An Axemeister for Children of All Ages

Jonathan Bellman

Early in 2006, there was a celebrated flap in Bennett, CO about the suitability of opera for school children. It seems that a hapless elementary school teacher—herself a professional opera and gospel singer, for those of you keeping score at home—there had the temerity to try to educate children about music, using a thirty-year-old opera video that featured Joan Sutherland (if memory serves) in conversation with an array of puppets about the opera *Faust*. There you have it—a group of parents had a rather strong reaction when their children came home with questions about the opera, and presumably its plot, which involves sin, the devil’s right-hand-demon Mephistopheles, damnation, forgiveness, and other topics no one has any business discussing. Among the concerns raised were that the opera advocated evil and Satan-worship. (Answer: not at all.) Another concern was raised by one of my colleagues: how pathetic is it for a school district to rely on thirty-year-old educational materials? Needless to say, that never became part of the public debate.

One of the many questions raised by this fairly idiotic episode, at least for those of us who cling to the belief that some kind of music education is a good thing, is what sort of music would be not only appropriate but effective for schoolchildren. In many ways we are still relying on the paradigm of decades past: Classical Music Is Good For You, Children. Whether opera, symphony (how historical is *that* genre?), chamber, or piano music, we have to acknowledge—without yielding an atom of our belief in how much the western art-music tradition has to offer everyone, and how much better off we’d all be if musical art were more a part of contemporary cultural life—that it’s all pretty arcane. Let’s be honest: it’s not only classical, either. Jazz, too, is a historical music, supported by method books, cultivated in university Jazz programs, and cherished by custodians of American culture. The delusions of some novice players to the contrary, Jazz hasn’t been “bad” for decades. It also—sorry, folks—hasn’t been current since at the latest the 1960s. In its way it is as arcane, as much a minority interest, as classical music.

What do we do then—try to expose children to art music via the hip hop, techno, or boy band artists of the last couple of days? Relax–no, we don’t. Any kid will tell you that adult attempts to be Relevant To Youth are A) transparent, B) incompetent, C) condescending, D) ineffective, and E) embarrassing. Most popular pop music (I know, but you know what I mean) is emphatically not new, and the only people to claim it is are the publicists. Most of the top commercial stratum of popular music is a clear-eyed attempt to give the public what it already knows and likes, perhaps repackaged in a novel way but no less reassuring. The public, it is hoped, will respond with money. There is nothing necessarily immoral in this—making a living of any honest kind is *not* a sin—but by the same token, deliberately unadventurous, predictable, ephemeral music is not going to excite anyone to do more than tap toes or sing along, forgetting it a day or week later. Education rightly does not rely on ephemera to ignite young minds.

One of the goals of music education should still be to instill in schoolchildren the idea of music as art, and how deeply powerful it can be. With that in mind, it had better rely on something a little more out-of-the-box than Copland’s *Rodeo* (Recognize it, kids? The beef commercial! You’ve seen it on TV, right?) or Gershwin’s *Rhapsody in Blue* (That’s right! United Airlines!). Let’s start with an old idea: children’s imaginations will work better with instrumental work than with something sung—OK, let’s be honest, piercingly–in a foreign language. Admission: opera sure as shootin’ isn’t my first choice either. I’ll posit a new idea: the sound of traditionally classical instruments, because of their very unfamiliarity, might detract from the music itself.

Can anyone think of an instrument so familiar that the sound itself would not take any getting used to? Hint: six strings.

Almost a year ago, a friend and I had the pleasure of hearing an Australian guitar virtuoso by the name of Tommy Emmanuel. He plays an acoustic steel-string, amplified and given various kinds of distortion and other effects, and rather celebrates the fact that he doesn’t read music. He is an entertainer as much as a musician, and his act includes humorous patter and wide variety of music, including 650-horsepower versions of such tunes as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Classical Gas,” and even a singalong of “Waltzing Matilda.” The crowd devoured him. Of the old, tireless vaudevillian breeding, he draws energy from the audience and will probably perform 320 dates a year (often two shows a day) until he’s 100. He not only plays pop tunes and entertains, though; he composes and plays like the legitimate virtuoso he is. Frankly, I thought I was hearing the reincarnation of Paganini. A rhetorical pedagogical question, here: is there anything that captures the musical neophyte’s attention more than REAL virtuosity, the kind of playing that can transport the listener entirely out of the day-to-day?

A centerpiece of Tommy’s (he likes to stress his first name; this is not ostentatious familiarity on the part of your humble scribe) set is a piece called “Initiation,” which is his musical take on an Australian aboriginal coming-of-age ritual. It uses lots of electronic effects, has blistering fingerwork, and has the emotional curve one would expect of such a piece: suspense to buildup to climax to dissipation of energy. It is wonderfully evocative, respectful but not kid-gloved, and weirdly affecting in the way any such transcultural musical essay (or musical voyage) has the possibility of being. (Anyone moved to carp about essentialization and appropriation of aboriginal culture may, with my blessing, fill out a drop slip and exit to the back of the room.) In the days after hearing the piece, I kept thinking what a perfect musical introduction it would be for a music appreciation class, or for children. It openly evokes a scene, in a more or less descriptive way, through the compositional eye of the artist. I believe it’s included on a live concert video, so the visual element is available, and the virtuosity apparent. Finally, the sound is that of the most familiar of contemporary instruments—the guitar. No explanation of the celeste, no associations with slushy strings, no recoiling from the piercing sound of an operatic soprano (an acquired taste, leave us be honest). Here’s a real axemeister playing a very effective, arresting piece. Let the discussion and learning begin!

Communities unable to tolerate exposure to other religions, belief systems, or rituals in their public schools (Good Morning, Bennett), or those so twitchily sensitive that the cultural “representation” involved will set off too many alarm bells (probably numerous), might substitute another very nice Tommy Emmanuel piece: “Lewis and Clark,” written when he was guest faculty at Lewis and Clark College, in honor of its namesakes. My feeling, though, is that such communities fail their American Society standards more completely than any school could fail a standardized test, and should be placed in cultural receivership. To quote another guitar virtuoso, John Hiatt:

“With no chance for early parole,
You don’t get out until you’ve got some soul!”

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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One Response to An Axemeister for Children of All Ages

  1. eba says:

    Speaking of six-stringed instruments, kids, and accessible music education opportunities, I hope you’ve already seen this piece of brillance over on YouTube:

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