Title

Reimagining the Arts and Education

Subhead

William Schuman Scholar’s Chair Lecture, April 18, 2012

Author

Literature and Materials of Music faculty member Edward Bilous is the 2012 William Schuman Scholar’s Chair. This is the first of his two Schuman lectures.

Body

While I was preparing for this presentation, I started thinking about my first teaching job, in 1979. I was studying composition here at Juilliard, but I was also working with a class of second graders in the South Bronx as one of the very first teaching artists with the newly created Lincoln Center Institute. I’ll never forget the first day I met my students. They had just come back from a school trip to Lincoln Center to hear a performance of one of the Brandenburg Concertos. And so I asked them to tell me what they heard.

They all raised their hands with the kind of enthusiasm only second graders have. I called on one little boy who said, “we heard a concert of fast music and slow music.” Another little fellow replied, “we heard music that was loud and soft.”

Finally, a little girl who could not contain her excitement any longer stood up and called out, “we heard a concert of chamber music that was composed during the Baroque era in music history.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said. And then I asked her, “do you know when the Baroque era was?” “Yes,” she answered. “It was in January.”

Well, January has come and gone and we are well past the Classical and Romantic eras as well.

Speaking of another era, Claude Debussy once said, “the age of the airplane needs a music of its own.” He was right. And it is certainly true for our age as well. But we need more than music of our own. We need a way of educating and empowering our students so that they can meet the challenges of this extraordinary age.

We live in a world that could not have been imagined only a generation ago. It’s a world of multiple realities, instantaneous global communication, and unlimited access to a universe of ideas and information.

Young artists today need new tools to express themselves so that they can tell the unique story of their generation. It is the goal of the new Center for Innovation in the Arts to provide them with those tools and with the opportunities to share their vision with audiences around the world.

Next year we will launch a new initiative that will nurture collaborative projects and the creation of new works that use performance technology. The new center will also nurture innovative thinking in arts education. Juilliard actors, dancers, and musicians inevitably become leaders in the performing arts. They have an extraordinary opportunity to give back to their communities. It is our aim to provide them with the skills they need to be effective teachers and advocates of the arts.

I’d to like share with you some ideas on how we can transform education through the arts and by so doing, light a spark that will inspire positive change in our schools, in our culture, and in the world.

The topic of education has been in the news a lot in the past few years. Disheartening statistics that place American students far below their peers in other industrialized countries have shaken parents to the core and raised deep concern about our future.

I don’t believe that the trends we are seeing are the result of poor teaching, poor parenting or, for the most part, a lack of funding.

The challenges we face are due to a growing disconnect between the basic framework of our traditional education systems and the new realities we face in a digitally interconnected world.

Students everywhere feel this growing disconnect. They know the traditional classroom environment, an outgrowth of a 19th-century worldview, does not reflect the way we receive and process information today.

We need to expand our view of education to support the diverse range of our intelligences; to offer rich, interconnected learning experiences; and above all, to nurture creativity.

I believe the arts are the key to that transformation and that they need to be placed squarely in the center of a student’s educational experience from preschool through college.

_________

When I was in college, an anthropology professor of mine at Columbia University suggested I see an exhibition of ice age art that was at the Museum of Natural History. It was a wonderful exhibit filled with all sorts of marvelous artifacts. While wandering around, I noticed a glass display case in the corner of the hall. In that case was a flute carved from bone estimated to be 35,000 years old. Think about that— 35,000 years ago, humans had not yet developed agriculture or permanent settlements. There was no written language. Perhaps not even an organized spoken language. In that primitive time, life and death hung in the balance every day. And yet, in the midst of all the terrible challenges our ancient ancestors faced, they felt the need to make music.

The discovery of a musical instrument from that time says something profound about us. It says that making music—and all that we receive from it—is one of the basic qualities of humanity.

