Learning to Take a Graceful Bow

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday June 12, 2008 - 10:47:00 AM

June is a month of final acts: graduations, performances, recitals. We’ve gone to several recitals in the last two weeks and enjoyed every one. Nothing beats the sight of a bunch of fresh-faced kids polished until they shine and on their best behavior, enjoying themselves—albeit with a bit of tension—making music or dancing. And if the music sounds good, or if the dancing delights, that’s a plus, but it isn’t really about the product, it’s about the process. 

Music teachers are miraculous. Most of them operate on a shoestring, often out of home. They’ve voluntarily taken on the burden of transmitting the common culture from their own generation to the next, and they take their job seriously. For the latest recital over the weekend one of the young musicians drew a charming program cover and the teacher added a few words of comment on the back.  

She pointed out that studies show that on average music students get higher SAT scores than their peers. That’s probably true, but is it the consequence of having studied music, or does being a better student (or at least a better test taker) also help you concentrate on learning music? 

Impossible to tell, because in the average group of recital performers and their families we’re firmly in the world of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” How could they not be, when the parents work so hard to pay for lessons, and struggle to make sure the kids get there and constantly encourage them to practice? The kids at the recitals we went to are a fortunate group. They clearly benefit from all that attention, and it’s good for them whether or not they turn out to have musical talent in the end.  

Time was, not long ago, when most children had at least some exposure to music at school. Not now, or at least not in California. You can bet that Gov. Schwarzenegger, whose sizeable fortune comes from the entertainment industry, makes sure that his four kids have their music lessons, or if he doesn’t Maria surely does. They go to private schools, of course. But what about the vast majority of California kids? As budgets get cut, school music is an easy target—any time you turn your back some eager budget balancer has axed a part of the music program, even in Berkeley, and it’s worse elsewhere.  

It’s sometimes believed that studying music, particularly European-American classical music or African-American classic jazz, is an elite pursuit. But the bouquet of faces at the recitals we went to, all shapes and colors and sizes, and the assortment of nations represented in the names on the program, many improbably hyphenated to reflect national origins separated by whole oceans and continents, indicate otherwise. It’s clear that studying music doesn’t divide people, it brings them together.  

These students all seemed to be having fun, which was not always the case for music students in the past. Even after the formal program was over on Sunday, they noodled around on the instruments just for pleasure while the adults enjoyed punch and cookies. That’s a lifetime benefit of learning to play an instrument: it’s something you can always enjoy doing, even if you never get to be a virtuoso. It beats video games hands down. 

But the final product of each year’s process, the recital performance, has a special value that’s different from just enjoying making a little music from time to time. Even if it’s not ultimately perfect, there’s nothing which quite matches the experience of working toward a goal and getting the adrenaline rush that comes with standing up in front of an audience to show how well you’ve succeeded.  

Several, perhaps most, of the students in Sunday’s recital made small missteps in their pieces, lost their place in the score perhaps, but all without exception made a gracious and almost imperceptible recovery before the end. That’s a lesson in itself.  

We don’t know whether little Hillary Rodham took music lessons when she was a girl in the Chicago suburbs. Chances are that she did, because most girls like her did in those days, and she probably participated in her share of recitals. If so, it was good preparation for the final performance she was called upon to produce on Saturday. 

When the Democratic primary race was getting off the ground, a girl of my acquaintance, a beginning music student, was asked whom she was supporting. This is a child who said “dumb Bush” when she saw him on television at 2 and a half, and had a Kerry sticker on her bedroom wall by the time she was 3. At the ripe old age of 6 she is looking forward to the next election.  

“I’m for Hillary, because I’m a girl and she’s a girl,” she said at first. But as the race progressed she was swept up in the general excitement and moved by other considerations to a more sophisticated set of criteria which eventually brought her to Obama. 

Many of us, especially those of us blessed with a predominance of daughters and granddaughters, were similarly inclined to go for “the girl” first. Even though we eventually decided that another choice was better, we wanted to see Hillary finish her run with style and grace. That’s why we were pained to see that she appeared to have lost her place in the score in the last couple of months.  

Being the first seriously credible woman candidate for president isn’t just about winning, just as playing in a recital isn’t just about becoming a professional musician. And as of Saturday’s very well-reviewed speech, it looks like Hillary’s recovered her chops just in time, not a moment too soon. Being a role model for future generations of women means showing them how to recover from the occasional mistake or even loss, not just how to win, which is much easier.  

We knew she could do that, though, didn’t we? As faithful Lake Wobegon fans, we know that not only are all of our men good-looking and all of our children above average, but all of our women are strong. Including, as we thought all along, Hillary Rodham Clinton.  



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