Music as a school for humanity

Peter Dellbrügger

Can we read something into musical qualities and processes which applies equally to social abilities? I am not referring here to superficial analogies which describe a team as an orchestra, the boss as the conductor and individual departments as the sections but something much more fundamental: someone who is skilled in listening to themselves regularly when they play and practice an instrument, who additionally in a chamber music ensemble or orchestra is able to follow both the sound of their own instrument and the overall sound – in what way is their musical ear reflected in their social ability to listen?

Of particular importance in this connection is the basic ability to practice, the conscious and intentional acquisition of a skill which probably is nowhere as evident as in the musician – here we can wonderfully illustrate what it means to direct onself. Even learning an instrument happens paradoxically through doing something in constant repetition which we cannot yet do. And at some point we manage it, at some point we can do what we practiced with perseverance and patience – not always to the delight of those around us.

And what a lot of things we have to look out for when we practice! Even just the external circumstances of place and time, then frequency and goal of practicing, self-critical review (what was achieved?) and looking ahead (what are the next steps?), the immense disciplin in the pursuit of a goal which must not, however, turn into a fixed idea but must be subject to a constant review process in a realistic self-assessment: is the goal set too high? Too low? Should there be an intermediate goal? Furthermore, there is intensified self-perception also with regard to physical processes and our body – the right posture, for example, when playing the violin.

Then there is the ability to master complex procedures simultaneously such as coordinating the right and left hands as well as the pedals with the feet when playing the piano for example, reading music and turning the pages, self-critically listening to our own playing in order to correct ourselves immediately and at the same time paying full attention to our fellow musicians. That such instrumental practice extends beyond the immediate sphere of what is being practiced is clear and we do not need brain research to tell us that music affects the whole human being, that it has a thoroughly positive effect on a person’s behaviour and the ability to learn and control onself.

When the compose Zoltán Kodály started schools with extended music lessons in Hungary in 1951, he expressed his desire in the following words: “These hundred schools are not music schools but schools of humanity. Without music, human beings are incomplete and a fragment.” Interestingly, there were daily  music lessons in these schools at the cost of other subjects. As a consequence of the daily occupation with music, the work of the pupils was significantly better in all subjects when compared to other schools. Looking back, Kodály summarised as follows the experience which was gained in this experiment – which was incidentally repeated in Switzerland from 1988 to 1991 with similarly positive results: “We know that occuping oneself with music on a daily basis refreshes the spirit to such an extent that it then becomes more receptive for all other matters.” And when Yehudi Menuhin writes in the preface to Musik macht Schule: “With Musik macht Schule, music has finally been recognised as part of general education and a contribution to saving humanity …”, he is touching on a deeper level: music as an aid to rescuing our threatened humanity.

Even a superficial look at the consequences of the increased and one-sided use of media among children and young people can undoubtedly show that today quite elementary human abilities are under threat: abilities such as being able to concentrate on something over a sustained period of time, “persisting with something”, or looking at oneself critically; that includes emotional moods and feelings which come to expression when playing an instrument and are thus penetrated with consciousness and not just consumed through passive experience.

In the words of Peter Bieri, we can describe the dimension of self-experience through music as poetic education. Here we must right away clear up a misunderstanding: musical education does not consist of amassing knowledge about music but in living with the experience of music! As the great conductor Sergiu Celibidache aptly put it: “Someone who whistles ‘Hänschen klein’ while shaving has more of a connection with music than someone who puts on a Beethoven record.”

Not for nothing does Robert Schumann conclude his Advice to Young Musicians with the laconic sentence: “There is no end of learning”. We can confidently also take this to mean: there is no end of  practicing. Human beings reveal themselves to be conceivably imperfect particularly also with regard to the threat to their humanity – but that also makes them capable of freedom because they have the possibility of practicing for the whole of their life.

“We should pay more heed to music” (Stefan Brotbeck).

About the author: Peter Dellbrügger is a freelance management consultant, musician and contributor to the Philosophicum Basel and the Hardenberg Institute in Heidelberg.