Writer’s Note: have always loved music. Can’t remember a time in my life when it wasn’t important to me. I was fortunate to be born into a family who considered music — in nearly all of its forms (rap, however, was not eagerly embraced) — to be critical to one’s wellbeing.
Equally important were teachers (piano, organ, band, and voice) who encouraged me to learn all I could about music — instrumental and vocal — even if there were times when those lessons and long practices seemed much too time-consuming in my young life.
In the past month, two events made me reflect on the importance of music in my life. First, I heard a presentation by Dr. Craig West, executive director of the Monroe Symphony Orchestra. Second, I learned of the death of a Louisiana (and beyond) musical icon, Dr. John.
What, you may ask, do the MSO and Dr. John have in common? More than you might think . . . GP
For the Love of Music
When I was in the fifth grade, the late Janie Bounds (known as “Miss Janie” by nearly everyone in Tensas Parish) was hired by my parents to give me piano lessons. I had begun piano in the second grade, but my father’s protracted illness and our family’s subsequent move to Kenilworth Plantation (where my mother grew up and where my grandfather still lived) caused the piano lessons to be set aside — but only temporarily. My determined mother made certain that as soon as we were settled in Tensas Parish, I would once again study piano.
My first piano teacher noticed that I had a tendency to play “by ear” and taught me using that as the starting point. Miss Janie, however, was a stickler for learning chords, playing scales, and using a metronome to be certain that the “timing” of a particular piece was perfect. Both of my teachers were excellent, even though their approaches were entirely different.
I confess that there were times when I would sit on our piano bench, feet dangling, and daydream while the metronome ticked out the hour with its perfectly spaced beats. I was not a dedicated student, even though Miss Janie was most certainly a dedicated teacher. After two years of heroic effort, Miss Janie conceded that vocal music might be the best path in music education for me.
Newellton High School Music . . .
When I began my junior high and high school years, my classmates and I were extremely fortunate to have excellent music teachers to train us. There were several vocal music teachers during those years, all who took great pains to teach us the art — and joy — of singing. I learned my vocal range (contralto, which was defined by one teacher for me as a “contrary alto”), developed a proper breathing technique, and enjoyed the great pleasure that singing in a trained group can bring.
There was only one band and orchestra leader during those years, and he was just exactly what a bunch of rural Louisiana kids needed! I suspect that we were exactly what he needed at that time in his life as well. His love for both band and orchestral music spilled over into everything he did with us. Sadly for him, there were countless times when we no doubt disappointed him. Luckily for us, he never gave up. From Paul Page I learned that the bass clarinet — an instrument I had never even seen before — was the instrument that I could make my own if I would follow his instruction. I did, and discovered that he was right.
All of those piano lessons served me well because through them I learned to “read” music and translate the notes and marks on the sheet music. Being able to read more than just a song’s lyrics put me well ahead of those who had not had any music education.
While I loved the band when we would proudly march and perform at athletic events and concerts playing familiar marches, I loved the orchestral music even more. Each spring I “lost myself” in wonderful pieces carefully selected by Mr. Page to stretch us beyond what we thought that we could do. Not only were we being challenged, we were also being exposed to music and the great composers that many of us might never have known existed. By the time I was a senior, we were playing complex arrangements that made us all proud when we played them in competitions.
Encountering Dr. John . . .
Something else happened that was to broaden my musical “horizon”. I attended my first live concert. That experience turned me into a “groupie” of Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr. — aka Dr. John, The Night Tripper.
I had never heard of Dr. John, but the idea of attending a live concert was irresistible. I did not know at the time (I was pretty naive) that “night tripper” was a reference to heroin “trips” nor did I know that Dr. John’s performance was one of his first after he was released from jail on a drug charge. Fortunately for me, my mother did not know either of these facts, either.
When Dr. John passed away recently, I knew exactly who he was and had been a fan of his music for decades. His “sound” was uniquely his own — similar in some ways to both Tom Waits and Randy Newman, but not all that much. He loved his hometown of New Orleans, and never truly got it “out of his system” no matter where he lived and performed.
While you may not be familiar with Dr. John’s music, I’ll bet nearly everyone reading this can sing one of his songs. Most don’t realize it, but the iconic Louisiana fried chicken chain Popeyes has Dr. John to thank for its famous jingle, “Love That Chicken From Popeyes”. Dr. John wrote and recorded it (singing and playing the piano) as part of Popeyes’ extremely successful advertising campaign (and I’ll bet you are singing it to yourself right now!)
Dr. John had many challenges during his 76 years, but music was the glue that kept him going. Performing seemed to be oxygen for him. “Music is a spiritual thing,” he said once. “It’s got to be part of us that comes through us and goes to the people, and then they come back to us and give us more spirit.”
I think he was right.
Whether you prefer Classical music (a music genre first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1829), Country music (a new form of American music from the South traced back to the early 1900s), R&B (music that highlighted those downturns in life backed with strong rhythms that emerged in the late 1940s), or some other kind, it really doesn’t matter. That’s part of the beauty of music — there literally is something for everyone.
The Value of Music . . .
While I listened to Dr. Craig West, executive director of the Monroe Symphony Orchestra (MSO) recently, I was particularly interested in the research that he referenced concerning the value of music education.
Frankly, all those years ago I never gave a thought to the impact that learning music history, how to sing and play, and how to appreciate music might be having on me long-term.
When Dr. West spoke about the MSO’s annual “Sound Safari” designed just for students and the accompanying “instrument petting zoo” where students could touch and try to play instruments many of them had never even seen before, I was taken back in memory to that day in the Newellton High School band room when Mr. Page opened the base clarinet case and I saw it for the very first time. When Dr. West talked about the measurable impact that participating in music has on a child’s development, I decided to delve deeper.
From my research I learned that there are quite specific benefits. According to The National Association for Music Education, the skills of memorization, pattern recognition (essential for math), increased auditory awareness, self-discipline, teamwork, spatial intelligence (also essential for math), and increased self-confidence are all tangible areas that improve when one participates in music.
The Children’s Music Workshop points out that research has found that music requires both the right and the left side of the brain — i.e., the entire brain. It literally affects the brain growth and development of children. They cite a study by the University of California that found that second graders who took music lessons scored 27% higher on proportional math and fractions exams than did their counterparts who had not had music education.
Although this research is relatively new, there are some truths about music that mankind has known for millennia.
Confucius, a Chinese philosopher living from 551-479 BC, made this observation: “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.”
Such has certainly been true in my life.