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5 minutes reading time (1092 words)

Music enhances our quality of life

I doubt that any musician (and many non-musicians) reading this article would argue that the survival of music and art is critical to our nation's well-being. The final words in the previous sentence are the title of an article I wrote in 2008 and just rediscovered when going through some files in my office.1  In writing an opinion piece for our local newspaper (now an online remnant of what it used to be), I was addressing the atmosphere of the 2008 presidential election and the frightening economic crisis. My thoughts about inclusion of the musical and all arts as important to the "fabric of our emotional lives"2 were conveyed when the governor in Michigan had to make difficult decisions regarding budget cuts. I felt chilled when the Michigan governor decided to cut funding to music and the arts. I argued that we must tune in to our cultural heritage to enhance quality of life.

I am writing a variation on that theme once again in 2017, following another presidential election. The intervening years have deepened my understanding and commitment to promoting music and music teaching as important for providing mastery and a sense of competence for the student and performer, satisfaction and income for the teacher, and pleasure for the listener. I have written in Clavier Companion and elsewhere that music is our first mode of communication in the coos, aaaahs, and gurgles between baby and parents, and that these wordless sounds hold great meaning in forging relationships and feelings about oneself and others long before language develops or music lessons commence. Music is a form of communication and music lessons are "life-long lessons" that reach far beyond the walls of the teaching studio and concert hall.

The power of music evokes and expresses a range of emotions. Combining my music and psychoanalytic backgrounds, I wrote in Melodies of the Mind: 3  

I believe my attraction to the piano at a very young age and my immersion in
music professionally were unconscious motivations that decades later
contributed to my appreciation of the depth, elegance, and musicality of
psychoanalytic ideas...I became curious about what resonated in me when words
had limited value. Why, for example, did Leonard Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety"
comfort me immediately following the heartbreaking, untimely death of my
mother? Why did I gravitate to the piano at the age of four and pursue it
seriously?.... For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a resonance
and a romance with "serious" music because it has provided comfort, assuaged
sadness, made me feel happy, joyful, strong, and sometimes evoked a melancholy
I did not understand and could not express verbally... music helped me feel what
I could not articulate.

My emotional life has been deeply entwined with music since childhood and continues to be.

There are varied implications regarding music for composer, performer, and listener, as music can provide accompaniment and enhance life events such as weddings, funerals, parties, and official ceremonies. Can you imagine a movie without music to enhance feelings? Even background noise, in varying decibels, is heard as music in department stores, restaurants, coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and elevators. Music has been used as propaganda to promote or suppress political ideology. Music can tell a story (Richard Strauss' Til Eulenspiegel or Don Juan), demonstrate a mood (Debussy's Images, Beethoven's "Pastorale" Symphony), and illustrate a narrative (Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf). An individual's reactions to music can provide psychological "data" as an aural pathway to psychological life. Many of my patients (both musicians and non-musicians) talk about how music is integral to their lives, thoughts, and feelings.

In my previous column, "Rethinking the Master Class,"4 I emphasized the importance, particularly in the twenty-first century, of conceptualizing music lessons as more than teaching how to play an instrument. I have emphasized the relevance of using music outside the teaching studio and concert hall. I believe the same is true for professionals in mental health as there is value in creatively sharing psychological concepts beyond the consulting room.

My thoughts about the uses of music beyond its traditional venues have been influenced by Joseph Polisi's book, The Artist as Citizen.5 Both Polisi (president of The Juilliard School) and I emphasize the crucial importance for musicians to engage in social discourse in society. This includes being vocal advocates and ambassadors for the uses and value of music in the complex society in which we live. Musician-ambassadors can engage in creative musical activities in non-traditional venues such as hospitals, retirement homes, police and fire departments, community organizations, churches, synagogues, mosques, shopping malls, nightclubs, and bookstores. Music teachers can inspire and educate their students of all ages to develop a social conscience as a way to enjoy, use, and promote music throughout life. 

A recent article in Time magazine discussed proposed budget cuts as President Trump reportedly has plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (I hope this will not have occurred when this article appears in print several months after I write it.) As noted by author Karen Finley, "This would have devastating consequences for our society; for our cultural diversity; and for the many economies that are connected to promoting cultural heritage, innovation, and production, both domestically and abroad."6 The author concludes that the arts are the "bridge when walls of fear keep us insulated... A society loses its meaning purpose, and direction..."7

I conclude, as I began, with a return to my 2008 article. I believe NOW, more than ever, that music teachers and their students of all ages and levels of ability must creatively promote music in society. Learning an instrument is an important lesson toward becoming a cultural ambassador. Musicians' contributions to our psychic (emotional) income add quality to our lives. This is something that money cannot buy, yet money must support the arts and our cultural institutions. Music enriches all of us. Now, more than ever, music as a cultural and social instrument relies on the creativity and resourcefulness of music teachers and their students to promote music's versatility and deeply enduring values. 

1 Nagel, J.J. (2008 Jan. 27) Ann Arbor News, A-16.

2 Ibid.

3 Nagel, J.J. (2013) Melodies of the Mind, Routledge Press, 3.

4 Nagel, J.J. (2017 Mar/Apr), "Rethinking the master class," Clavier Companion, 62-63.

5 Polisi, J.W. (2005 rev. 2016), The Artist as Citizen. Amadeus Press.

6 Finley, K. (2017 Feb. 6), "Trump can thank the arts for his wealth," Time, 29.

7 Ibid. 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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