I used to think that music should only be taught to people who have the talent and aptitude for it. I also felt that since music requires a huge amount of commitment – time, effort and finance – many people would not be able to achieve anything significant. Like a typical new year’s resolution: the gym might be full the first week of the year, but empty for the remaining fifty-one weeks. Music is difficult to learn and difficult to teach. It is very easy to lose motivation. In the current year 2020, the pandemic has rendered all public schools closed for most of the year. Although this precautionary measure may save countless lives, we do not really know how it affects the mental and emotional development of students, especially children. Honestly, I am concerned about the future, particularly when education is ground to a halt. This year, I have changed my mind. I feel that music should move beyond its current consumable forms – events, records, personalities and fandoms – into something that people can actively participate in. Coming from a music performance background, I believe that music education is essential towards the development of human beings.
Music education is an education. Not in the sense of paper qualifications or acquiring specific skills to apply for certain jobs. The education I am referring to is the experience of enlightenment; observing phenomenon in nature and understanding how it works. Music is not just about songs, tunes or beats. The original meaning of the word has something to do with muse, something which gives inspiration. It is a misconception to say that music education is about learning a musical instrument. Its scope is significantly beyond that. We may wonder why different sounds give us different feelings and moods. Why would you listen to recordings of symphonies instead of the sound of city traffic? Why would you see a violin being played at a recital, not a chainsaw? Because what is nice to hear is conforming to the laws of Nature. The creation of music is not a coincidence or a by-product of talent. When learning music, one will be made aware of the properties of sound and the rules to make them work harmoniously. It also develops a person through the participation of the entire mind and body. The ultimate goal of music education is not to provide a career path, but to increase intelligence, to broaden ways of thinking, to cultivate good habits and to encourage socialisation.
Music education increases awareness and instills discipline. Some people find learning music naturally easy for them, while others find music tasks challenging. For example, singing for your own pleasure is easy, but singing at perfect pitch is difficult. Hitting a drum with a stick is a no-brainer but playing it according to tempo is painstaking. Pressing piano keys randomly is child’s play, but to synchronise both of your hands is an art. It is no surprise that many give up because of the amount of care one must put in in order to play music correctly. The theme of music learning revolves around constant self-adjustment: How well do I play/ sing? Is this the correct method? Did I observe the given instructions? Did I play/ sing the phrase properly? Am I syncing with the other musicians correctly? The checklist never ends. These self-adjustments inculcate the habit to get things done properly. It teaches one to care about what they produce – to be responsible and accountable. Moreover, it teaches one to do things with utmost focus and to develop mental resilience when things get tough. By default, music is difficult. But music education teaches one to overcome difficulties, and ideally the mindset can be carried over to daily life.
Music education enculturates a person. It compels them to look beyond their egos and to start observing the world around them. By learning music formally, one learns of music works from different nationalities and time periods. Additionally, learning music allows social interaction between people from different walks of life. The fun stuff in music happens through group activities such as orchestra, concert band and choir. Since these ensembles have many different roles to fulfill, it is the perfect game for socialisation. However, instead of competing against each other, music requires cooperation to make it work. Not only do the participants need to do their tasks well, but they must also do them exactly following a specific set of rules. When one person does not prepare or plays their part wrongly, the whole group suffers. In this context, everyone is equally responsible. Music teaches people to respect, to be conscious and to be a useful part of a whole. There is no room for selfishness, prejudice or feelings of superiority.
Music education gives people the means to create and express. In today’s world, everything can be obtained easily and promptly. You want to learn about something? Just look it up online. You want to go anywhere? Just book a ride on your smartphone. You feel hungry? Have your meal delivered to your doorstep. Bored? There is countless on-demand entertainment for you to choose from. This convenience comes at a hefty price. We are conditioned to merely consume instead of to create. Our minds get atrophied as they are not being challenged. Today, people spend more than two hours daily on social media.1 Studies also show that social media affects mental health negatively.2 Imagine all the hours wasted just to fill in a void. Music education can make people become engaged in complex tasks: to succeed, there is no room for distraction. Once the student possesses some music proficiency, they can come up with beautiful and inspiring sounds. At that stage, they realise that they can accomplish something if they put all their thoughts and effort into it. It gives them a sense of fulfilment and meaning. It gives them their own voice.
Music education is a tool for personal development and transformation. General education today, especially where I live, is widely perceived as a tool of social mobility. The subjects you choose and the schools you go to will determine the types of jobs you can get, and the perks that come with it. Jobs with financial stability allow people to accumulate wealth, get better access to goods/ services and raise their social status. People buy the same things, consume the same entertainment and behave in the same way. They then start to share the same concerns and fears. Eventually, there is no room for individual thoughts and feelings. No more optimism, hopes, dreams, romance or beauty. Because humans are then only concerned about protecting their own wealth and social status – c’est la vie. Because their pragmatic education made them this way.
Music education, on the other hand, has no material benefits. There are hardly any jobs in music. Whatever is available right now is usually not worth the compensation. Music education is based on Natural law and having an affinity towards beauty. In music you may learn how to sing in tune or move your fingers according to the tempo. You may spend countless hours to get your phrasing and dynamics right. You learn how to keep tempo while playing with other musicians. You may get a nervous breakdown during a recital, and whatever you have practised perfectly goes down the drain. Your playing may be criticised or even worse, go unnoticed. You will keep making mistakes again and again, but that does not bother you because you know how to improve on them. You will realise that success is not a product, but a habit. You will realise that music cannot exist if you finish first; everyone must finish together. You will realise that sound is just random noise, but when carefully tuned and tempered, it can create beautiful amusement.
Music education is a metaphysical journey. It lets you discover yourself, to make you discern and listen more, so that you can feel, care and act against the noisy world we are living in today.