Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Resilience
The list of “No’s” was a long one: no movies, popular music, jazz, dancing, jewelry, competitive sports, unsanctioned reading material, friendships with non-believers, public school, activity on the Sabbath, or skimping on tithes and offerings. This was a world where eternal salvation required keeping every jot and tittle of the law, a world of “altar calls” and renouncing the Devil who lurked behind every shrub. This was a world in which God Almighty rewarded “faith” over reason and blind obedience over thought. This was a world that could, at any moment, pitch into “The Time of the End” as depicted by the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. This was a world of control and fear.
But this was also a world where piano lessons were encouraged, and students were allowed to learn music by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms along with 4-part hymns because classical music was “harmless.” That was the most dangerous “Yes” this cult could have granted, because in a world where every thought was policed, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms taught a young piano student to think. And because that student learned to think, she found her way out of that world of “No” into a universe of color, vibrancy, and life.
Resilience is commonly considered to be an individual’s ability to be flexible under pressure, to remain optimistic in the face of failure, and to find opportunities in the darkest times. Regardless of whether these traits are innate or acquired, one thing is certain: resilience requires the ability to think. When adversity arrives, it appears as reality’s slap across the face. All the comfortable half-truths and outright lies dissolve, leaving us groundless in a world that seems to have lost all meaning. Without the ability to reason, we can’t sort fact from fiction. We can’t discern who we are and what truly matters to us. Without the ability to reason, we can’t make wise decisions, nor can we find opportunities lurking in adversity.
I know of few educational tools more powerfully suited to teaching a child to think than immersion in serious music study because it is one of the few subjects taught from childhood that turns rote and utilitarian learning upside down. Within a structured framework of absolutes—correct notes played at the correct time—music students find a world of subtle nuance that requires them to engage with the music physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Rather than being fed correct answers, students are challenged to develop the ability to find their own.
Serious music making requires us to challenge easy answers. It forces us to grapple with our limitations every time we practice, and to face our weaknesses with honesty in order to find solutions to problems. Because we make music, we work to find the truth of a passage or a work. From symbols on a page, we look for this truth in structure, in melody, in harmony, in the composer’s intentions, and, ultimately, in ourselves. We do this because we know that the technical weaknesses we gloss over in practice will become glaringly obvious in the harsh light of the concert stage. We do this because borrowed performance ideas or slapped-on interpretations lead to shallow, false performances. We do this because without a reasoned search for the truth in the music and in ourselves, we have nothing more to offer a listener than correct notes and flashy technique.
This commitment to excavating truth serves us well in our careers. Even a cursory look at music history yields stories of economic and personal hardship. Yet, music and musicians survive. In this current crisis, even technology-phobic musicians moved their performances and lessons online, set up support chat rooms on social media, and are finding ways to survive. We’re musicians. Adaptation is what we do. We’ve been training in this sort of resilience all our lives.
Of course, not all musicians are innately resilient. Everyone can cite examples of musicians who succumbed to mental illness or substance abuse. Being trained to reason and think is no guarantee that we’ll choose to do so, nor is it a guarantee that these skills will make us better or more resilient than other people, nor will it save us from bad decisions. What our musical training does offer us is training in sorting through options, acknowledging our own mistakes, and reasoning our way to better choices. The music we love and have been taught to play offers a glimpse of human truths that existed before we were born and will exist long after we die. Music may not save our souls, but it can teach us how to find true answers upon which to build our lives. The truth will set us free, but first we have to be able to capable of seeing it.
What do you do when everything you know about life is upended? What truth do you hold on to when all that you’ve taught to believe about life has been proven to be false? We’re living in a world where too many of us, like the Biblical figure Pilot, are asking “What is truth?” The fact that so many fall prey to misinformation is an indication of how badly we as a society need to train deep thinkers. The price of believing the lie is too high because all lies eventually crumble to dust, and individuals or societies who have built their lives on these lies fall apart as well. Without the ability to think, there’s little chance of surviving when a foundation of lies evaporates.
The story at the start of this article is my own, and my journey out of that upside-down religious boarding school world was one of disorientation and culture shock. When I first described the religious beliefs I was raised with to my husband, who grew up in a normal Lutheran church, he found the tenants of “the faith” so extreme that he thought I was making it all up. It’s a difficult world to describe to normal people, which is why I rarely talk about it to outsiders and haven’t chosen to write about my story until now. Other than borrowing fragments of this journey for my main character in my novel, The Waco Variations, it’s been something I’ve preferred not to dwell on because, as my 92-year-old Aunt Fran says, when you “go through Hell in gasoline underpants,” you choose to leave those memories in the past. It is because music and resilience is deeply embedded in my identity that I feel compelled to share it in this article.
When I left that religious tradition, everything I knew about the world, everything I knew about about the “god” I’d been taught to follow, and everything I thought I knew about myself and my place in life, dissolved under my feet. I learned about society like an immigrant, through TV, movies, magazines, and music. I read everything I could—from Greek mythology to Russian novels, evolution to world religions. I undid a few disastrous mistakes (and made a few new ones). I went through a deep depression. It took me years—years of lots of stops and starts. But I didn’t implode. This was in contrast to many friends who shared my background—people who succumbed to alcoholism or other forms of self-destructive behavior when they broke away from “the faith.” Others were (and some still are) consumed with conspiracy theories and extremely fringe religious beliefs. I’m convinced that I’m not more innately intelligent or resilient than my peers. The difference is, when my world proved false, I found myself standing on the shoulders of the great composers. When people ask me how I managed to find my way out of that world without blowing apart, I tell them this:
Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms taught me to think. The piano allowed me to express what I couldn’t say verbally. Classical music allowed me to play “at the doorstep of eternity”—throwing open the narrow, concrete doors of a closed religious system into a universe of timeless beauty. It healed me. Any doubt I felt, any loss I mourned, I knew that music not only accompanied me, but it had been there first. Where words failed, music remained.When the words I’d been taught proved false, music pointed me toward truth.
A longer version of this post first appeared Oregon Musician, a publication of the Oregon Music Teacher's Association. Reprinted with permission.