“Can You Live Without Music?”

If you wanted to study with Nadia Boulanger, that was likely the first question she would ask you.

“If you can live without music then thank the Lord, and goodbye.”

Of course, this question—and its consequences—are luxuries of the private teacher. But Mlle. Boulanger was no ordinary private teacher. I rarely reflect on “what-was-it-like-to-live-back-then” scenarios, but I admit to wishing I could have spent even the briefest of time studying with her. But there is enough written about her and her classes to understand that much of what she advocated was dedication, discipline, and most of all, attentiveness.

“Life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.”

Rather than bemoaning the damage being wrought by the digital age, or getting mired in telling stories of “how things used to be”, perhaps firm-but-positive emphasis on attentiveness might set the stage for discovery in ways largely absent in the classroom today.

I agree that attentiveness isn’t really something that can be taught, at least in the sense that you cannot bestow it upon a student. But a teacher can guide a willing student, bringing attention to details that the inexperienced may not yet notice. It may be that the student has never once “tasted” what it’s like to be attentive—to notice details in things both within and without themselves—and therefore hasn’t experienced the satisfaction of learning something new. A single experience is sometimes all that it takes, and that is something which only happens within a personal, dynamic exchange of ideas. Because of this, I think dedicated educators are needed now more than ever, despite what some claim are advances and achievements in online degrees and “distance learning”.

(See this post at Orange Crate Art about intellectual disengagement in higher education.)

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6 Responses to “Can You Live Without Music?”

  1. The statement about lack of attention is great — and does it ever speak to our time. I will share it with students on Friday.

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    • Sean says:

      I think the notion of attentiveness is more meaningful than the trendier, and at times vacuous, things we hear of today, such as “mindfulness” and “being present”.

      Here is an extended quotation from Monsaingeon’s Mademoiselle:

      “It seems to me the one quality lacking in many people is attention, which, essentially, is a form of character. With some people there is such concentration that everything becomes important. While with others everything passes and is forgotten. They repeat their actions from day to day. No evolution is possible because whatever is produced immediately dissolves. Then there are people who take 20, 40, 50 years to find what they are looking for. So, before encouraging anyone, you must find out if they are capable of loving, of interesting themselves in what they are doing, whatever it may be, for its own sake. This is the fundamental distinction between people. It makes some extraordinarily active, and others what I call “sleepers”. Let the sleepers lie—there is no point in waking them up.”

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  2. In recent years, I think everything I do in my teaching is meant to develop the ability to pay attention — listening, looking, not just glancing and moving by. Attention, I think, is going to become a matter of increasing concern in this century.

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  3. Kevin says:

    That is a lovely atmospheric image of Mlle. Boulanger. There is a certain determination but softness in this image. Attentiveness is why I’m happy I draw and sketch, because very small details, that can make a huge difference to the final result, miraculously “appear”, when I’m in the “seeing” mode.

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  4. Gunther says:

    What a great statement and an amazing topic in general! I wish I were able to take part in the discussion in greater detail but unfortunately my limited English language skills prevent me from doing so. I would only like to add that I always find attentiveness – which is its own reward – a fountain for inexhaustible joie de vivre.

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  5. Sean says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

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