing from each person’s entire life experience and deepening it.

So often we cannot express our reaction to music in words—the experience seems somehow beyond that. But we have been moved, touched, changed at the core our being—we have taken a step on our voyage of self-discovery.

Technology hurtles us forward at ever increasingly dizzying speeds. But the soul, silent pilgrim that it is, trudges forward slowly, never willing to be hurried. That quiet, slow journey is how we will know ourselves. It is as if there is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul—the map of ourselves. We will search for its outlines all of our lives. I believe that music can be the extraordinary vessel that transports us on that continuing journey of exploration.