Perhaps music evolved as a way for people to bond and share important feelings and experiences. Or perhaps it was how the young human soul gave voice to the joy of being. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that music, as well as dance and art, played a central role in our evolution and in our survival.

Biomusicologist Nils Wallin and neurologist Bjorn Merker say that “music is a universal and multifunctional cultural behavior, and no account of human evolution is complete without an understanding of how music and dance evolved.”

Science writer Phillip Ball says, “Music is ubiquitous in human culture. We know of societies without writing and even without visual arts—but none, it seems, lack some form of music.”

The fact that music, dance, and art are present at the very earliest stages of the human story tells us something important about the way our minds work.

“When we listen to music, even casually,” Ball writes, “our brains are working awfully hard, performing clever feats of filtering, ordering, and prediction— automatically and unconsciously. Music is not simply a kind of mathematics. It is the most remarkable blend of art and science, logic and emotion, physics and psychology, known to us.”

_________

So what does all this information tell us? And how can the arts effect real change in education? First, let me take a moment to talk about how we got to where we are now.

Our education systems were shaped by a worldview developed in the 18th and 19th centuries that places primary value on scientific reasoning. This worldview asserts that all of nature functions according to a set of principles that can be understood through linear, objective thinking. It requires that we organize the world into discrete domains of study with definable sets of data that can be measured and quantified.

The great achievements attributed to science have had a profound effect on the way we view ourselves and the way we experience our lives. We tend to filter many of our experiences through the lens of scientific reasoning. When we want to know the truth we run the numbers or check the facts. We’re careful not to “let feelings or intuition get in the way of our judgment,

Our belief in scientific reasoning is so pervasive that until recently, the word intelligence referred only to mathematical and verbal abilities.

Scientific reasoning has even influenced the way we think about music. There are hundreds of books published about music theory. The logic behind music analysis has not only affected the study of music, but it also often determines the value we place on individual works.

A funny thing is happening in science, however. As scientists grapple with concepts like quantum computing and string theory, and computer designers inch toward developing artificial intelligence, they realize they need to expand their traditional ways of thinking and go beyond objective reasoning. Einstein commented on this dilemma when he said, “what we observe is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

For example, scientists have accomplished the extraordinary feat of putting a vehicle on the surface of Mars. At its furthest, Mars is 250 million miles away from earth. The Mars rover’s mission is to gather information about the environment and send it back to us. It can check for the existence of water, take samples of the soil and atmosphere, and conduct other basic tests.

But what the Mars rover cannot do is pause because an inner voice says, “Wait, slow down. There’s something special about this place that we need to pay attention to. I can’t put my finger on it but I have a feeling we should stay and look around a bit more.”

The great archeologist Richard Leaky knew how to attune himself to the environment. In 1967, while flying over Kenya, he noticed some features of the landscape that captured his attention. “There” his imagination said. “That’s where we need to look.” Sometime later he led an expedition to that area, which is known as Kubi Fora. As it turns out, the volcanic plain there yielded one of the greatest archeological finds ever, yielding reminisces from our ancestors over the previous four million years.

The kind of insight that led Leaky to make this discovery could not come to the Martian rover. It is a special human capacity. It comes when we are attentive to our diverse range of intelligences and to the unique ways we process information. Awareness can come to us as a sensation on our fingertips, a shimmering of light, a sequence of sounds, or in the way our body experiences the geometry of our environment.

For a musician, a dancer, or an actor, this level of awareness is part of a day’s work.

So, to return to the question of “how can the arts effect change in education?” I would say…

No other activity engages our diverse range of intelligences and abilities as the arts do.

In order to prepare for a performance, a cellist needs to be able to read and gather information from a complex symbol system. She needs to understand the logic behind sequences of the notes, the mathematical relationship of the intervals, and the collective harmonies that result. She has to translate that information into highly refined motor skills—the way her fingers touch the strings and the way her hand holds the bow. She needs the interpersonal skills to communicate with other musicians and the emotional intelligence to give meaning and expression to the notes. And of course, she needs great listening skills.

