How much music does an average American consume in an average day? Is there such a thing as musical overload, an auditory equivalent to overeating? What are the physiological and psychological symptoms of Musical Overdose (MO)? Are we in the midst of an epidemic that no one seems to have noticed? Is it a conspiracy (why not)? Should the Surgeon General prescribe a musical RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) that must appear on all CD labels? Besides, how do we measure musical intake anyway? Maybe we need some kind of listening calorie scale that factors in the musical style, the loudness in decibels, and the number of hours our eardrums and auditory cortex are inundated with deliberate or inadvertent musical assault. I say inadvertent because even if you are that rare unplugged specimen with no earbuds in your ears, you are still subject to secondhand inhalation.
I am in a coffee shop right now trying to write this piece on my laptop. James Taylor is singing on the house speakers and two ringtones (Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Lady Gaga’s Just Dance) have chirped next to me in succession in the last two minutes. I can’t write or think with music in the background. The part of my brain designed to listen to music takes over and shuts down all other processing centers. So I escape to a nearby park, praying that my battery will last. I sit down on a bench but even before reaching for my laptop I hear this gargled distorted whine with an annoying steady beat. What the heck, in the park? I look around, and sure enough on the next bench over sits a guy listening to his iPod, on earphones! What I hear is just the exhaust fumes, the few high frequencies that manage to escape his earphones. He is sitting twelve feet away. I can’t imagine the assault on his nervous system that’s going on inside those ears.
You get the picture.
I enter a grocery store and am forced to listen to an ancient Frank Sinatra hit as I check the ripeness of an avocado (Take me to the Moon). I enter the lobby of the office tower on my way to my dental appointment to the strains of some generic Vivaldi (classy) then sit in the waiting room and forced to listen to some vintage Muzak (not so classy), my alarm clock doesn’t buzz, it plays music. The NPR news I listen to on my way to work punctuates the latest disasters from around the world with cheerful little music jingles, as if to underline the fact that we are inside some giant movie plot with a happy ending just around the corner.
What’s happening worldwide is not mere increased listening. It’s gorging, the stuff serious food addicts or junkies go to rehab for. The more we consume the less impact the music has. The more all-pervasive the musical experience becomes the blander it seems, and to keep getting that “hit” we crave, the music must get louder.
Measurements taken on dance floors have registered decibel levels equivalent to standing next to a full-throttled jet engine without protective headgear. Participants in Rock concerts actually “listen” with their entire body, not just their ears. The high volume speakers are intended to deliver physical vibrations to the whole body, like repeated punches to the stomach. Even your neighborhood movie theater, using Dolby high-octane surround sound delivers audio levels that would have sent your parents’ generation scurrying for cover.
The loudness per se would be less critical if we were subjected to it sparingly. Our ancestors enjoyed music in small doses, after work perhaps in the pub, during a celebration, or the occasional concert. Music appeared as a relief from everyday sounds, the sound of horse drawn carriages or barking dogs. It needed no boost to draw attention to itself. Today the everyday backdrop is all music, all the time, and everywhere. There are no more music-free spaces on earth except perhaps in the middle of the Pacific ocean. In this homogenous musical soup the only way to stand out is to be louder and more abrasive.
The ubiquity of music is only one of a host of other reasons why the decibels of music continue to rise to dangerous levels. Equally responsible is the general level of noise around us that desensitizes our hearing and makes us turn up the volume. In fact it is a classic feedback loop. The louder the music you listen to the more your brain lowers the sensitivity of the ear to protect itself, causing you to hear less and in turn raise the volume even more. This process has accelerated over the last few years with the near-universal usage of in-ear earphones for both portable music devices and cell phones. Numerous studies have linked rising hearing impairment in young adults to these devices.
Consider the fact that most people keep the earphones plugged in their ears while engaging in other activities like conversation, shopping, or riding the subway. Many of these activities take place in extremely noisy environments that compete with what you are listening to on your earphones. So you raise the volume even more. Listening to multiple loud sound sources that compete with each other is unpleasant in any circumstance, but having the ability to artificially intensify one of these signals without lowering the others is not only unnatural it is downright hazardous. Add the fact that in-ear earphones, the kind preferred by most users, act in the most egregious manner as far as our ear is concerned, in fact mimicking the act of someone shouting directly into your ear, something quite rare under natural circumstances, and doing so hour after hour, day in and day out, and you have a recipe for mass deafness.
