David and Art - "To Those Who Play an Instrument"

Mar 16, 2020

People who play a musical instrument are witnesses to the power of art.

I was walking through the music building the other day at the university and I passed down a long hallway lined with practice rooms. Over the course of a just a couple of minutes—I was walking slowly just to take it all in—I heard violins, pianos, flutes, clarinets, a French Horn, percussion, and a bassoon.  All of the players were working on pieces that sounded difficult, but all were likewise nailing them pretty well, at least when I took my walk.

It wasn’t at all like listening to an orchestra or ensemble; there wasn’t any uniformity of content. One piano sounded like Gershwin. The flute sounded like Vivaldi maybe.  Another piano was playing something that sounded like Francois Poulenc.  The violin I think was a Bach piece.  A French Horn from down the hall for a moment sounded like Mozart’s famous horn concerto but it turned out to be something else.  There was even a drummer who was practicing one of the tricky rhythmic parts from the musical Annie.  It was just a total wash of sound.

Despite this however, it wasn’t chaos. It may be strange; it may be counter-intuitive, but it all sounded wonderful together, because it was the cumulative sound of people who had devoted a significant amount of time and energy to developing their ability to play music.

It was the sound of people who understood that their effort was worth it.

We’ve reached the point in our society, I sometimes think, that playing an instrument is countercultural.  There’s an unavoidable component to it that’s radically out of step with many of today’s attitudes and assumptions.

You can’t make it more efficient.  It’s an art, and like most art it’s resistant to the incessant pressure for more speed, more ease, and more productivity.  Mastering the flute takes the same dedication now as it did 100 years ago.  The only difference is that our broader culture now encourages us to think it’s not worth it. 

The next morning, I walked out to get the paper about 7 o’clock and was met with an absolute riot of birds singing.  There was chirping of all sorts coming from every direction. It suddenly reminded me of my experience from the afternoon before.  It was much the same sensation.

Making music is natural.  By contrast, it’s not wanting to; it’s not following the impulse that leads us to it that’s unnatural.  It’s incumbent upon those of us who understand this—who appreciate it in the face of a culture that questions its worth—to encourage and support those we know who are dedicating themselves to mastering an instrument.  Our culture is better because of them.