What is so remarkable is that all this information can be communicated back to an audience through performance. Indeed, the tremendous power of music and the important role it plays in our lives is because it speaks to us on so many levels.

The arts provide a “meta-learning experience

What all this tells us is that the arts provide a kind of meta-learning experience that taps into the most ancient part of our consciousness, but also engages our most evolved intelligences and abilities.

_________

We don’t experience life as a linear event, nor do we learn in a linear fashion. Like life itself, learning is a constantly winding road with unexpected curves and detours.

Our education systems, however, are organized like a GPS grid superimposed over a rolling landscape. The GPS system can map out with pinpoint accuracy, where you are, but it tells you nothing of the quality of the experience. You are a dot on a line, a coordinate on a grid.

We need to move beyond education systems that are organized into sequences of steps that lead to a singular destination. We don’t experience the world in a linear fashion and we shouldn’t organize our learning that way.

Learning is a long and winding road on which all things are connected.

A much better model on which to base our education systems is that of a web. A web underscores the interconnectedness of things and allows for multiple points of entry into the universe of knowledge. It encourages students to explore new pathways and discover unexpected connections that are not apparent when traveling down a straight and narrow road.

There is no end point in a web; there are only opportunities for further exploration.

Most importantly, when subjects are seen as interconnected and students are encouraged to explore, they automatically personalize their learning. Learning becomes a natural way to experience the world. And what they learn gets more deeply incorporated into their hearts and minds.

Medieval scholars understood this concept. When they gathered to create the first institution of higher learning, they chose to call them universities—places where one could find his or her connection to the universe.

Bringing the conversation back down to street level—I often use the metaphor of the Columbus Circle Subway Station, which is an entry point into a transportation web from which you can travel to any part of New York City.

So, the lesson here is that when we design the curricula of the future, we need to think of the bullet points on the page as entry points for exploration, not as steps on a straight and narrow road to a fixed destination.

 

The arts nurture creative intelligence.

The 19th-century view of education was based, in part, on the principle of information transfer. It was the job of a teacher to transfer information they possessed to the student, sometimes referred to as “the empty vessel.” The job of students was to memorize as much of that information as they could. The students with the greatest capacity for data storage usually scored best on tests. To some degree, we still quantify a student’s intellectual potential based on their storage capability.

Today, however, technology has made entire libraries of information available at our fingertips. And so, the principle of information transfer is less important. Instead, we need to shift the emphasis away from transferring information to processing it and using it creatively. Our education systems need to be repurposed so that imagining becomes more important than accumulating, and creating is valued more than consuming.

Imagining is more important than accumulating and creating is more important than consuming.

The arts offer us one of the best ways of nurturing those qualities. In a music lesson, a dance class, or a dramatic coaching, the teachers do more than transfer information, they cultivate experiences that link skills with imagination.

When information is processed through personal experience, it has greater value and gets more deeply incorporated into our hearts and minds.

To summarize, we’ve been hearing warnings about the need to prepare students for careers that do not yet exist. I believe the key to meeting that challenge is to make the arts a central part of education.

The skills required to imagine, create, and perform a work of art can be applied to any career path. The arts cultivate our diverse intelligences and help us to discover new associations and relationships. They nurture creativity and inspire us to think outside the box.

When the arts play a central role in education, students learn that authentic success requires more than information and technical skill. It requires creativity and the emotional intelligence to use those skills effectively.

The arts teach us to be attentive to the world around us. They nurture reflection, self-evaluation, communication, and co-operation.

The arts communicate our noblest thoughts, our deepest feelings, and our most treasured values.

The arts teach us that a life path is not found so much as it is forged out of our imaginations, passions, and experiences.

As communities large and small adjust to our new economic reality, the role of the arts will become even more critical to our collective well-being. A society that values the arts understands that imagining is more important that acquiring and creating is more important than consuming.