Is there a ceiling, a cut-off point, a moment where some external force (perforated eardrums, bleeding, state regulation) intervene to impose a limit, perhaps restoring some islands of silence, or at least a greater scarcity of music, and more tolerable levels of listening?
To answer this question it might be enlightening to compare sound to speed. Leaving aside the speed of light that no one seriously contemplates approaching, speed of travel, by car or by air, does not really have natural limits that cannot be overcome by engineering. Theoretically you could build a consumer car traveling at 300 miles an hour (yes, without lifting off), or an airplane rocketing its passengers at Mach 3. The reason you won’t see anything approaching these speeds is not that they can’t be achieved but that external limitations make them either impractical or unlawful. What would be the point of manufacturing a passenger car that goes at airplane speeds when the road it would be traveling on has a speed limit of 65 miles per hour imposed by the state legislature? And the reason, at least the official reason, for this imposed limit is safety.
The same goes for sound levels. While music engineers and film producers may continue to raise the sound level until at 180 decibels your entire body will be shaking and your eardrums will pop out of your ears, there is no doubt that the ensuing mass deafness will be recognized by society as a health hazard and a ceiling will be imposed.
But you don’t need to go that far. Unfortunately, even at the average 100 db levels experienced right now in most earphones, an entire generation of humans in industrialized nations is going deaf, from both excessive impact on the body’s hearing mechanisms and overexposure to music.
I am eagerly awaiting the legislation that will designate a “music free” environment, first in public places and then gradually everywhere. I can’t wait for people to huddle around some illegitimate boom-box outside an office building, surreptitiously listening to some very soft music, looking furtively around like smokers.
And that Surgeon Genral’s white label on the front of CDs “This product may be dangerous to your health” is long overdue.
The following essay was written at the time when my wife was undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, and I was being partially scalped to remove a piece of Melanoma (it made me look a bit like Gorbachev).
Being alive entails killing. It’s an unsettling thought that we try very hard not to dwell on, so we invent euphemisms to cover it up, make it more palatable. We speak of harvesting and fishing and sanitizing, but what all these terms really mean is the act of terminating another life to preserve our own. There is a scene in the comedy Notting Hill in which a rabid vegetarian accuses Hugh Grant of having “murdered” a carrot he just ate. It’s funny, but true. Nature, from a tiger pouncing on a gazelle to the weed in your garden choking the life out of your Swiss Chard, is one giant killing machine.
But there is one form of killing we rarely if ever find in Nature, suicide. True that while protecting itself or otherwise intending to kill someone else an organism may inadvertently or even deliberately lose its life, but you could hardly call that a suicide. A heroic act of sacrifice, intended to ensure the continued survival of its kind, is more like it. But a wanton termination of one’s own life runs contrary to Nature’s prime directive – “Try to survive, whatever it takes”.
The case of bacteria and viruses who invade a body to infect it with a deadly disease is no exception. It may look like suicide, after all the virus kills the very body that it feeds on. But seen not from the perspective of the individual virus but from its species or strain, your demise (along with your viruses) is in fact a blessing. As you hack and sneeze and bleed to death millions of new viruses spread to other hosts. Bad for us, good for the viruses.
Many people look at cancer as just another disease, like typhoid or Malaria. Something causes a cell to start mutating. It spreads and multiplies, just like a virus, and in the process destroys healthy cells and eventually kills you. But there is a fundamental difference between cancer and infectious diseases. The cell in question is not an outside “invader” using your body as “prey” for its own advantage. The cancerous cell is you. When it succeeds in its scheme to kill you, it will die as well. From the point of view of the cancer this is not a noble sacrifice, neither is it a smart strategy. This is suicide, plain and simple. There is no residual benefit whatsoever to the cell, and its actions contradict the very essence of self-preservation.
Why would a cell want to kill itself? What is it trying to achieve? And what could possibly be Nature’s purpose in such a suicidal process that seems to run contrary to its own evolutionary principles?
Or does it? Could there be some evolutionary “message in a bottle” here that Nature is sending? Is it possible that the cell’s suicide, far from signaling the breakdown of Nature’s laws, is in fact a useful process, perhaps even essential?
