Deal with it, parents: Violin lessons are pointless

Parents who drag their children through music and dance lessons in order to give them skills for life, are wasting their time. Such lessons are pointless - but that needn't be a bad thing.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

Our daughter Rebekah, who is in second grade, takes three after-school classes every week. On Monday there is violin; on Wednesday, Hebrew; and on Thursday, ballet. One of these classes connects her to a religious tradition going back three thousand years. Two of them are pretty well pointless.

I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Pointlessness rules, as far as I am concerned. Lots of great activities have little or no point, at least beyond the fact that somebody likes to do them. My annual viewing of Dazed and Confused is pointless (it’s not as if I didn’t get all the nuance by the fifteenth time around). Candy corn is pointless. Watching local Pentecostal preachers on public-access cable is pointless. Hobbies are all the better for having no point beyond the fun they provide. Rebekah enjoys her violin and ballet classes, both after-school at New Haven’s terrific Neighborhood Music School. She loves her teachers, and she is proud when she makes progress. That’s good enough for me.

But that’s not good enough for some parents, who make claims for the utility of music and dance lessons that are, I think, unfounded and overblown. Lessons are fine, and I think it’s especially important that all public schools offer music and other arts in their curricula—both for their educational value, and so arts instruction does not become the province only of Americans who can afford to pay for after-school classes. But Americans’ emphasis on certain kinds of lessons—like ballet and classical instruments—are just accidents of history, entirely contingent. And if we look closely at why we encourage our children to study music and dance, and what the real benefits are, we will see that our children are taking the wrong lessons, and for the wrong reasons.

So why are so many children taking ballet, violin, piano? Lately, I have been asking my fellow middle-class urbanite parents that question. About dance, they say things like, “Ballet teaches them poise,” or, “Ballet helps them be graceful.” And about violin or piano they say, “It will give them a lifelong skill,” or, “They’ll always enjoy listening to music more.”

It does not take a rocket scientist, or a Juilliard-trained cellist, to see the flaws in these assertions. First, as to ballet, I propose a test. Imagine we took ten girls (or boys) who had studied ballet from the ages of five to twelve, and then quit, and mixed them in with ten girls (or boys) who had never taken dance. Let’s say that we watched these twenty tweens move around their schools for a day: around the cafeteria, the library, the gym, passing notes, sneaking out behind the middle school for a smoke, all the stuff tweens do. Does anyone really believe we could spot the ones who had spent seven years in weekly or biweekly ballet class?

I do not doubt that a ballet teacher or dance aficionado might spot some tell-tale moves—a slip into first position here or there, a certain elegance in a jump during a game of ultimate frisbee. And probably one or two of the ballet students, the best of them, really would appear more graceful than the others. But for the general mass of kids, the dance classes will not have had much impact on how they move. If you don’t believe me, then please visit a middle school in a wealthy town, watch children in the lunch line, and try to pick out which ones had studied ballet.

As for the enduring value of music lessons, I propose an even simpler test. 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. I tried a version of this at a dinner party recently. There were about ten adults present; I was the only one who had not played an instrument for many years as a child. All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago.

And the music that these friends listen to as adults—klezmer, Indigo Girls, classic rock—is in each case quite far from what their parents paid for them to study. Their studies of cello had not made them into fans of Bach. And unless I am mistaken, Shinichi Suzuki didn’t include Rush in his violin books.

Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students. We all love paper cranes, I think, but we aren’t rushing to give our children to the cause.

***

Before the twentieth century, there was a good reason for anyone to study music: If you couldn’t make the music yourself, then you would rarely hear it. Before the radio and the phonograph, any music in the house was produced by the family itself. So it made sense to play fiddle, piano, jug, whatever. And before urbanization and the automobile, most people did not have easy, regular access to concerts. Of course, small-town people could come together for occasional concerts, to play together or to hear local troupes or traveling bands. Growing up in the sticks, you still might see Shakespeare performed, and a touring opera company could bring you Mozart. But very infrequently. If music was to be a part of your daily life, it had to be homemade.

