A Composer's Adventures

Letters From Children

Colgrass Student

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.

My answer:

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.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Wonderful notions Michael! The child who wrote you that letter is a marvel and with her depth I imagine that she had the capacity to appreciate your answer.

    I am fascinated particularly by your comment on why some folks don’t like music and pointing to the fear of emotion. There is a danger too, I think, for professional musicians in that when we are immersed in music day after day, year after year we can become a bit numb and develop a muted response to our art and come to see it as a job. I was told that Gustav Holst said once: “Music should never be played by professionals.” If he said that then he was probably pointing to the lifeless performance of musicians who just trot out the notes and go home. If we are professional musicians then I think we can succumb to seeing music as a mere technical pursuit.

    I find that I listen to music rarely and I find that peculiar in a way – it seems like I can only take so much of it – like a gourmet meal. Also since I am involved in music so much I find music boring if I can predict what is coming too easily.

    I find that being surrounded by recorded or ‘canned’ music is as annoying as being surrounded by advertising. Some musical intrusions are no more welcome to me than telemarketing calls in that this music can be so out of step with what is happening. I feel happier just enjoying the natural sounds around or listening to what is happening internally. I love live music in that there is a much better chance of the music being ‘in tune’ with the situation and all those present can be transported together.

  2. Bruce,

    Yes, this young letter writer inspired many thoughts in me, which is why I so enjoy having contact with young people and working with kids in music. My work is outside any institution of learning of course (except as a visitor), which allows me to do what I wish and helps keep it refreshing.
    Your remark about lifeless performances by professional performers who just trot out the notes and go home explains the wall I was facing in the mid-sixties in New York after years of playing professionally. I wrote about it in my memoir in a story called, “Incident on West Fifty-Seventh street,” where I forgot if I was going to or going home from a gig at Carnegie Hall one night. Performing was becoming mechanical and I was beginning to feel like a mechanic. but this led to a life-changing excursion into the arts that opened me up in a number of new ways.

  3. Adam—Well, you can’t know how the kids in your care feel without asking them so why not devise a nice way of inquiring whether they feel they are getting all they want or need. It all depends of course on their age group and how complex your subject is and therefore their qualification to know the difference between good and poor learning of it, but you might give it a try anyway. You could be surprised. One thing I have done is ask them to have a go at teaching others what I have taught them to see how confident they feel about what they’ve learned and also how well they really understand it. I think confidence in a student’s knowledge of a subject is a sign of how much they’ve enjoyed learning it.
    Also, you could simply ask them, Does it feel good what I’m teaching you? Or after teaching or showing them something ask them how they feel about it. I’ve had some surprise and revealing answers to that question. Real teaching is complicated because it’s creative, with the object of your creativity being an unknown—namely the psyche and emotions of the learner.

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