I am a firm believer in Nature being utilitarian. Things occur for a reason, and the reason usually has to do with survival. Basically, when it comes to living organisms, things happen to either ensure their survival or hasten their extinction, as the case may be. There is no middle way in Nature. An organism is either fit to stay, fit to fit in as it were, or else it is deemed a failure, a dead-end, and it must go. Countless species have come and gone based strictly on this elegant principle. Does the suicidal nature of cancer point in the latter direction, or does it have some other, less depressing (for us) purpose?
Whenever I am stuck for an interpretation of a natural phenomenon, I fall back on a device that at least helps me understand the question, if not provide an answer. I create a story around it, with the forces at play its characters. This anthropomorphic interpretation is of course fanciful. Natural objects and forces don’t possess the kind of consciousness that we associate with ourselves. But it helps at least clear the fog, and sometimes, if I am lucky, may point in the direction of a possible interpretation.
Go back and imagine for a minute that first mutated cancerous cell, before it had started to spread through your body. Imagine a possible mythical reason for its behavior.
The cell becomes aware of itself. It looks at itself and starts believing that it is unique, quite different from all the other cells around it, and what’s more important, quite separate from the larger system within which it lives, which is your body. Having gained self-awareness and believing itself to be autonomous from the tyranny of your body, it feels superior to the other “ordinary” and mindless cells around it, eventually denying even the fact that it has no existence outside you. And then it starts to spread. It wants to subdue its neighbors, perhaps not to harm them, just to convert them to become a copy of its superior self. And as it succeeds, its ambition, and one would assume its self-confidence and pride, grows along with its conquests. One by one the other cells of the body fall in line with the new order. Pretty soon the entire universe of the cell would be its domain. It looks like a winning strategy.
But like other delusions of grandeur, it is nothing but folly, shortsighted, ignorant folly. As the cell’s power grows, its universe collapses all around it. And at the height of its expansion and power, its world comes to an end and it dies along with the body that it killed. It’s a suicide murder, and it is tragic like all avoidable tragedies.
As I contemplate my little fable I become mindful of a new interpretation of cancer that sets it apart from all other diseases. The story is a chillingly accurate metaphor for human folly. Substitute Hitler or Napoleon for “cell” and you get the sad history of human Hubris. Substitute the cell killing its own ecosystem and you have an apt metaphor for us destroying the very planet upon which our life depends. Does Nature have a poetic sense or am I endowing unrelated phenomena with a meaning they don’t have? Either way, cancer as an up close and personal warning for our species to beware of Hubris may have some positive purpose (though that may be poor consolation for the individual dying of cancer).
The futile hunt over the past half century for a “cure” for cancer, something along the lines of a Polio vaccine, has yielded very little, not even a basic understanding of the nature of cancer, let alone a cure. If anything, the situation has steadily worsened in spite of the billions of dollar poured into cancer research. Today cancer incidents have become as prevalent as TB used to be in the 19th century. It therefore makes sense that people would be talking about an “epidemic of cancer”, something as terrifying and commonplace as the bubonic plague was.
And yet cancer is no epidemic. It is not a foreign pathogen attacking us. It is “us” attacking ourselves. As such it has no precedent. When a species develops mutations that place its own survival in jeopardy it is Nature’s way of questioning its viability.
A physical cure for cancer may someday be found, though I strongly doubt it. However, while we wait we would do well to stop viewing cancer merely as a sickness and start seeing it as the symptom it is, and heed the vital message it delivers to all of us, afflicted or not. Nature is NOT benevolent. It is impartial. Its only criterion is viability within your system, whether you are a cell or a human. If you ignore the greater context in which you live you die.
Cancer on the largest scale may be the planet’s house cleaning.
I was going to write an essay embroidering on a subject that has become almost a cliché, namely that Earth is not the Planet of Man, that a visitor from another star system would probably describe earth as the planet of microbes, or maybe the planet of insects, with some passing reference to some bi-pedal primates that in the very recent past emerged a capacity for verbal and written communication and self-observation, but that are otherwise of as little interest as the three-toed sloth.
But I decided that there is a better way to illustrate the insignificance of Homo Sapiens on the evolutionary scale by simply, as they say on the radio, "doing the numbers".
