Of Whales and Cellos
Musical Education and Other Frivolous Pursuits
From SHUMEI Magazine, VOL. 227, may/june, 2000
by George Bedell (Pasadena)
[George Bedell is a founding member of the Shumei Arts Council of America.]
On Friday, April 7, 2000 something extraordinary happened at Shinji Shumeikai of America's National Center in Pasadena. Yellow school bus after yellow school bus pulled up and departed from the Center's main entrance as close to 400 special guests neatly filed into the courtyard and in the broad sunshine patiently waited for Shumei Hall's doors to open. The last hour of morning was vibrant with their chatter, mostly English with a piquant smattering of Spanish. Some sat nonchalantly on the pavement eating their lunches. Others strolled the Hall's lobby scrutinizing Michele Berman's delicate microphotography views of a world of iris pedals, snakeskins, and interiors of red peppers, an exhibition that could reveal a vast and wondrous realm in a single grain of sand. Once or twice a bee would dart toward a sandwich and there would be soft squeals before a quick swipe of wrapping paper would shoo the intruder away.
Inside the Hall one last sound check was hurriedly being made before the doors would open to the beat of a solo Taiko drum and the young guests, caught suddenly in the pulsing rhythm, briskly paced down the aisles, took their seats, and waited for their first sight of the cellist, Eugene Friesen. Shumei Hall is a bright and intimate space that holds only about 400 without portable seating being installed. Despite the capacity crowd, the size of the average attendee assured comfortable seating. For the most part the audience was made up of second-graders. They came from local schools in Pasadena and Los Angeles' inner city. This was the Shumei Arts Council of America's first Children's Concert, a project sponsored by the Council with the help of the Kidspace Museum of Pasadena and Inner-City Arts of Los Angeles.
Those fortunate enough to have heard Eugene Friesen play briefly at one of our Monthly Sampais last year with the Concert Series' Artistic Director, David Spear, had an inkling of what to expect and happily anticipated the two performances that were scheduled for this year. That Sunday, April 9, he would also perform a program entitled "Eugene Friesen and Friends" as part of our regular concert series.
He came on stage, the children's voices hushed, and soon we found ourselves in the presence of not only an accomplished musician but a fine performer with a great and wise heart, a man with a natural affinity with children. His show is called "Cello Man" and has the look of a work that has been refined over years and yet still maintains the freshness and spontaneity of a work in progress. The performance takes place before a bright, bannered screen that he retreats behind between sets, only to reappear as a new character in a new mask. His use of mime and masks in "Cello Man" answers such urgent questions as how would a squirrel play the cello? or what would a cello-playing brown bear sound like? (They sound and play quite differently from each other.) His use of vignettes gives "Cello Man" an exuberant variety that is essential to keeping the attention of an audience filled with quick and rambunctious minds. Child or adult, one's attention is always captured in an instant and held just long enough to grasp the artist's message and then is gently let go to explore something new.
Friesen's use of imagery and poetic metaphor also works deeply on young people's imaginations, as well as the imaginations of those who can remember how they thought as youngsters. Introducing one of his own compositions, the cellist tells of visiting Scammon's Lagoon in Baja California Sur, Mexico where the gray whales spawn, and that his music is both inspired by and an homage to these gentle giants. He describes watching these huge mammals as they emerge close enough to pet and then glide quietly beneath the clear, blue waters. He describes them as great "cello-shaped" beasts. "Cello-shaped." The image betrays both his love of these magnificent animals and his love of the instrument he plays and its sound. And the image stays with the listener while listening to those sounds. And the sounds and thoughts of great whales and the cello's shape intertwine and become one present moment. This is art. Friesen's "Humpback Harmony" was warmly received by the young audience. Perhaps never having preconceptions about what to expect from music, children are more open to new music. After all, at that age all life can be a new adventure full of the unexpected.