But there were other, more complicated reasons that people took up instruments, or forced their children to. As the historian Susie Steinbach writes in Understanding the Victorians, in the mid-nineteenth-century the piano, which had always been handmade and tended to reside in upper-class parlors, became an accessible, middle-class status symbol, as fit for a tradesman’s house as for Emma Woodhouse’s. “By the 1850s and 1860s many pianos were manufactured in Germany and in the United States as well as in Britain,” Steinbach writes, “and were made by machine; both changes made pianos less expensive.”

Changes in financing helped, too: The advent of the installment plan brought pianos to people who did not have vast capital. As the price of instruments dropped, music lessons became the burden of the well-bred girl, or of the girl whose parents hoped to massage some breeding into her.

By the 1880s, when the United States began filling up with unwashed immigrants, a whole class of do-gooder, piano-taught ladies believed that one way to acculturate the new immigrants was to offer them, especially the children, musical instruction. The institutions of the settlement-house movement, as it became known, offered much more than music classes; they provided instruction in English, the trades, home economics, and many arts. But music was everywhere seen as one important key to the cabinet of proper, middle-class ways.

That belief helped animate the founders of  the Educational Alliance, Henry Street Settlement, and Third Street Music School Settlement, all founded in downtown New York City between 1889 and 1894; Settlement Music School in Philadelphia (1908); the settlement houses that became Community Music Center of Boston (1910); Neighborhood House, which became New Haven’s Neighborhood Music School (1911); and the Cleveland Music School Settlement (1912). Not all of those schools were founded specifically to teach music, but even those that were not, and many like them across the country, quickly included music classes in their offerings.

The schools have stayed, even as the nationality of the immigrants has changed. At the Educational Alliance, where my wife took piano lessons as a child, the clientele used to be mainly Jewish; more recently, it’s Chinese, Latino, and much else besides. But the music classes go on, the product of a couple centuries of parents’ aspirations for their own children and others’. The schools have long grown beyond their initial mission of acculturating immigrants, and are now educating the middle-class children and grandchildren of the first waves of students.

The classes are not a bad thing. Studying music or dance over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence. But then again, studying anything over a long time teaches perseverance and can build self-confidence. There is no special virtue in knowing how to play the violin, unless you have a special gift for the violin. Otherwise, you’re learning the same valuable lessons that you’d get from karate class, or from badminton. Or from endless hours of foosball.

I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.

We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.

But I do not believe that all artistic pursuits, or all disciplines that one studies, should be judged for their usefulness. The sublimity of art is tied, after all, to its uselessness (cf. Dazed and Confused). More than anything, I want children to find pursuits, whether useful or not, that they can take with them into adulthood. For a while, a number of children in my neighborhood were taking ukulele lessons. I don’t much like the ukulele, and I think I successfully kept my daughters from knowing what their playmates were up to. But I was heartened by the whimsy of it all, and I kind of wish that the little gang of kids had stuck with it. Before too long, they might have gotten pretty good. At the very least, it might have kept them away from ballet.

As it happens, a trend like what I am advocating may be under way. My friend Noah Bloom, a trumpeter who works at Neighborhood Music School and used to be at Church Street School for Music and Art, in Lower Manhattan, told me that at Church Street there were “as many electric guitarists and young singers wanting to be Green Day or some hot pop artist as there were kids wanting to be classical pianists.” He also told me about School of Rock, a chain with dozens of franchised schools and camps, here and abroad, offering lessons geared specifically to aspiring kiddie-rockers. The School of Rock only teaches guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals, and drums. “They’re our competition,” Bloom said.

Rebekah, for her part, will continue with ballet. And violin. Periodically, we ask her if she’d like to quit, and she always says no. That’s good enough for us. If she finds a lifelong pursuit, that’s great. But if one evening, at her usual practice hour, she decides enough is enough, maybe I’ll suggest the guitar. Or maybe I’ll just ask if she wants to sit with me on the couch and watch Dazed and Confused.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com.

Studying the violin just isn't for everyone. Photograph: Stephen Shaver/Getty Images.
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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