Life span (time on earth) - Ratio of Homo Sapiens to the Dinosaurs:
The ratio is: 1:3,200
In other words, you could fit 3,200 complete human cycles, from barely out of Africa to astronauts in space, and do this 3,200 times, to match the time span that dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Put differently, the fact that after merely 1/3,000th of the longevity of dinosaurs we already think about the possibility of our extinction is an indication of just how tenuous our hold on life here on earth actually is.
And if that were not enough, consider that the Dinosaurs themselves were only a moderately successful experiment in evolutionary terms. Compared to an amoeba they literally came and went in the blink of an eye.
You are a unique specimen of nature’s experiments. In all of the universe’s history, in all the trillions of stars and galaxies, there has never been a single person quite like you, and there never will be. No one has the exact sequence of your DNA or your fingerprints. You are one of a kind. If you think that this is an exaggeration, consider the odds against the possibility that somewhere there might be someone remotely like you.
Recent DNA research suggests that for two people selected at random, there will be approximately 20,000 single base pair differences in just the protein coding sequences. To be extra conservative let’s ignore all the rest of the genome, and consider only half of those 20,000 differences, the half that actually changes the protein sequence, leaving 10,000 differences. We'll be even more conservative, and assume that each difference represents a choice of only 2 possible bases (e.g. either A or G; or either C or T).
Assuming a random distribution of those differences the chance of two genomes being identical is 1 in 210,000, a number incomprehensibly larger than the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in the entire universe.
It seems that the entire history of the universe has waited for you to happen, and once you are gone you will never happen again. Ever. Neither will any of the other 7 billion unique human experiments of nature that are currently inhabiting this little planet.
Think about a unique treasure, the Mona Lisa, the great pyramid of Giza, a Dead-Sea scroll. There is only one of each, and they are irreplaceable. You are a Mona Lisa, a pyramid, a scroll.
Or think of the last of an endangered species, the last Condor. Think how precious, how fragile, and how important it is. It does not matter whether the last Condor is pretty or particularly smart. It does not need a resumé. Its significance lies strictly in its uniqueness, in the fact that once it dies there will be no more of its kind. You are just as unique. You are an endangered species of one.
How would you treat the last of a species? Would you harm it, torment or insult it? The next time you mutter to yourself: "There you go again you fat ugly moron", or the next time you abuse your body to gain a bit more respect or a bit more money, think of that Condor.
I am not talking about love here. You don't need to love that last Condor. What you need is to treasure, respect, and care for it. Love is an easy word to hide behind since it can mean anything you want it to mean. You can "love thy neighbor" in the name of Christ and then go slaughter that neighbor because he is a Jew, or you can pray five times a day to "Allah the Loving Merciful" and then blow up the twin towers. Given the choice I'd take "treasuring, respecting and caring for" any day over "love".
Once you learn not to harm yourself, how could you then go out and harm any other such unique treasure as yourself? Would you deliberately and wantonly kill a last Condor?
The Buddhists teach that peace starts within us. If you are peaceful inside you will generate peace around you. It doesn't work the other way around. "Thou shalt not kill" has never worked precisely because it deals with the outside and ignores the inside. The seventh commandment would have been far more effective as "Thou shalt treasure thyself". Every killing has its root in disrespect for the victim, be it yourself or someone else.
You may have a hard time remembering your uniqueness because ever since you were born it has been drilled into your head that you are part of greater whole, a small part of some much larger and much more significant group. You are part of “humanity”. You are one small girl amongst all the females of the world, one white or black among all the other members of your race, an American or a German, gay or straight. You are an accountant or a plumber, a Liberal or a Conservative, a Christian or an atheist. Whatever you are, so they told you, there are millions of others just like you.
But are there? Saying that you are just a small insignificant part of a greater whole is like saying that the last Condor is just a bird. In your heart of hearts you once knew that no one was like you, yet your parents, school, and church taught you otherwise, and gradually you forgot who you were.
The story of why you agreed to trade your singular unique identity for a fabricated group identity is the sad story of human misery. The trade off was supposed to make you bigger, more powerful. “There is power in numbers” they said. Joe Shmoe is a nobody, they told you in school, but Joe Shmoe a proud American is the greatest in the world. So much so that Joe has the right, even the duty, to go half around the world and kill a whole bunch of non-Americans who have neither caused him any personal harm nor posed any real and direct threat to him.
