Mark Oppenheimer’s recent piece in The New Republic likened learning the violin to playing foosball and equates ‘pointless’ music lessons with his annual viewing of Dazed and Confused. Perhaps realizing he had missed the mark, or at the very least been misunderstood, he later wrote an apology. But his apology fails to address the faulty premise of the original article.
Mr. Oppenheimer proposes a simple test to judge the usefulness of music lessons:
“Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument.”
Maybe a few will chime in, maybe none. He’s suggesting that if we won’t do something in adulthood, we shouldn’t have our kids learn it during childhood.
Now, ask your Facebook friends if they use calculus or recite Shakespeare regularly in their adult lives. Mathematicians and english professors notwithstanding, you won’t hear much. But we wouldn’t extend his argument to math and literature, would we? Of course not, because learning calculus and Shakespeare is important not only for the content we absorb, but because it changes how we think. Only by understanding math and literature can we appreciate how science and culture evolved to their present moment. And in the sometimes painful process of learning, we develop the tools necessary to make our own contributions.
The same holds true for music. Learning an instrument is difficult and there can be no guarantee that kids will continue to play throughout their adult lives, but the process of learning music itself has value. And not just for the appreciation of music, but for the hours of practice and patience required to learn a musical instrument. Anything worth doing takes years to master, and our kids won’t come to understand that playing foosball.