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Transcending barriers through music

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

By Mark Jackson


Music has a wonderful effect on people in that it crosses all barriers. It’s a participatory activity and it is a passive activity. As a music teacher I have found that working as a collective group or a team gives an ensemble the cohesiveness that enables the music to transform them. Everyone can strive to make the music beautiful. Each player has to play his or her instrument correctly or the ensemble suffers.

I try to give my students music of different periods, styles, and cultures and the instruments that are needed to play them. I have brought in recordings of wonderful musicians of all races and cultures, who can perform a huge range of different music. Sometimes the music is specific to the culture of a particular musician. Other times the artistry of a particular musician is such that he or she can cross all cultural barriers and perform the most exquisite music in any form.


When I teach an opera course or stage an opera the rich cultural stories of a piece are intertwined with the music. An example is the story of Othello put to an opera by Verdi. The protagonist in the story is a Moor, one who is culturally and ethnically different from the other characters. The whole opera is about him and his role in society. It is about the role of prejudice, jealousy, hate, envy, power and the stigma of interracial marriage. Verdi has written music for each character in the play, brought the whole opera together and given us a lesson in tolerance and racial prejudice that is still relevant to us today.


The above example is one small way of enlightening a class through the use of music they may play some day. It is much like a literature teacher giving a course on prejudice and using a novel with a story dealing with diversity in our society. It is giving students materials they can actually use and see how it impacts on their own lives.

Music is about developing a skill and honing it to as near perfection as we can. It is taking that individual perfection and working with others to give the piece as a whole its own perfection. When one concentrates on the music everything is equal for all. The quarter notes are the same for everybody, all have to stop when the director says stop, and the dynamics have to be coordinated together. So many factors to attain an aesthetic that puts aside cultural and social differences…


When I am working with my band there is no time for racism, prejudice, or social competition. I have never experienced resistance to music because of ethnicity. Music transforms us when we listen and when we perform it.

For more about Mark Jackson read The Music Teacher.


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