That's power? That's greatness?
Mathematically speaking Joe Shmoe got a bum deal. As a unique individual he was far bigger than Joe the member of a group. There can be nothing bigger than one-of-a-kind. It is beyond comparison. Sometimes numbers tell a truer story than patriotic sentiments.
I do believe in reincarnation, but it is a different kind of reincarnation from the one Buddhists and Hindus believe in. It preserves nothing of the present ME, except the impersonal physical components that made me. Those molecules of my transient form, that maintained my Peter-ness while it lasted, will upon my death morph into some other form, perhaps a blade of grass, perhaps a drop of water, but no part of my temporary illusion of self will survive, none of the thoughts or experiences that came into being as a result of my transient consciousness will be present in that drop of water, because they were an integral part of the Peter who is gone.
This is not depressing!! It is glorious and real. It reaffirms the only true identity I ever had as an Earthling, being a part of this magnificent closed system, a finite set of components which keeps taking on a myriad forms, like a never ending kaleidoscope. It gets me in touch with every cell, with every atom in my body. It gives a tangible meaning to my oneness with the trees and the ocean and the clouds and the animals and the other people I love so much. And while I am in this temporary body, the experiences and thoughts are NOT an illusion. They are as real as my body, and just as transient.
But once I am dead, all these thoughts and experiences die with me, and just like a blade of grass I generously return everything to that big nourishing soup to create another something.
This relieves me of the need to invent fairytales like souls and spirits and past lives and many other illusions that we humans invent merely because we are so terrified of dying. Perhaps being OK with not leaving anything behind except the building blocks for something else is what the sages of yore meant by non-separateness.
I just finished reading a hilarious book, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. It is a very funny account of what goes on behind the scenes at NASA. I particularly liked her contention (presented with a straight face) that the first American in space was the chimp Ham (and not Alan Shepard) and the first American to orbit earth was the chimp Enos (and not John Glenn), and that the chimps went through the same rigorous training as the astronauts, and the astronauts did NOTHING more than the chimps while in space (i.e. they just sat there on top of the rocket), but the chimps did not get a ticker tape parade.
There go my youth heroes, those space cowboys with "The Right Stuff", reduced to a couple of chimps. It's disheartening to find out that one by one I am losing all my heroes, that all my heroes were either hollow puppets or else creeps; JFK as the handsome lecher that started the Vietnam War, Beethoven throwing a hot soup in the face of a waiter, Newton spending his time trying to turn lead into gold whenever he was not trying to prove that Leibnitz stole his idea of Calculus, and Jefferson just a cynical slave owner shagging his pretty slave.
I can't help feeling cheated somehow. Don't you think we need heroes, people capable of extraordinary feats that we can admire?
I live in constant fear of the next book exposing Salman Rushdie as a pedophile, or proving that the Dalai Lama is a closet Anti-Semite, or that Maurice Ravel was a kleptomaniac stealing purses from little old ladies.
Who is left?
Two cabbage butterflies alighted from a plant in my wife's garden, joined in mid air, ,and a split second later flew their separate ways. "That was a quickie" chuckled my wife.
It made me think: Do Cabbage Butterflies have a good sex life? As it turns out they probably have one better than the average human, and I say so not as an entomologist but based purely on elementary arithmetic.
The butterfly's life span is about 2 weeks
Its sexual intercourse lasts 1 second.
A human's average life span is 75 years
Human intercourse (according to Kinsey) lasts an average of 5 minutes
The ratio of a butterfly's life span to a human life span is 1 to 1,950
It follows that the butterfly's intercourse is equivalent to 1,950 seconds in human terms, or 32 minutes and 30 seconds. Quite a bit better than those 5 minutes.
But do they enjoy it?
MUSIC TEACHERS ARE OUR BEST HOPE FOR IMPROVING MATH IN OUR SCHOOLS
OK, I admit this is not likely to be supported by anyone in the education racket. No politician, superintendent, Harvard expert, or the teachers' union president would ever embarrass herself with such an irrational idea. But consider for a moment the tens of thousands of papers, conferences, and policy papers that have proposed rational solutions to our math education crisis over the past 50 years and ask yourself: “Are kids doing better in math today than they did in 1961?”. They are not, and everyone knows it. So, perhaps its time to try something unconventional, that as you'll find out is a whole lot less loopy than you might think.
