So an old friend posted two articles from The New Republic on Facebook today. In one, the author says “don’t make your kids play an instrument or take ballet.” In the other, a different author says “make your kids play an instrument,” skipping ballet all together. Mr. Con says that classical music and ballet lessons are a giant waste of time, because they don’t teach the student any practical skills she’ll take into adulthood. Mr. Pro says you should study music to commune with musical deities like Bach, and to be part of a centuries old tradition. I don’t agree with either of them.
Full disclosure – I met that Facebook friend way too long ago at a high school music camp, where it’s fair to say that we shared one of the most sublime musical experiences of our lives before or since as we rehearsed the 4th and 5th movements of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. (Schubert wrote it when he was 22, which produces the same kind of distress in me as the fact that Keats was only 25 when he died. But that’s an aside…we all have issues).
So yeah, I studied cello. I started when I was 11 or so and played through high school and college, and unlike the anti-music lesson author, I still play it. Mostly when I’m helping my son with his violin lesson, but sometimes when I’m looking for something to do, I take out my dog-eared copy of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites and make like I’m Pablo Casals. I also play the violin a little bit, the piano a little bit more and the guitar pretty badly. And I’m looking forward to starting the viola with my youngest daughter this afternoon when we go to her very first Suzuki viola lesson. In the interests of being thorough, I’ll tell you that I also sing in a church choir, and cantor at two different churches, sing the occasional wedding and perform with two different rock bands. You might be getting the picture that music is pretty damn important to me.
But wait! I haven’t told you about ballet yet! I started when I was six. I was supposed to begin at five, but I broke my arm standing on a folding chair that folded – kids, don’t try that at home! – so I started in first grade once I got my cast off. I danced seriously until I was 18. I performed with my town’s professional ballet company in countless productions of The Nutcracker. I continued to take ballet lessons in college, but I also discovered other forms of dance there, and when, after I graduated, I realized that directors would hire me to dance in musical theater, it was like I had found the holy grail, combining as it did both music and dance. I am not exaggerating when I say that my twenties were filled with music and dance, and that I would not trade those memories for all the world, nor would I give up the friendships I forged doing those shows.
I will admit that I have an uneasier relationship with ballet than I do with music – I have some injuries now that I’m 40-something that I blame on dance, and I worked through some fairly gnarly body image stuff that I also blame on ballet. However, I am one hard-working and disciplined mother (no, really, I’m a mother) and I credit ballet with that too. And my confidence! Come on, I used to prance around on stage regularly in little more than my underwear – what can possibly embarrass or cow me now? And I still take an occasional dance class, just to kick the cobwebs off.
So where do I shake out on this issue for my kids? Well, all three of them study an instrument, and they will continue to do so until they no longer reside under my roof. I’m lucky so far in that no one wants to quit yet. I don’t know whether any of them possess any real musical talent. How could I know? They’re 10, 8 and 6. There aren’t all that many musical prodigies out there – there are way more people who work and work and work and get better incrementally. Anyway, that’s not the point. I’m not expecting to raise the next Joshua Bell here. My children take music lessons because music is a central part of the human experience, something that binds us together and sets us apart from other animals. They study music to learn discipline, and hard work. They play music with each other to realize that working together, disparate people can achieve a thing of beauty. In fact, they play instruments to create beauty, to put beauty into our broken, often ugly world. Surely that last in and of itself is enough of a reason. And contrary to Mr. Con, I believe that they will take all of that into adulthood, whether they continue to play the same instruments, or whether they pick up the guitar and the ukelele instead, or whether they stop playing all together. And as far as Mr. Pro goes, well, I don’t actually think it’s carrying on the classical musical tradition that’s the point either. If my violinist wants to start fiddling in a bluegrass band, that’s fantastic. If my pianist wants to switch to jazz, that’s awesome too. If the soon-to-be-violist wants to find some way to funk that up, well, good luck kid, but by all means, go for it.
And with regard to dance, my youngest takes ballet and tap, although not at the professional ballet school I attended. My mother was horrified by the bootie-shaking at the spring recital, but Lucy loved all of it, and truthfully, so did I. The oldest used to take ballet, but asked to stop when she was in second grade. I was okay with that, although I told the aspiring actress that dance would help her move well on stage. She’s asked to go back to it this year. All three of the kids took a hip-hop class this summer too, and we all faithfully watch So You Think You Can Dance every week it’s on, which inevitably leads to a family dance-off. Again, I’m not aiming for Barishnikov here, but dance is a great form of exercise, and like I said, I attribute my work ethic and persistence to my years of ballet training. I love dance, in all its forms, and like music, with which it is so closely aligned, dance is one of the things that separates us from the rest of the animal world, something that elevates us, sometimes literally! toward the divine. Listen, either you believe that the arts have intrinsic value on their own, or you’re dumb. I mean, or you don’t.
So I’m staring down the barrel of years and years of chauffering the kids to various music and dance lessons, let alone sports, (how would we feel about an article that said, “don’t make your kids play sports?” I wonder if there’d be a different reaction?) and I don’t dread it all. I’m glad to do it. Even though it may not seem like it during those first screechy string lessons, or tentative tendus, they’re already artists, and they’re creating beauty…and like Keats said, at age 23, “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”