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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Wake Up


Dr. Lester CN Simon

An insatiable hunger stalks the land. It pangs in the way we talk to, and about, and love, each other; how we dress, walk, drive and park indiscriminately, or engage in conversation in traffic, oblivious of any code of basic manners. The gnawing hunger reflects almost all of the problems we have in school, at work and at play. There is only one aspirin solution to this singular ailment manifesting itself in diverse forms. Every child must be exposed to music from and even before the cradle. This exposure cannot be solely the simple, passive practice of listening to music. It requires learning and mastering a musical instrument.

The single tenor steel pan, also known as the leading pan, is uniquely familiar. If Martians were to take back a single musical instrument that best represents Western music, it would be the single tenor pan. The crux of Western music is distilled in a particular cycle of all 12 musical notes and this pattern is the defining outline of the single tenor pan. We must understand and celebrate our West Indian steel pans and steel orchestra. However, steel pans are not the most portable musical instruments.

Our children must also be taught to play string, brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. School children must own their instrument and be allowed to take them home to engender a sense of responsibility, caring and development. I know of no substitute for playing in a big band or an orchestra, other than longevity itself, to learn all the key lessons that ensure an emotionally rich and rewarding life.

Culture has to be the center of nation building as we define and redefine who and what we really are and what we really mean by culture. The commensurate education, instead of tourism, will perforce become everybody’s business. Tourism and all other industries will naturally follow because we cannot define and manifest our culture without exploring, understanding, developing and welcoming our very own. We can then embrace others as attachments when investments in culture, and music education for all, become the centerpiece of development. This is not an idyllic dream. It was done in Finland after the Second World War according to BBC Music magazine, which also noted that Venezuela’s system of music education for all was lauded by Sir Simon Rattle as the most important thing in classical music anywhere in the world.

There is much useful talk about computer literacy and the dissemination of information technology. We also need cultural and musical literacy. They provide that sense of awe and wonder that ensure our familiar is not taken for granted whilst we marvel at new, shiny things. They lessen our scant respect for nature and humankind and scoff at the occasional, annual, incomplete and half-baked celebrations of our human soul and national conscience. Attention to information technology in cultural isolation will leave us as empty and as emotionally naked, desolate, cold and hard as inorganic, metallic hardware. To embark on information technology divorced from cultural and musical technology is to decimate children into particulate elements.

There is nothing like playing music together to make mathematics and logic, and respect for self and others, come more easily and reside in you forever. If you think this is an idle boast, consider the training required to become a world-class conductor of an orchestra. The conductor is a maestro who understands the music, instruments and musicians and draws the music out of them with the simple sight and sleight of the hand. At the Royal Academy in Stockholm, the cost of training a conductor is more than training a fighter pilot or a surgeon. The contribution to society is priceless. A group in Trinidad and Tobago is making Pan In Education a sustainable business model for music, with impact on innumerable industries and businesses.

Music has its dark side. I almost wept when, in 1998, I heard that the 43 year old master pianist, Kenny Kirkland had died from a heroin overdose. The reasons for the dark side in music are many and varied, but they must be part of music education, as young musicians learn early that actions have consequences.

Music teaching and playing should not be confined to the school. Investments must be at the grass root level with community orchestras funded by government, private organizations and community functions. To this day I deeply regret not taking violin lessons with the village tailor, Mr. Richardson, in New Winthropes when I was a boy. However, I recall the sheer pleasure of listening to our North Star Steel Band practice.

Music afforded me immense joy and fellowship from playing on stage in a jazz orchestra. I will never forget the primal experience of playing my saxophone one Saturday afternoon in a yard in Jamaica in which there were woodwind, brass, double bass and other musical instruments playing and communicating, whilst others were cooking and talking and just being normal people celebrating life. It’s difficult to disrespect your community and your people when they bring you so much joy, peace and satisfaction. Music can make us kinder and gentler or rough and uncouth. The orchestration of music can help us orchestrate our social relationships. There is no beast that music cannot tame. Like time and containing time, music heals.

Adults cannot be left out. There are many adults who are rediscovering the joy of playing a musical instrument and many more are learning for the first time. Music can be humanizing to a fault. A conductor said he sometimes felt embarrassed conducting the music of Gustav Mahler because the music can become so personal, it probably should not be experienced by anyone other than the composer.

It is in the communal, orchestral playing of music by well trained musicians and in the listening and experiencing by a constitutively attentive audience all together in one architectural place that music, with myriad muses for its composing, itself becomes the muse of our existence and the conscience of a nation. The voices of our ancestors, Carib, Arawak, African, European, Indian, indigo and in between must not be left to sing alone, lest, as Luciano Pavarotti would sing, “Nessun Dorma”: None shall sleep.

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