In the wake of the events in Tucson, several of my friends posted this quote to their Facebook profiles, and it gave me pause, mostly because I felt rather uncomfortable. Part of me thought, “Yes, Gabby Giffords, you are in critical condition due to a bullet through your head, so I'm going to choir practice.” Then I batted snarky, cynical Rebecca off my left shoulder (or is it my right?), and listened to the more present Rebecca who teaches too many classes and is exhausted all the time, but holds back tears every time she plays the finale of Stravinky's Firebird or Josquin’s Ave Maria for her students.
Bernstein’s statement was made after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (and if anyone can give me the exact source I’ll be indebted), and I wouldn’t be surprised if non-musicians, entrenched in their grief, might have had a mixed reaction to the statement at the time. But I hope that they took some time to really mull it over, as I have, because it has forced me to think a lot about what I do and my place in the world.
Sometimes making music and teaching music history seems terribly self-indulgent. Yes, I happen to think teaching is a very “noble profession” but at the end of the day, whose life am I saving? I’m one of those people who cringe on the airplane when they ask, “Is there a doctor on board?” because I know I’m not the kind of doctor they need. Yes, I know I have an impact, and I’m not claiming that we all have to be rushing into burning buildings for a living to have our work be meaningful. I watch my students bloom and grow over the course of a semester in ways not even remotely related to the subject matter. But sometimes it is difficult to see the value of what I do in my little flower garden, when it is such a tiny part of a global landscape that is covered in thorns.
I do believe in responding to violence with beauty, rather than hate, of course. As one of my friends noted, it isn’t a solution, certainly, but it is a response. But I think it is Bernstein’s directive to make music more “intensely” that is important here. We’ve all heard performances that are “intense” (not “tense,” mind you)---maybe you had tears in your eyes, or found yourself at a loss for words. In a way, it is a rather vague word because “intense” can have very individualized meaning. One might even argue that the alleged gunman who claimed six lives on Saturday was “intense.” But the intensity of which Bernstein speaks is so potent precisely because it DOES have the power to be beautiful, to stand up against the violence of the world and say, “I’m still here.”
So, in the end, I think Bernstein asks us to engage with beauty in a way that reaffirms its presence in the world. And I don’t think this is limited to music, or even the arts. Violence claims not only lives, but it plants seeds of further violence—especially when we are focused on being angry. Anger is important, yes…but only as a means to an end. I’m terribly angry when I think about Christina Green, and how she will never grow up to live out her potential. I’m angry when I see how our political battlefield has consumed our lives to such a degree that while Gabby Giffords fights for her life, we are screaming at each other about whose rhetoric is to blame, rather than seeing how we are all responsible for rhetoric running our lives in the first place. But that anger is intensity and I have a choice of what to do with it. I have the choice to create beauty. I have the obligation to create beauty as a musical professional. I think we all have that obligation. Every day at work is an opportunity to be generous, one that we probably don’t take as often as we should. I consider myself very lucky that what I do for a living is, for me, a large part of what it means to live. So, I choose to maintain a healthy perspective—no, teaching music history isn’t going to stop a very sick man armed with a gun from opening fire on a crowd of people. And I’m certainly not going to cloister myself away from my rights and responsibilities as a citizen to speak out against injustices and what I regard as irresponsible legislation. I am, however, going to value the opportunities I have to be intensely devoted to creating beauty, because, to borrow from Bernstein, that is the way to make our garden grow.