I believe we are witnessing a shift away from arts education to education through the arts. Artists today have an extraordinary opportunity to raise the awareness of the importance of the arts in our lives. It is our obligation to prepare them to become advocates of that change.

Can all this be accomplished? You bet. It all begins with a poem, a melody, or a dance.

Before I conclude this first part of my presentation I wanted to share a personal story with you.

I had an uncle who was a composer in Poland. Before World War II, he was a well-known piano teacher. One of his most gifted students was a young German man who had aspirations of becoming a concert pianist.

When the war broke out my uncle joined the resistance in a heroic attempt to gain freedom from the Nazis. In 1942 he was captured by Gestapo and imprisoned. They tortured him for weeks and eventually, gave him a mock trial with a predetermined verdict of guilty.

When he entered the courtroom, my uncle was a starved and broken man. But then something extraordinary happened. The judge ordered everyone out of the room. And when my uncle looked up at him he saw the face of his young German piano student.

The pianist/judge said to my uncle, “Jan, take my coat from the closet and hurry, go out the back door and run as fast as you can. And don’t stop until night falls.” Miraculously, my uncle survived, although he never saw his student again.

After the war, in desperate need of a job and a place to live, he joined the Polish army, where he composed music for the military band.

In 1983, I was with the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force, and I too decided to compose a piece for military band. It wasn’t very good—it sounded a little like a bad version of the theme to Rocky—but they played it beautifully and I was proud.

Years afterward, I met my uncle for the first time. Many members of the family had died long before. My mother’s first husband was killed in a refugee camp and not long after that her 5-year-old son died on a train filled with human cargo.

My uncle and I talked about how miraculous life is, and that despite the enormous distance between us, we were connected through notes and strange band instruments like a Db piccolo. I wondered later what key that 35,000 year-old flute was in.

Before I returned home, my uncle said to me that it takes courage to be an artist. But let us remember that root of the word courage is coeur, the ancient French word for heart. So to be an artist doesn’t mean we are fearless. It means we go on despite our fears because we have chosen a path with a heart. Thank-you.

While I was preparing for this presentation, I started thinking about my first teaching job, in 1979. I was studying composition here at Juilliard, but I was also working with a class of second graders in the South Bronx as one of the very first teaching artists with the newly created Lincoln Center Institute. I’ll never forget the first day I met my students. They had just come back from a school trip to Lincoln Center to hear a performance of one of the Brandenburg Concertos. And so I asked them to tell me what they heard.

They all raised their hands with the kind of enthusiasm only second graders have. I called on one little boy who said, “we heard a concert of fast music and slow music.” Another little fellow replied, “we heard music that was loud and soft.”

Finally, a little girl who could not contain her excitement any longer stood up and called out, “we heard a concert of chamber music that was composed during the Baroque era in music history.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said. And then I asked her, “do you know when the Baroque era was?” “Yes,” she answered. “It was in January.”

Well, January has come and gone and we are well past the Classical and Romantic eras as well.

Speaking of another era, Claude Debussy once said, “the age of the airplane needs a music of its own.” He was right. And it is certainly true for our age as well. But we need more than music of our own. We need a way of educating and empowering our students so that they can meet the challenges of this extraordinary age.

We live in a world that could not have been imagined only a generation ago. It’s a world of multiple realities, instantaneous global communication, and unlimited access to a universe of ideas and information.

Young artists today need new tools to express themselves so that they can tell the unique story of their generation. It is the goal of the new Center for Innovation in the Arts to provide them with those tools and with the opportunities to share their vision with audiences around the world.

Next year we will launch a new initiative that will nurture collaborative projects and the creation of new works that use performance technology. The new center will also nurture innovative thinking in arts education. Juilliard actors, dancers, and musicians inevitably become leaders in the performing arts. They have an extraordinary opportunity to give back to their communities. It is our aim to provide them with the skills they need to be effective teachers and advocates of the arts.

