Beauty in the Time of Pandemic

Below is a 3:30-minute video of a small but momentous occasion.  My son Aaron—a wonderful musician and talented teacher and conductor—leading the Gage Middle School orchestra, Riverside, California.  He’s been teaching there for 20 years and thousands of students. When he first got to Riverside it seemed they wanted him everywhere, and actually had him teaching both high school and middle school during a head-spinning set of years before he settled down at Gage, his first love anyway.

It’s a young and small orchestra playing in the combined middle and high school Christmas concert that didn’t happen last year for an obvious reason.  Strings are the hardest to master as individual instruments and it’s harder yet to get them to play together well, so there are errors here.  But now as 2022 begins with some of our largest surges yet, we reflect on how the pandemic has created lots of small but momentous occasions like this one.  Who knows what will happen next?  On this night, though, Live Music Was Back!  Despite the masks everyone was so excited to just be there, listening, live.

After the orchestra there’s 1:30 minutes of a group playing Larry Daehn’s arrangement of “Barbara Allen” at a festival.  It’s one of the best groups he’s ever had, Aaron says, and the sound is glorious. It’s a band, much bigger and more polished, but his small orchestra at this year’s Christmas concert will always carry that special, momentous mark the pandemic has left on so many people and occasions.  They’re playing “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” and while I doubt many Southern Californians know much about bleak winters, this group did fight through bleak pandemic challenges and played—together—for us all.

Last year NPR’s 1-A did a show called “Music Education in the Pandemic and Beyond.”  Hear the podcast and read the transcript at this link, and look at the show’s main graphic just below.  It conveys some of the challenges of teaching music during these times, a theme echoed by many, including the hosts of the Rose Parade broadcast Linda and I watched this morning.  Imagine getting a marching band ready, much of it virtually.

The transcript also links to a USA Today article called “Why music education remains essential even during Covid-19 pandemic,” a very brief summary of what reams of studies have shown about the positive effects of music education for decades.  Aaron’s union work made him a voice for these facts for several years.  It makes students better at every subject they take, promotes teamwork and better group dynamics, increases self-esteem, builds skills which span a whole lifetime, enriching us clear through old age. Etc. Etc.  Yet, of course, when budgets get tight the arts seem to suffer first.  They’re seen as add-ons to supposedly more essential things.

In 1974 the future Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker wrote “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” an essay which would become the title essay of her first collection of non-fiction prose.  Though poor, her mother made luxurious gardens wherever they lived, and Walker connects these to the arts practiced by other black women, artists who sang and wrote.  The essay helps us realize that as the arts bring to us and develop in us a sense of beauty and spirit and endurance, they aren’t add-ons at all.  They help us to survive, to be, in the first place. Without that, nothing else can matter.

It’s New Year’s Day, and this is the first article I’ll post this year.  As I do, I reflect that I list the arts first on this site’s tag line: “Arts, Diversity, Social Change…Faith.”  Yet I too struggle to find a balance.  Is there enough arts and arts education on this site?  I think not.  It’s time to resolve to do more.  The arts, and the education that leads to them, need more highlighting because the arts not only stand on their own as they bring beauty into our lives, but are also a strong, swelling undertone which builds courage in us, and a conviction that diversity, inclusion, justice, even faith, are worth struggling for because they, too, are beautiful. Thanks, Aaron and the orchestra, for a small momentous moment reminding us of all this.

Go to the main pages for Arts, Music, and Media and for GuzMusic.  My “Art, Rhythm, Intuition, and Social Change” highlights the role of art in social change, as does my talk at the memorial service for the great poet Carolyn Rodgers.  In my “Ralph Ellison: Survival Blues,” I highlight what this great writer said about how art, here the blues, is a “technique” for survival.

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