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  • Writer's pictureAnne Fitzgibbon



When I tell people what I do for a living, most adults surprise me with an all too common reaction: “Oh, I’m not musical at all!”

What's even more curious is that when I probe just a little, they almost invariably confess something like, “Well, I played trumpet in the band through high school, but…” or “I’ve played piano for 20 years, but…”

These exchanges beg the question: Why are we so hesitant to identify as musicians?

I know plenty of people who call themselves runners, though they’ve never won a race, or golfers, despite rarely playing a round. So what makes the standard for musicianship so different?

For my part in these conversations, I insist that we’re all musical, but my charitable opinion on the subject is rarely convincing. People smile doubtfully and contest, “Oh, you have to say that because you work with children!”

I’m not suggesting there aren’t varying degrees of musical ability, but whether we make music, dance to it, or listen to it, our very enjoyment of it suggests we are musical.

"Music produces a kind of

pleasure which human nature cannot do without."


In fact, even when we’re not conscious of it, music can change us. Leaving aside the obvious effects of a powerful movie score, studies have shown music can influence how quickly we eat and how much we spend. Music can reduce our perception of pain and lower our blood pressure. From preventing weight loss in premature babies to reviving the minds of Alzheimers patients, music engages us on a primal level throughout our lifetimes.

So then, aren’t we all musical beings, regardless of whether or not we can carry a tune? And, for that matter, is pitch-matching really the determinant of musicality?

I continue to wonder why music inspires such self-deprecation. How do children like the joyful little music-makers I see in our Harmony Program classrooms turn into adults so self-conscious that they hide their musical pasts?

Maybe it’s the stories people confess to me: The violin teacher who taped a student’s strings for the recital so he couldn’t make a sound. The choral teacher who asked her students to lip sync for the final performance. These are true stories, and what’s perhaps most tragic of all is that these students - now adults - have never forgotten them.

I’ll admit my own musical journey is a tale of a young clarinetist who loved to perform, from grade school through high school, but grew less comfortable on stage the more seriously she studied. It wasn't simply the difficulty of the repertoire or the pressures of young adulthood that accounted for the change.

Rather, my music-making, which was so central to my early school experiences and social activities, became more sporadic and disconnected from my daily life as I matured. In college, my musical community was less familiar and my place in it less secure. I found, over the years, that my musical enjoyment depended on the depth and consistency of my relationships with my teachers and fellow musicians.

Perhaps that's why I was so captivated by the exuberant music-making I witnessed in Venezuela. Spending concentrated time together fostered in El Sistema's young musicians a collaborative spirit that turned orchestras into families. Indeed, an El Sistema colleague once characterized herself as, "teacher, psychologist, and parent." The sense of belonging and acceptance within El Sistema encouraged students to take musical risks, resulting not only in strong performances but also in a sense of joyfulness.

The exuberant music-making of El Sistema's youth orchestras

My own experience may also explain why I have a particular enthusiasm for the uninhibited sounds of beginner musicians grinding away imperfectly at their pieces, evolving "poco a poco," as they say in Venezuela. There’s a beauty in the process and in the sounds of the struggle. It puts into perspective their determined progress as well as the level of artistry and precision of professional performances that we can sometimes take for granted.

Reflecting on my musical past as well as that of other musicians -- whether self-described or not -- I see the long-term value of strengthening our students' identities as musicians. That identity derives from a feeling of belonging and a sense of pride in achievement, and leads to lifelong music appreciation.

These ideas are summed up well by one of our viola students, Wellington, who observes, "I used to think about the negative all the time. I was always an introverted person. Ever since the Harmony Program, I’ve been very happy, extroverted. I love all types of music now… jazz, pop, Latin. Music is basically half of me. You take away music, you take away me."

As music teachers, we should do our best to remember how our own early and intimate learning experiences have influenced us and, for the sake of our students -- who will one day be adults themselves -- seize our opportunities to encourage joy in their musical discovery. After all, the memories they're making will last a lifetime.



Consider how the nature of your musical training influences your approach to teaching.


Do you believe we are all musical?

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