November 16, 2016
The Promise of the Blank Slate
Last summer, my almost-six-year-old learned how to swim. I sat at the edge of the pool, watching as he was launched forward by the instructor and managed only a few dog paddles before he was pulled aside for extra help. He tried not to cry; I peeked from behind a shrub. Later, when he stumbled, shivering, into his Stormtrooper towel, the only thing between him and quitting was the post-lesson reward from his teacher, a piece of candy clutched wetly in his hand.
Learning is hard; without willing participants, impossible.
Playing clarinet in college, I had to virtually start over and relearn a host of things I had been doing wrong. It was miserable. I sounded like a beginner, and the joy of making music was gone. What a humiliating experience, after soaring through high school on golden wings, to admit that there was so much I didn’t know.
That admission is easier for a six-year-old, much harder for an adult. But it blazes the trail for learning. From my current perspective as a teacher, I see how differently things turn out for students who know they are not yet a finished product and those who think they have nothing to learn. As Socrates said, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Which is why, I suspect, so many private music instructors keep a box of tissues in their studios. The intimate relationship we have with our students is not unlike therapy: it involves breaking down bad habits, undoing patterns, returning to a “blank slate” stage until the rebuilding begins, to become the musician, and the person, the student wants to be.
Some of you may recognize my byline from the days of the Orchestra’s tour to Cuba in 2015: thrilled to go along as a substitute musician, I also wrote blog posts for MPR. Over the subsequent 18 months, I’ve thought a lot about what made those five days the revelation that they were to every single person involved. I believe we—Cubans, Americans, musicians, board, staff, cultural contingent, management—came into the situation as blank slates. We boarded a plane that had never flown that route, touched down in a country we had never seen and that had few traces of American influence, and spent the next 100-odd hours interacting with people who had been, up to that point, as distant and foreign to us as fairy tale characters. With no expectations, no yardsticks, no barometers, we were wide-eyed and open as six-year-olds. I believe it was the childlike innocence and vulnerability in our side-by-side rehearsal that made professional and student, Cuban and American, turn to each other with honest curiosity and a true desire for mutual learning.
At turning points in history, the arts can act as a messenger, sent ahead of the document signings, as a sign of goodwill and hope for our mutual futures. And because children are the most crucial recipients of that message, there is no better way to deliver it than through arts education. That is why, with the support of Osmo Vänskä, plans are underway for a Cuban American Youth Orchestra to launch in summer 2018, supported by our friends at Classical Movements, Inc., and presenting a national tour of both the U.S. and Cuba. After the final concert, free to the Cuban public and broadcast from Havana to the United States, it is our sincerest hope that the young people part ways with lifelong friendships and music in their hearts. Because the Minnesota Orchestra dared to dream big in 2015, those of us from that trip can promise, without reservation, that it will be something these students will never forget; we can hope, without fear, that music will help us all become the humanity we hope to be.