Do you know why well-meaning strategies proposed by well-meaning academics from their insular ivory towers never worked? It is because the problem is not with the way math, or any other subject, is taught in schools. The problem is, and has always been, that schools do not teach children to think, and without being able to think no amount of tinkering with HOW math is taught is going to make the slightest difference.
But why music teachers? How could they improve the quality of thinking in schools where science and English and math have consistently failed? Actually, music is no better in solving the problem than any of those other disciplines. What music has though, which neither English nor math nor science have, is the general perception that it is not very important.
You read it right. Being unimportant is the key to what I am proposing.
Our schools operate under the testing paradigm, which states that a school’s funding is tied to its performance, and its performance is ascertained solely by testing its students. As we know, doing well on tests is a skill that has almost nothing to do with learning and comprehension. It is a subject all its own, and it is the ONLY subject taught these days in school. Schools that teach testing well are deemed “good schools”. Those that don’t know how to teach testing become “failing schools”. Both types have in common the fact that their students do not know how to use their intellects, how to inquire, consider, and solve problems independently. In other words they have not been taught how to think, because thinking is not a factor in multiple-choice tests. Memory is. And the school's funding and very existence is completely dependent on its students' ability to memorize and ace tests.
If you introduce into this intellectual desert a new pedagogical concept, unless it can be proven to improve the testing skills of students, and do it instantly, it will die, no matter how worthy it is.
I know what I am talking about. For three years we ran a pilot program in a Math and Music Magnet school in one of the poorest suburbs of Cleveland. Our mission was to use music and math in new ways to gradually turn students from memorizing robots into thinking human beings. The students thrived and their teachers recaptured the enthusiasm and idealism of their youth. After three years the program was axed. You know why? The math test scores did not go up quickly enough. True, the students were thinking and engaged, coming to school all pumped up, doing enthusiastic creative work. But creativity, enthusiasm, problem solving skills, are not reflected in the standardized testing. As test takers our students were only moderately successful and that was not good enough for the school to maintain its funding. End of story.
In hindsight, our biggest problem was not what we were doing nor how we were doing it. Our biggest stumbling block was the mere fact that we were teaching a core subject. Our teachers were math teachers whom we trained to deliver our curriculum. We were teaching MATH!!!!! And school administrators watch such a core curriculum like hawks. It's the math scores that are the do or die for a school.
This is where the music teacher of the future may have a leg up on a math or an English teacher. Nobody pays attention to her. Music in most public schools is the absolutely lowest priority of school administrators. The state may provide some guidelines but they have no real teeth since students are not tested on music, and even if they were, the results would not figure in the overall performance evaluation of the school. In many schools the music teacher is a glorified baby sitter, affording classroom teachers a longer lunch break. In other words, and this the key to my idea;
The music class is an unregulated island in an otherwise Orwellian environment for acing tests.
Unfortunately, what music teachers currently do is, with due respect, useless. They are well-meaning people, often working against great odds in teaching their students how to squeak on a clarinet or beat a drum. For the rest, music class will leave zero impact on the life of its students. None will take away even the most rudimentary musical skills, to say nothing of any intellectual improvement.
But music is an ideal vehicle for intellectual improvement, even though presently it is not taught as such. Of all the arts it is the closest to science and math. Historically, it was part of the Quadrivium in universities (the other three subjects being arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). Music's affinity to mathematical thinking in particular is well documented. You cannot read music without manipulating the objects on the page in your mind and then executing them on a completely different plain on your instrument. You cannot play an instrument without the capacity to form mental images of the sounds before you execute them. All these, and many more, are fundamental skills required in arithmetic, geometry, graphing, and algebra. It is not surprising that since the 1990s researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that musical activities improve spacial temporal skills in children and directly improve their math comprehension. And add to these cognitive benefits the fact that they acquired as part of the creative and enjoyable discipline of music, and you probably get where I am headed with this.