As a second grader I had never been exposed to J.S. Bach and I suspect that the same holds for today's new crop of second graders as well. Nor would most adults expect children to understand or be touched by pathos. Yet, Friesen's last piece had both elements. Wearing a mask of a round, ancient face he played Bach as a very old Pablo Casals would have played him during the last days of Casals' life. Casals never had a slick sound but he did have a passionate genius that could render beauty even from harshness. And this passion remained and still made a great deal of sense even at the withered end of the master musician's days. Even when executed by trembling hands "Air on a G String" still was beautiful and alive. The children understood this.
Those of us who are now designing the Shumei Arts Council's upcoming Children's Concerts could stand to learn much from Mr. Friesen and "Cello Man".
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When Eugene Friesen first appeared on stage he asked who among the audience played a musical instrument. From all around the hall a surprising number of hands were raised. He then asked who among the young musicians played the cello. Immediately in front of him, a cluster of hands shot up. A little astonished, he told the cello students that he would have to be very careful because he knew that they would be watching every move he made and would be sure to catch any mistakes.
The number of young people in the hall who were learning to play music was surprising as the lack of musical or any other art education in American schools is a national scandal. It is one of the more boorish elements of our national character to view art as a frill or to confuse it with mindless entertainment. The study of art is not frivolous. Art is an essential part of who we are as individuals and as a people. If anything survives and still speaks to us today of any culture that passed into human history, it is that society's art. Art also profoundly affects the quality of our daily life and how we live it in the here and now.
An education in the arts, even if it does not lead to a career as an artist, is a boon to all aspects of a person's life and the society in which he or she lives. It even affects our economic wellbeing. And its early effects have a very long and rewarding afterlife. A simple example would be a young girl who learns to play an oboe in a school band. Chances are that she will never go on to be a professional musician and the chances are even slimmer that if a professional career is in her future that she will become economically comfortable, much less famous. Yet, looking at the long-term benefits that come from her hours of study is revealing. The practice of music or any art requires a good deal of discipline under the direction of an instructor and a great deal of self-discipline while practicing alone. The student also has to learn how to work with others while rehearsing and playing in an ensemble. Besides this, a certain amount of creative thinking has to be nurtured and exercised. Are these skills frivolous? What properly run corporation would not want an employee that is disciplined, a team player, and able to think creatively? What business would not benefit by this young woman's skills?
Over the last few years, studies have suggested that there is a correlation between musical study and the development of math skills. This idea is not new. The relationship between the two disciplines was accepted knowledge in medieval Europe, where music was an essential part of a formal education, and the idea goes back at least as far as the philosopher Pythagoras of Hellenic antiquity. Practical benefits derive from other artistic paths as well. While a creative writing course may not produce another Flannery O'Connor, it will enable a young person to verbally articulate ideas, an indispensable skill in any type of business. A course in basic drawing may seem little more than a carry-over of kindergarten sandbox, with little value other than to give young people a little fun between their serious studies, until one realizes that even in this age of rapid technological evolution that there is not one new device or object that does not have to be rendered by hand or computer before being manufactured. This requires not only skills of a draftsman or computer graphics artist but also the ability to visualize in ways that only drawing can teach.