I’d to like share with you some ideas on how we can transform education through the arts and by so doing, light a spark that will inspire positive change in our schools, in our culture, and in the world.

The topic of education has been in the news a lot in the past few years. Disheartening statistics that place American students far below their peers in other industrialized countries have shaken parents to the core and raised deep concern about our future.

I don’t believe that the trends we are seeing are the result of poor teaching, poor parenting or, for the most part, a lack of funding.

The challenges we face are due to a growing disconnect between the basic framework of our traditional education systems and the new realities we face in a digitally interconnected world.

Students everywhere feel this growing disconnect. They know the traditional classroom environment, an outgrowth of a 19th-century worldview, does not reflect the way we receive and process information today.

We need to expand our view of education to support the diverse range of our intelligences; to offer rich, interconnected learning experiences; and above all, to nurture creativity.

I believe the arts are the key to that transformation and that they need to be placed squarely in the center of a student’s educational experience from preschool through college.

_________

When I was in college, an anthropology professor of mine at Columbia University suggested I see an exhibition of ice age art that was at the Museum of Natural History. It was a wonderful exhibit filled with all sorts of marvelous artifacts. While wandering around, I noticed a glass display case in the corner of the hall. In that case was a flute carved from bone estimated to be 35,000 years old. Think about that— 35,000 years ago, humans had not yet developed agriculture or permanent settlements. There was no written language. Perhaps not even an organized spoken language. In that primitive time, life and death hung in the balance every day. And yet, in the midst of all the terrible challenges our ancient ancestors faced, they felt the need to make music.

The discovery of a musical instrument from that time says something profound about us. It says that making music—and all that we receive from it—is one of the basic qualities of humanity.

Perhaps music evolved as a way for people to bond and share important feelings and experiences. Or perhaps it was how the young human soul gave voice to the joy of being. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that music, as well as dance and art, played a central role in our evolution and in our survival.

Biomusicologist Nils Wallin and neurologist Bjorn Merker say that “music is a universal and multifunctional cultural behavior, and no account of human evolution is complete without an understanding of how music and dance evolved.”

Science writer Phillip Ball says, “Music is ubiquitous in human culture. We know of societies without writing and even without visual arts—but none, it seems, lack some form of music.”

The fact that music, dance, and art are present at the very earliest stages of the human story tells us something important about the way our minds work.

“When we listen to music, even casually,” Ball writes, “our brains are working awfully hard, performing clever feats of filtering, ordering, and prediction— automatically and unconsciously. Music is not simply a kind of mathematics. It is the most remarkable blend of art and science, logic and emotion, physics and psychology, known to us.”

_________

So what does all this information tell us? And how can the arts effect real change in education? First, let me take a moment to talk about how we got to where we are now.

Our education systems were shaped by a worldview developed in the 18th and 19th centuries that places primary value on scientific reasoning. This worldview asserts that all of nature functions according to a set of principles that can be understood through linear, objective thinking. It requires that we organize the world into discrete domains of study with definable sets of data that can be measured and quantified.

The great achievements attributed to science have had a profound effect on the way we view ourselves and the way we experience our lives. We tend to filter many of our experiences through the lens of scientific reasoning. When we want to know the truth we run the numbers or check the facts. We’re careful not to “let feelings or intuition get in the way of our judgment,

Our belief in scientific reasoning is so pervasive that until recently, the word intelligence referred only to mathematical and verbal abilities.

Scientific reasoning has even influenced the way we think about music. There are hundreds of books published about music theory. The logic behind music analysis has not only affected the study of music, but it also often determines the value we place on individual works.