What would happen if in this barely supervised musical island, in which presumably a creative teacher could pretty well do as she or he wished with little interference from school administrators, what if that teacher was versed in in both music and mathematics? Couldn’t such a teacher take a useless curriculum aimed at teaching students to play a band instrument, badly, and turn music class into an engaging multi-disciplinary curriculum of Math and Music, and inquiry, and experimentation, an intellectual incubator that fosters curiosity and mathematical thinking? And the best part is that it could probably be done under the radar, without the pressure of testing and without Big Brother watching you.
In other words, a Math and Music curriculum, which failed under the glare of scrutiny that Math attracted in our Magnet school experiment, might have succeeded in the quiet unobserved corner of the music room.
Of course such a strategy depends on many factors. First and foremost, there must be young music teachers with an interest in mathematics and an open mind towards developing young intellects. Second, schools have to be identified in which the principal would be sympathetic to an expanded music program that would feed the intellectual capacity of students and positively impact their performance in all other areas. Such a benevolent principal would hopefully also shield our renegade music/math teacher from the preying eyes of the superintendent’s office. And third, these insurgent teachers, entering a hostile environment, often operating alone and clandestinely, would need to have a support structure. They would need an organization that would help them keep in touch with other “guerilla” math-music teachers and, more importantly, would go to bat for them and support them legally and politically.
There is no doubt that such a vision is a pie in the sky. It derives from my deep disillusionment with the public education in this country and with the government policies that regulate it. But considering all the remedies proposed and implemented in the past, and their universal failure, perhaps it is not such a crazy idea after all.
 The reason you cannot have it both ways, i.e. develop mathematical thinking and creativity AND have high testing performance is that there are only that many hours in a school day.
Ask any educated person what was the gift that Prometheus stole from the gods and brought down to earth and they’ll say Fire. But few people know about the Greek belief that there was a second gift Prometheus gave us - Hope. And, unlike fire, that one was a curse.
Hope as a curse? It may strike us at first as absurd. Isn’t hope the only thing that stands between us and despair; the thing that keeps us cheerful, optimistic, and ever so American? There is something counter-intuitive in viewing hope as undesirable, yet the Greeks weren’t alone in their dim opinion of Hope. The Buddhists (and the Hindus before them) also had bad things to say about it. To them hope, like most other human mental constructs, was a delusion, a strategy designed by our brain for the sole purpose of avoiding reality.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher, recommends that you start every day with a brief meditation on the only sure things in life:
As a morning meditation it is a pretty rude awakening I’d say. You may be inclined to soften the blow by mixing in a little bit of hope in there, perhaps hope you’ll stay young (“youthful” as the euphemism for aging goes). Maybe you’ll be the one person who lives to be 100 without ever being sick, or, who knows, maybe you’ll live forever in another dimension? Try this trick and it may make you feel better, but you will have erected a bullet-proof firewall between you and reality.
Living in hope is living in delusion. It is an opiate, an addictive drug. Hope is what fuels lotteries and Vegas and romance fantasies. It is the bedrock upon which all religions are built, and the fodder for the snake-oil merchants of the “prosperity churches” and the billion dollar industries of “Be all you can be”.
Hope perpetuates human misery by masking its symptoms, like Tylenol.
I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s morning meditation also for its humor content. Can you think of a better example for the absurdity of life? It’s hilarious. Here we have this mysterious, magnificent phenomenon of being alive, and the only things we can count on are the things we are most afraid of, getting old, getting sick, and dying. Thanks a lot. Why couldn’t life guarantee us instead happiness, or continuous health no matter what we snacked on or drank? Why couldn’t we keep life forever, right here, not in some ill-defined after-life? And not just human life either, how about making our cat or dog immortal?
What a bum deal we got.
I have no doubt that the author of life on earth was a humorist, some cosmic Mark Twain. I believe he threw Hope into the mix simply to keep the comedy going.
I am standing at the pickup counter of Peet’s Coffee, waiting for my “double-espresso-macchiato, long pull (for here, please)”. Amidst the soundscape of barrista calls and orders placed in an Italian patois at the cash register, I hear another fake Italian sound, the digitized sound of a Canzona for brass instruments by Giovanni Gabrieli piped in on the muted speakers to provide the upscale equivalent of 1960s Muzak. None of the patrons seems to notice. They are busily pawing their laptops/iPads/iPhones, oblivious to this surreal auditory mirage, a ghost, a Renaissance apparition floating in the air of a coffee shop on State street. I don’t blame them. Gabrieli himself would not have recognized his masterpiece.