Lately, the progressive notion has become fashionable that a major role of education is to give young people a sense of self-esteem and self-empowerment. I can think of no better way to do this than through the practice of an art. Not only can it build morale by giving young people a sense of accomplishment but, more importantly, it puts their accomplishments within a personal perspective. Painting and creative writing do this very well. Not only do they require a good deal of learned skills, which any discipline can give, but more importantly these pursuits can lead students to value their own ideas and decisions. When an undergraduate, I was a volunteer art instructor in an urban community center. The neighborhood was poor. The classes were divided between children, young people, and adults, which afforded an opportunity to witness how disenfranchisement and profound poverty, poverty of the spirit, can perpetuate itself and demean other human beings over the course of a lifetime. The children were the most fun and the most invigorating, also, strangely, the most needy. The teens, like most teens, were generally surly, moody, and exasperating but some seemed to have a troubled and hardened bitterness collecting about them that went beyond anything I could recall from my own adolescent background. Although I realize that it is unfair, the adults always left me with an impression of resignation and defeat. Occasionally, a student would approach an instructor, sketch in hand, with one simple but loaded question. The question came in many forms but at heart it was, "Did I do this right?" For a reason that I could not understand at the time, this question left a melancholy reverberation long after the words were spoken. I felt particularly somber when asked the question by an adult, usually a person older than I who wanted approval from me. My approach was to keep a blank face and concentrate on the technical aspects of rendering, thus avoiding the deeper query that lurked under the question. I was not a good teacher. A fellow instructor was more direct and forthright. I recall her replying once after being asked the question perhaps one time too many, "It's alright. It's alright because you did it." Beyond the satisfaction of achieving a technical skill, I can think of no better way for a person to validate their own self-worth than to come to the realization that their own decisions and thoughts are "alright" and do matter. Their ideas are valid not because their ideas have been given some stamp of approval by an authority but simply because they who have the ideas are who they are.
Beyond building self-esteem and nuts-and-bolts skills that might make a young person a more viable commodity in the job market, art education on a primary and secondary level can bring to our society more developed sensibilities. The arts make us more civilized and more humane. A dear friend, an atheist, once told me that although listening to Palestrina did not bring her to a belief in God, it did make her more open to the possibility that there might be such things as angels. With that comment, she put her finger on the heart of the matter better than I can here. When one posits that another human being, such as Mozart or a contemporary such as Arvo Pärt, could put together sounds of such transcending and awesome powers, perhaps the conclusion that human life is of some great and mysterious value does not follow far behind. It may be that when one's life is touched in such a way that all life is cherished a little more. And perhaps the wisdom gained will make our society more civil, kinder, and less inclined to brutish acquisition and criminality.
Our world would be better off if more people realized art's value and experienced its joys. And what better place to start doing so than when young? It is vitally important that young people develop the ability to think critically about the music they hear, the literature they read, and the art that they look at, as it will give them a foundation for making choices and forming opinions when encountering all new and unique forms of expression. It will allow them to be more tolerant of what might be new to them. It increases their capacity for enjoying and appreciating what might be unfamiliar, thereby aiding them in becoming well-rounded and adventurous individuals. The Pasadena Shumei Concert Series will provide the young with an opportunity to be touched by a diverse range of musical experiences through its Children's Concert Series.
The purpose of The Shumei Arts Council's Children's Concert Series is to enrich the cultural life of local elementary school students by introducing them to the vast and multifaceted musical world. These special concerts will help young people gain an intimate familiarity with music they may not have heard before and give them the opportunity to learn about composers, instruments, musicians, music making, and the rich and diverse cultural landscape from which music emerges. We hope that through these concerts young people will gain a wider perception of what music can be by guiding them toward new ways of listening.
This is our stated purpose. While the Council does not have the resources to improve the level of art education in our schools, there is still much that can be done within our modest means. We are now preparing to hold a symposium at the Shinji Shumeikai National Headquarters in Pasadena on art education, either at the end of this year or early next year, and we will continue our efforts to touch young lives with music.
All this said and as important as the educational and societal implications of teaching children about art might be, the most important benefit of all that we can offer children is allowing them to have an aesthetic experience. Art needs no other reason to exist than for its own sake. Shinji Shumeikai's founder, Mokichi Okada, claimed that art can be a spiritual activity and I agree. It can impart a meaning that never can be fully explained in text or by reason. It can only be comprehended through the pure experience of art. And if any meaning of any significance or value is to come from life, it is through art.
The Shumei Arts Council of America had an excellent start with the "Cello Man" concert. Judging from the expressions on the children's faces as they left Shumei Hall that Friday afternoon, our first effort surpassed our highest expectation.