A funny thing is happening in science, however. As scientists grapple with concepts like quantum computing and string theory, and computer designers inch toward developing artificial intelligence, they realize they need to expand their traditional ways of thinking and go beyond objective reasoning. Einstein commented on this dilemma when he said, “what we observe is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

For example, scientists have accomplished the extraordinary feat of putting a vehicle on the surface of Mars. At its furthest, Mars is 250 million miles away from earth. The Mars rover’s mission is to gather information about the environment and send it back to us. It can check for the existence of water, take samples of the soil and atmosphere, and conduct other basic tests.

But what the Mars rover cannot do is pause because an inner voice says, “Wait, slow down. There’s something special about this place that we need to pay attention to. I can’t put my finger on it but I have a feeling we should stay and look around a bit more.”

The great archeologist Richard Leaky knew how to attune himself to the environment. In 1967, while flying over Kenya, he noticed some features of the landscape that captured his attention. “There” his imagination said. “That’s where we need to look.” Sometime later he led an expedition to that area, which is known as Kubi Fora. As it turns out, the volcanic plain there yielded one of the greatest archeological finds ever, yielding reminisces from our ancestors over the previous four million years.

The kind of insight that led Leaky to make this discovery could not come to the Martian rover. It is a special human capacity. It comes when we are attentive to our diverse range of intelligences and to the unique ways we process information. Awareness can come to us as a sensation on our fingertips, a shimmering of light, a sequence of sounds, or in the way our body experiences the geometry of our environment.

For a musician, a dancer, or an actor, this level of awareness is part of a day’s work.

So, to return to the question of “how can the arts effect change in education?” I would say…

No other activity engages our diverse range of intelligences and abilities as the arts do.

In order to prepare for a performance, a cellist needs to be able to read and gather information from a complex symbol system. She needs to understand the logic behind sequences of the notes, the mathematical relationship of the intervals, and the collective harmonies that result. She has to translate that information into highly refined motor skills—the way her fingers touch the strings and the way her hand holds the bow. She needs the interpersonal skills to communicate with other musicians and the emotional intelligence to give meaning and expression to the notes. And of course, she needs great listening skills.

What is so remarkable is that all this information can be communicated back to an audience through performance. Indeed, the tremendous power of music and the important role it plays in our lives is because it speaks to us on so many levels.

The arts provide a “meta-learning experience

What all this tells us is that the arts provide a kind of meta-learning experience that taps into the most ancient part of our consciousness, but also engages our most evolved intelligences and abilities.

_________

We don’t experience life as a linear event, nor do we learn in a linear fashion. Like life itself, learning is a constantly winding road with unexpected curves and detours.

Our education systems, however, are organized like a GPS grid superimposed over a rolling landscape. The GPS system can map out with pinpoint accuracy, where you are, but it tells you nothing of the quality of the experience. You are a dot on a line, a coordinate on a grid.

We need to move beyond education systems that are organized into sequences of steps that lead to a singular destination. We don’t experience the world in a linear fashion and we shouldn’t organize our learning that way.

Learning is a long and winding road on which all things are connected.

A much better model on which to base our education systems is that of a web. A web underscores the interconnectedness of things and allows for multiple points of entry into the universe of knowledge. It encourages students to explore new pathways and discover unexpected connections that are not apparent when traveling down a straight and narrow road.

There is no end point in a web; there are only opportunities for further exploration.

Most importantly, when subjects are seen as interconnected and students are encouraged to explore, they automatically personalize their learning. Learning becomes a natural way to experience the world. And what they learn gets more deeply incorporated into their hearts and minds.

Medieval scholars understood this concept. When they gathered to create the first institution of higher learning, they chose to call them universities—places where one could find his or her connection to the universe.

Bringing the conversation back down to street level—I often use the metaphor of the Columbus Circle Subway Station, which is an entry point into a transportation web from which you can travel to any part of New York City.

So, the lesson here is that when we design the curricula of the future, we need to think of the bullet points on the page as entry points for exploration, not as steps on a straight and narrow road to a fixed destination.

 

The arts nurture creative intelligence.