We are the graveyard of great works of art. Here in our commercial paradise all immortal symphonies, paintings, and dramas find their eternal resting place, on T-shirts, ringtones, comic strips, mugs, and at Peet’s coffee shop. It’s not just Beethoven the dog or Mona Lisa with a moustache, more recent classics like Lucy in the Sky are now the ambience for buying broccoli at your local supermarket.
My espresso is still far in the future (it’s morning rush at Peet’s) so I cast my mind back to the lofty dome of the San Marco Cathedral in Venice where Gabrieli’s brass players are arrayed on the various balconies, creating their antiphonal splendor to the awe and amazement of the worshipers below. Given the choice would Gabrieli perhaps preferred the dust of history to this ignominious purgatory for his muse’s children? But then I don’t think they worried much about posterity in the 16th century. Worrying about their soul’s journey in the afterlife was work enough.
One thing though is crystal clear. The fate of all great works of art is to become back-end merchandizing. That’s our contribution to human history. There is a consolation here for mediocre artists like myself. At least our work will die along with us and never serve as the sound furnishings for lattes and broccoli.
And here finally is my espresso macchiato.
Every generation despises the music of its young. My grandparents’ idea of “good” music was the warblings of tenors in Franz Léhar’s operetta The Merry Widow, or the waltzes of Johann Strauss. My dad’s taste for the Charleston of the 20s sounded to them like “jungle music”. The opposite is not always true. Young people often take a benign outlook on their parents’ music, perhaps not in their teens but certainly as an expression of nostalgia in later years. Thus, my father although steeped in the European “jazz” music (he pronounced it “Jess”) of the likes of Django Reinhardt, he still enjoyed the sentimental crooning of tenors like Jozef Schmidt and later Mario Lanza.
When I in turn took a liking to Elvis, my parents could not fathom what a classical piano student could possibly find enticing in all this ugly “shouting and croaking”. Eventually they resolved the riddle by ascribing my taste in popular music to nothing more than rebellion, believing that I too secretly loathed it but pretended not to just to annoy them. In hindsight it’s strange that they picked on Elvis of all people, with his velvety voice and ridiculously wide vibrato, so reminiscent of the style of sentimental singing they adored. But then Jailhouse Rock wasn’t exactly The Student Prince. By the time the Beatles and Rolling Stones rolled by there was no more common ground between us, and the sad conclusion had to be drawn that “the young generation is simply going deaf”.
I was reminded of this earlier today while sitting in another coffee shop. It was a sunny day and I chose to sit outside enjoying another espresso, when the soft rock music on the speakers gave way to the most obnoxious repetitive electronic chord, incessantly repeated without change except for occasional undecipherable grunts in the background. I waited patiently for the chord to change, perhaps just modulate its loudness a bit. No such luck. Like a jack hammer or a very loud alarm clock, the chord continued hammering away at top decibels. I have no idea which Noize band it was. Perhaps the lyrics had some meaning (if you bothered to download and read them). I was never to find out any of these irrelevant questions. I left my coffee there and retreated to the safety of the honking horns of the street.
And I was painfully reminded of my dad.
As an opera buff in Vienna of the 1920s he once told me of his experience with a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne of Naxos, one of the most lyrical and melodious of the composer’s works. My dad was a member of the Claque (the people given free tickets to clap and hoot and laugh in the appropriate moments). He remembered abandoning his station and escaping the opera house after the first act of Ariadne, standing in the rain on a street corner and savoring the noise of the traffic as a relief from the cacophony he endured indoors.
No one listening to Ariadne today could possibly find any shred of cacophony in it.
It was a disturbing thought. Was it possible that the anonymous jack hammer music I just escaped (that for all I knew went platinum and won a Grammy) is as meaningful to my daughter as the Beatles were to me? Was I listening to a masterpiece like Ariadne of Naxos and it was just my calcified ears and ancient tastes that missed the point, or was the travesty truly junk? This is of course an unanswerable question. You can never tell which music will be vindicated by the passage of time.
But one thing is certain, the young people who enjoy this kind of monotonous noise have musical tastes utterly different than mine, and the gulf is unbridgeable, as was my father’s with mine and his parents’ with his.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)