Nadia Boulanger, the famous 20th-century Parisian music pedagogue, was once asked how she determined if she would accept a potential student into her studio. At this point, she was the most famous music composition instructor in the world, and students were flocking to her home in hopes of studying with her. She explained that she asks every student if they could imagine living without music. She would only accept those into her studio who could not live without music — she wanted people willing to dedicate their lives to it.
While an undergraduate music student here at the University, I have had many professors speak to me about this mystical power of music. I’ve been told of the power of music to bring people together, to allow them to overcome their prejudices and understand each other on a more human level. I’ve heard the stories of sick people cured by music, of armies on the brink of war brought together through music.
But though I have frequently heard of this power, I’ve never understood it myself. I love music — both creating it and listening to it — and I can think of nothing that I would rather spend the rest of my life doing. But I’ve also always believed that I could live without it. Though it is beautiful, it is not essential.
Music, after all, is a form of entertainment. It can be incredibly moving and immensely powerful, but it is tangibly meaningless; vibrating air columns provoking sympathetic vibrations in our inner ear canal. It has no ability to substantially change the world around us; it can only change the world we hold inside us.
So as I’ve often asked myself, could I live without music? The events of this past weekend forced me to reconsider this question and the answer that I’ve long held to it. It is not a question of biology, I now understand, but a question of humanity. Boulanger is not asking if I could sustain my own life without music, but rather if I would lose some of my humanity if I lost music.
To explain how I reached this conclusion, I first must relate my experience of the active shooter alert from this past Saturday. I play bass in the Jazz Trombone Ensemble and the Jazz Trombone Quintet. We had a concert on Saturday between 4:45 and 5:15 — right in the middle of the crisis.
The concert was in the Moore Building up on North Campus, far away from the scene of the alleged crisis. In the minutes before we walked on stage, a few members of the Trombone Ensemble began receiving messages from friends about people running from the Diag. (Others had no idea what was going on, and they would not learn what was going on until after we performed.)
At first, those of us that were aware of the situation struggled with whether we should tell our bandmates and our professor. But the University’s official alert about this had not come out yet — we had no indication that the University considered this threat to be legitimate.
As I made eye-contact with a friend shortly before we both went on stage, I could tell that he had also gotten messages about what was going on. We were both scared, concerned and horrified. Should we continue to go on stage at this point? Was it appropriate for us to continue making music in the face of this potential tragedy?
I wavered a bit, unsure whether I could possibly continue to perform in the face of this potential tragedy. My friend, however, took a minute to gather himself before striding confidently onto the stage.
After five or 10 more seconds of indecision, I realized that I had to go out and perform as well. This was no longer a performance for class credit or performance experience. This concert was a means of expressing my thoughts in a manner that words would not allow — the only means I knew of to express how I felt about this alert.
For the first time in my life, I understood the incredible power of music. At the same time, I understood why music was so vital to my life, why there was absolutely no means by which I could ever live without music. In this moment, the abstract power of music was not a weakness; it was a virtue.
I was reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s famous quote on the role of music in troubling times. “This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
I had always interpreted this quote to be an idealistic act of defiance. Making music was a means of proving to those who committed violence that they had not “won” — they had not scared musicians from continuing to make music and share with others.
But I now understand that this quote is not about defiance. It is about the awesome power of music. It is about the power to create connections between people. It is about the power to express in sound what cannot be expressed in words. And it is about the power to affect people’s emotions, to connect with them, share complex emotions with them and luxuriate in the beauty of this connection.
This is the power of music that all my professors have spoken about. This is the power that I never understood. And this is the power that Boulanger was asking her students about — the power that she believed we could not live without.