The 19th-century view of education was based, in part, on the principle of information transfer. It was the job of a teacher to transfer information they possessed to the student, sometimes referred to as “the empty vessel.” The job of students was to memorize as much of that information as they could. The students with the greatest capacity for data storage usually scored best on tests. To some degree, we still quantify a student’s intellectual potential based on their storage capability.

Today, however, technology has made entire libraries of information available at our fingertips. And so, the principle of information transfer is less important. Instead, we need to shift the emphasis away from transferring information to processing it and using it creatively. Our education systems need to be repurposed so that imagining becomes more important than accumulating, and creating is valued more than consuming.

Imagining is more important than accumulating and creating is more important than consuming.

The arts offer us one of the best ways of nurturing those qualities. In a music lesson, a dance class, or a dramatic coaching, the teachers do more than transfer information, they cultivate experiences that link skills with imagination.

When information is processed through personal experience, it has greater value and gets more deeply incorporated into our hearts and minds.

To summarize, we’ve been hearing warnings about the need to prepare students for careers that do not yet exist. I believe the key to meeting that challenge is to make the arts a central part of education.

The skills required to imagine, create, and perform a work of art can be applied to any career path. The arts cultivate our diverse intelligences and help us to discover new associations and relationships. They nurture creativity and inspire us to think outside the box.

When the arts play a central role in education, students learn that authentic success requires more than information and technical skill. It requires creativity and the emotional intelligence to use those skills effectively.

The arts teach us to be attentive to the world around us. They nurture reflection, self-evaluation, communication, and co-operation.

The arts communicate our noblest thoughts, our deepest feelings, and our most treasured values.

The arts teach us that a life path is not found so much as it is forged out of our imaginations, passions, and experiences.

As communities large and small adjust to our new economic reality, the role of the arts will become even more critical to our collective well-being. A society that values the arts understands that imagining is more important that acquiring and creating is more important than consuming.

I believe we are witnessing a shift away from arts education to education through the arts. Artists today have an extraordinary opportunity to raise the awareness of the importance of the arts in our lives. It is our obligation to prepare them to become advocates of that change.

Can all this be accomplished? You bet. It all begins with a poem, a melody, or a dance.

Before I conclude this first part of my presentation I wanted to share a personal story with you.

I had an uncle who was a composer in Poland. Before World War II, he was a well-known piano teacher. One of his most gifted students was a young German man who had aspirations of becoming a concert pianist.

When the war broke out my uncle joined the resistance in a heroic attempt to gain freedom from the Nazis. In 1942 he was captured by Gestapo and imprisoned. They tortured him for weeks and eventually, gave him a mock trial with a predetermined verdict of guilty.

When he entered the courtroom, my uncle was a starved and broken man. But then something extraordinary happened. The judge ordered everyone out of the room. And when my uncle looked up at him he saw the face of his young German piano student.

The pianist/judge said to my uncle, “Jan, take my coat from the closet and hurry, go out the back door and run as fast as you can. And don’t stop until night falls.” Miraculously, my uncle survived, although he never saw his student again.

After the war, in desperate need of a job and a place to live, he joined the Polish army, where he composed music for the military band.

In 1983, I was with the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force, and I too decided to compose a piece for military band. It wasn’t very good—it sounded a little like a bad version of the theme to Rocky—but they played it beautifully and I was proud.

Years afterward, I met my uncle for the first time. Many members of the family had died long before. My mother’s first husband was killed in a refugee camp and not long after that her 5-year-old son died on a train filled with human cargo.

My uncle and I talked about how miraculous life is, and that despite the enormous distance between us, we were connected through notes and strange band instruments like a Db piccolo. I wondered later what key that 35,000 year-old flute was in.

Before I returned home, my uncle said to me that it takes courage to be an artist. But let us remember that root of the word courage is coeur, the ancient French word for heart. So to be an artist doesn’t mean we are fearless. It means we go on despite our fears because we have chosen a path with a heart. Thank-you.

 

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