My most recent 3 Quarks Daily piece is up: Born to Groove: Up from Mud and Back to Our Roots.
It’s about music, more specifically, children and music. I’ve been watching lots of YouTube clips about kids and music – there are tons of them, of all kinds – and decided to build a 3QD piece around them.
The piece opens with, shall we say, ordinary kids, then has a central section about prodigies, and ends with formats where children and adults can me music together on an equal basis. The central section is the longest one for various reasons, but mostly because I wanted to deal with our cultural ambivalence about musical prodigies (but, by implication, all gifted children). We admire them for their talents but we also fear and resent them for those same talents.
I deal with the issue by using two videos by TwoSetViolin, one in which they comment on videos posted of five violin prodigies and one where they perform a Paganini caprice, with virtuoso Hilary Hahn (who had been a prodigy), while they were all spinning hula hoops. I suggested that what TwoSet was able to do in this videos is, in effect, distinguish between musical skill, which the prodigies had in abundance, and moral worth. In a fiercely competitive society like ours (by which I mean primarily the United States of America, but the problem is all over the place) ability tends to collapse into moral worth. In the face of prodigies it is all too easy for people of more modest abilities to feel themselves unworthy and to then resent prodigies for that. That’s very destructive to all.
This is an issue that’s very close to me. Though I turned out to be a fairly talented musician, I certainly wasn’t a prodigy. But I was intellectually brilliant, and that was a problem, one I didn’t know how to handle. I remember when, sometime in middle school, one kid called me “Einstein.” My immediate (unvoiced) reaction was, yippie, I’m recognized. But the next day I realized it was a trap. The nickname stuck.
Years later, in my first year in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, I had my master’s thesis on “Kubla Khan” with me. That, plus my teachers’ recommendations, is what got me in. I’d analyzed the poem in a way no one had done before – I tell the story here. My teachers at Johns Hopkins recognized it as a brilliant piece of work. So did those to whom I showed it at Buffalo. During my second year I signed up for a course in modern poetry and asked the professor to read the thesis, which he was glad to do. Next week, when he returned it to me just before class began, he got down on his knees and bowed before me.
It was embarrassing for him, embarrassing for me. It didn't do anyone any good. I didn’t ask for that, certainly didn’t want it. I just wanted him to like the work I'd done and perhaps say something useful about it.
That’s one thing, talent. But talent isn't moral worth.
All Together Now
Then, once I posted the piece and I looked over it, I realized something else. In the first segment I’d posted a video of one Colt Clark, a professional musician, making music with his kids, something they’d been doing since the pandemic lockdown began. That’s one setting for music-making, one that must have been much more common in the many years before sound recordings became available.
The last segment started off with Charlie Keil and his passion for getting kids dancing and making music. What he’d really like to bring about is that every daycare center and every kindergarten devoted devote time every day for kids to dance and make music. The idea is that would blossom into self-sustaining music and dance in each local community. That’s another thing.
The third, which is very much on my mind as I wrote that piece, is what Henry Lau is doing with prodigies in Korea. I didn’t mention that in the piece itself – you can’t do everything – but my sister, Sally, introduced it into the comments. Henry Lau is a K-pop star who is a skilled pianist and violinist – he saw himself headed for a career as a classical violinist before he got tapped to become a member of a boy group. Now he’s doing videos where he works with one prodigy at a time. In effect, he becomes a performance coach. He accepts them for what they are, and then gently nudges them in new directions. He produced twelve set of videos (two with each child) in his first season (the second season had just started). Here’s a video that some of them did for him at the end of the first season:
The music was arranged by the guitarist, Sean Song.
So, we’ve got these three things: 1) music in the family, 2) music in the school and community, and 3) nurturing talented young musicians. Somehow we’ve got to get these three circles of activity connected with one another: Colt Clark, meet Charlie Keil; Charlie Keil, meet Henry Lau; Henry Lau, meet Colt Clark. Now get busy, as Arsenio Hall used to say.