R – “We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.” – Henry Ward Beecher. There isn’t a music teacher alive who doesn’t already understand the significance of the title of this blog post, so this isn’t an attempt to “enlighten” anyone. It’s just a smattering of my thoughts on it recently.
My favorite thing to do for the past 25 years has been to climb Mount Monadnock from the old Toll Road trail. I could climb it in my sleep I think. I’ve enjoyed climbing it on my own, with one or two close friends, with alumni, with a group, with siblings, and even one Easter Sunday when I brought a roast beef sandwich (with Honey Mustard) and hot cider along for my Easter “dinner” at the summit. It is not a strenuous climb as mountains in northern New England go – I remember one day when I was at the top and watched a group of college students arrive from Keene State carrying a sofa just so they could say they did – but it’s a wonderful, picturesque mountain that makes a beautiful day that much better by being on it. I used to enjoy it most for the time I spent at the top. I would eat, take a nap, walk around, take it all in, relax, and eventually head back down. As time has gone on though, I’ve enjoyed it more for the journey to and from. And that is the metaphor I’m using for my process vs. product comparison.
I can’t put my finger on it, but I know in my career I now enjoy actual concerts much less than I used to. Presenting a concert – or the product – was my focus when I began teaching…. and everything led up to that event. Standing on the mountain top. But I have so much more fun now preparing a group for that concert than I do presenting it. There was a concert about 5 years ago that I had the epiphany: if I could just pay someone to conduct the concert for me, I’d be in heaven. Prepping the group, and then just watching them fly. And I think the reason for this is that the journey, for me, has become twice the fun. I ALSO know this is due in large part to working at my dream school (no kidding), working for a Community Choir executive board that is extraordinarily supportive, guest conducting festivals that provide for enough time to really get inside the kids’ heads, a summer music camp that allows me the opportunity to try out new rehearsal techniques and approaches while fine tuning old ones, and on and on and on. I have a pretty blessed career. But the downside, if there is one, is that concerts have ceased to hold the emotional weight that they used to. I’ve never been an avid “performer” and maybe this is just a manifestation of that. I don’t know.
But it might have more to do with the quote by Beecher.
My frustration with concerts is that no one ever gets to see the “growth”… the distance the group traveled to get to where it is in concert. And that bothers me. The audience only gets to see a picture of the climber standing at the summit. But they are missing the point. With apologies to Shakespeare, the climb is the thing. The journey is where the magic was. The concert is certainly a celebration and a feel good experience; a peak experience, pun intended. But that’s all it is. That’s not to diminish its importance or significance, it’s just to put it in it’s rightful perspective. And I wonder if we do that enough. I know that conceptually we understand the difference, but do we practice putting the emphasis on the rehearsals over the performance? Do we communicate this to our students and our singers? Do we communicate this to our parents and communities, or do we use our concerts as our big buildups and sell them as such? These are rhetorical questions meant for nothing more than food for thought. But I really would prefer that our programs be judged by the distance our students have traveled, our choirs be judged by the musicality they developed and applied, than by the peak of their excellence displayed for all to see in concert. The reality is that we can’t have one without the other, any more than I would choose to climb Monadnock without ever seeing the summit or standing at the top having been placed there by a helicopter. The climb makes the mountaintop inspiring, the mountaintop makes the motivation for the climb. The title of this blog post should have been “process and product”. I just hope that the importance of both elements in equal measure is the message we are indeed transmitting to our concert audiences and to our communities. I would argue that we’re cheating them, as well as ourselves, if not.
I say as often as I can whenever I’m speaking to an audience or a group of people, that the problem (read: misunderstanding) with music education is that it is a process based discipline in a product oriented society (think about it). We can either conform to the inherent societal value by perpetuating their desire to have music education be what they expect it to be, or we can morph our society into changing their thinking when it comes to what we do and why it’s essential for every student. I think we need to choose wisely.