Last Wednesday I went to a classical education event held on the campus of St. John’s College in Annapolis. I enjoyed a day away from my regular responsibilities, a day thinking about the classical tradition, a day amongst adults. Some parts of the presentation were better than others (the two-hour long teaching on mimetic teaching was not my favorite), but one thought has stuck with me and was brought into particular focus during the symphony concert I attended last night.
Wednesday, in a talk about the 7 Liberal Arts, Andrew Kern observed that these arts bring harmony when they’re mastered. Arithmetic teaches us to endure discord. We have to live in that tension of not knowing for a time. Eventually we understand, and then there’s harmony. He mentioned that we see this principle at work in other places in our lives as well. We have to endure discord to get to harmony. Pop music, he said, makes us lazy because the tension is resolved so quickly. We don’t have to live with it, struggle with it, try to understand it. The harmony is immediate. Instant resolution.
Last night Wayne and I went to hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Stephen Hough, pianist, played a Mendelssohn concerto and then gave us Chopin for an encore. The orchestra played Bruckner. We were close enough to see the basses tearing up their bows with the fervor of their playing. I watched the concertmaster move enthusiastically with the music and noticed that the conductor lead the entire Bruckner piece without a score. And I was jealous.
I confess that when I see someone who excels at what he does, I always wish I could do that. Exposure to greatness stirs a longing within me, to have that, do that, achieve that. Ah, my misspent youth. Why didn’t I work harder?
What a gift to be able to sit down to the piano, or with your violin, and play music of exquisite beauty. To be able to play it from memory, at any time, because it’s so deeply a part of you. What a joy to join with other musicians and offer this gift to an audience of people who think it’s time well spent.
And then I thought of Andrew’s remarks about enduring discord. The reason that these amazingly talented and skilled musicians have the privilege of enjoying this music, and offering it to the rest of us, is that they endured the discord. Literal discord! Years of practice. Years of sacrifice. I read an interview with the concertmaster; he remembered leaving half his childhood lessons in tears. Tension. Discord.
But what a reward! To have all this beautiful music stored up inside of you. To sit down and play a Chopin Nocturne, with all of its aching loveliness, anytime you want to.
Endure the discord. Push through the tension. Mastery takes time, but the harmony is worth it.