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Music and the Child

By Herko Groot, Holland

A little boy, ten years old, wrestles with his big violoncello. He plays pitiably out of tune. At times his instrument grates and groans as to pierce to the very marrow of one's bones. This is no art. A Concerto of Haydn or a Sonata by Bach played by Casals: that is art.

But where does art come in when we listen to the whining sounds produced by this little artist? Yet . . . behold his intent pose, his compressed lips, the alertness in his eyes. Observe how his fumbling fingers, too untrained to strike immediately the right note, yet time and again unhesitatingly correct each mistake. And do you hear how at moments the tone of his instrument sounds full and mature, how in these moments his 'cello really sings? What a gleam of satisfaction then lights up the face of our young performer!

He is not a shy, quiet boy — you see this at once when you note the many scratches on his face and the tears in his trousers. But now, at this moment, he is quite other than the dare-devil known to his playmates. He has surrendered himself completely . . . surrendered to what? To the power of music. His elementary musical exercises have waked up in him something that in his ordinary life seems to be sleeping. He plays only a very simple tune — still it has melody and rhythm, the two elements which form the basis of all music. And these two magic powers hold the boy in their grip. The melody appeals to his sensitive nature, the rhythm and harmony to a higher part of his being. As he is sitting there, every time correcting his failures till at last his fingers automatically find the right place, he does not realize what is going on in him. Neither does he know what it is that presently will make him hum over and over again the obsessing rhythm when lying in his bed.

How should he know that even this simple piece of music reveals the great and beneficent power of Art — the power that urges man to attain to intrinsic spiritual harmony? How many grown-ups know that the innermost essence of music is harmony — harmony in its revealed manifestations, but even more harmony on the spiritual plane. For a chord, or even a single tone, does not exist solely on the plane of sensory perception. Behind the audible sound is hidden the inaudible music, of which the audible sound forms only the outward garment. Like all living things music too has a soul and a body.

Our little boy sits there and practises his exercises. He is "lost" in the music. The simple tune which he repeats with strained effort makes him forget his personal self which in daily life so often conflicts with the exigencies of his environment. To be sure, at the moment he tries only to improve his technique. But when he will have advanced somewhat and can concentrate his full attention on the meaning of the music, his instrument will comfort him in the difficult and sorrowful days of his life. It will also give expression to the joys and the raptures which he will experience in moments of ecstasy. By his music he will learn how to govern himself, how to put himself in harmony with the demands of daily existence, because his art will teach him to understand the power and essence of harmony. Perhaps he will find by means of his music an inner enlightenment on problems which he cannot solve intellectually.

All this and more may grow out of the tender seeds sown by the boy's efforts to master an instrument. To grow, two conditions must be fulfilled. Firstly, the seeds must be sown in the fertile soil of a soul open to musical influences. The second condition to be fulfilled, in order that the seeds produce strong plants, is careful and loving nurture. Here lies an important task for the educator. If a child shows a real tendency for music, the educator must take care to awaken in this child understanding and love for good music.

It is important always to note which kind of music is conjured in the heart of man. There is a music which tells us of the purest harmony, of sublime spiritual beauty. This music is uplifting; it ennobles; it brings happiness — for it is true music. Its power is white magic, appealing to our highest aspirations. But there is another type of music which, because of evil influences lurking behind its sounds, causes a disturbance of the emotions. It affects the psychical nature which, once appealed to, seeks ever for expression. The ill effects of this should be avoided at all costs — even though it may at times sound pleasing to the ear. In sensitive persons such music can evoke emotions of low quality, even violence or sultry sensuality. Educators should give great attention therefore to the possibilities of music. From the beginning a child should be taught that good music can be executed in perfection only if there is inner harmony in the performer.

Certainly not the audible sound-pattern, but the inaudible and immaterial harmony behind the sound and the rhythm forms the real essence of music. It is this innermost essence which acts on the child, even if it has not yet completely mastered the technique. Tuning one's soul to the essence of music forms the great educational value of musical exercise. Every time this tuning in really occurs, the child is touched directly by Art — even if Art manifests only in a little song or a simple melody. One need never doubt whether the contact is established.

Look once more at the face of our young artist with his big violoncello. Surely Art is communing with the soul of the youthful performer, even though his playing may sound horrible to the ear. But these raucous sounds will disappear, if the inner ear is opened to music.


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Consider the performers in a choral dance: they sing together though each one has his particular part, and sometimes one voice is heard while the others are silent, and each brings to the chorus something of his own. It is not enough that all lift their voices together; each must sing, choicely, his own part to the music set for him. Exactly so in the case of the Soul; there will be harmony when each faculty performs its appropriate part. — Plotinus