Over the years I have received many letters from children and I find their directness very stimulating. Their letters are on my website (www.michaelcolgrass.com) along with my answers. A while back I got a particularly interesting letter from a 14-year-old girl that ties in with my last blog about music education in our schools.
Dear Mr. Colgrass,
What people don’t realize is that we, the young adults of America, are the future of everything, including music. They think music is for really nerdy, rich, smart people, not for the average person. Music is a very personal emotion that takes a lot to get out of you, and also to write down on paper. Where will music go without good teachers who take the time to talk to teenagers? We look up to adults for guidance in this big craziness of the music world.
Then she goes on to ask why some like classical music and others don’t, why we learn more about emotions as we listen to and study music, why some people seem unable to feel music, why music is such a deep subject and how we can bring out the musical creativity in ourselves and others.
I think music is like food — you tend to eat what the people around you eat. Meet new people and you start eating new foods. The question is not only the taste of this food, but its relationship to your lifestyle — yogurt isn’t associated with any social life that is known to be cool, whereas the hamburger is an American institution. Classical music is like yogurt to many people. They may try it once or twice, but that’s usually not enough. There has to be some form of continual contact and the music, like a nutritious food needs to be integrated into their lifestyle.
Concerning emotions in music, music is the language of emotion. The history of music is the recorded history of human emotion, different ways people expressed their feelings over the centuries in response to their surroundings. Music has many values — it helps develop our minds, it relaxes us, is gives us solace when we are blue. But most of all it helps us develop empathy for others, to respect human feeling. I really don’t care how “bright” someone is, but I am impressed when someone shows understanding for the feelings of others. This is what music and other arts add to our life, and that makes music an important activity for children to learn and enjoy.
Some people seem to feel music more easily than others, but then some people have trouble feeling any emotion — or expressing it openly. Emotions need to be developed like language or imagery. Our senses are like muscles: the ones you exercise are the ones that will grow strong. You can actually practice feeling, the same way you can practice expressing yourself in words and making pictures in your mind. Music gives us a way to practice developing emotionally. Maybe that’s why some people don’t like music — they’re afraid to express their emotions, afraid they’ll lose control of themselves, break down and cry, or get too charged up and not know what to do with the energy.
Yes, music is a deep subject because emotions are unfathomable. With music, you can even express contradictory feelings — like sorrow and joy — simultaneously, which is sometimes how we feel them. That’s what makes emotions so interesting. That’s what drives composers to try to recreate emotions, digging into them for new insights. Emotions are like the gold embedded in mountains. No matter how much you dig out, there’s always more, somewhere in there.
I have said before that creativity starts with copying and imitating. You don’t just pop out of the womb writing music. You need to learn musical language the way you learned your native tongue. You learned to speak and write and read by hearing and imitating others. Then gradually, you started getting your own ideas and writing and speaking your own way — like your letters to me, which are original. So don’t be afraid to imitate at first. But only at first. Gradually your own personality will come out. The more you learn about how others perform a particular skill, the more you will learn how to do things your own original way.