Dan Ornstein: Music As Preschool Teacher

May 16, 2013

Each year in May, my synagogue hosts the Albany Symphony Orchestra's Tiny Tots concert series for preschool, kindergarten and first grade students from across the capital region.  Over three days, Maestro David Allan Miller, the ASO's beloved conductor, demonstrates his passion for classical music and his devotion to educating young people with a varied program of famous pieces that engage kids and their teachers in serious fun.  Dressed,  as always, as the irrepressible Cowboy Dave, he and members of the orchestra lead students on a wild musical adventure of the imagination, along with a  caricatured construction foreman named Bud, who is played by a local actor. 

The story, as they tell it to each audience, is that Bud, who is hard-hatted, hard-nosed, and single-minded, has come to tear down the synagogue to make room for yet one more profitable parking lot.  Cowboy Dave tries to prevent him from doing so by arguing that there is more to life than simply putting up parking lots and making money.  He, the orchestra, and the kids introduce Bud to the beauties of great music and its capacity for making one's imagination soar, something that Bud has never experienced.  Soon enough, Bud becomes a bullfighter marching with the Toreadors from Bizet's Carmen, then a gypsy dancing wildly to the melodies of Dvorak's Hungarian Dances.  By the end of the program, Bud learns that he can enjoy great music,  use his imagination, stop seeing the world merely for its utilitarian value, and become a full human being.

Obviously, the lessons learned by Bud are really intended for the very young kids in each audience.  Miller and the ASO recognize that getting them started early on a healthy diet of classical music will help them to grow into adults with a refined sense of artistic beauty who can experience the beauty in the world and discover the beauty within themselves.  These are important educational and spiritual goals for every child.  They are even more important for children from poorer, educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, some of whom I met when I attended one of the concerts just a couple of weeks ago.  From birth, these children have fewer opportunities for personal advancement and less reason to hope than their more privileged fellow students that any of their dreams could be realized.  Uneven distribution of school tax revenues and overall community wealth, as well as deepening cuts in education budgets make their consistent access to adventures in music and the arts less certain and programs like Tiny Tots even more critical.

As I watched the antics and enjoyed the music, I sensed that Bud's lessons can also be directed in a gently polemical way at their other intended audience, the adult community responsible for children's education.  The current fierce debates about core curricula, standardized testing, teacher evaluations and Americans' competitiveness in the global market too often deflect our attention from those unquantifiable, yet equally critical goals of education.  No adequate price or statistic can be placed on a child's development of artistic sensitivity,  his engagement with new ideas, values and human experiences, and her cultivation of those creative impulses that help her to grow as a human being.  Excellence in math, science, and their applications matter a lot; I certainly do not trivialize the dire shortage of outstanding American-born scientists and engineers in our country who could put America back on top as a world leader in cutting edge scientific endeavor.  However, scientists, engineers and other professionals are only truly great when their hearts are growing as much as their heads and when they recognize that their work lies within a larger matrix of concern for human life and societal ethics.  A thriving civilization is founded not only upon teaching our young ones to imagine and build new things in the future.  We also thrive when our young ones learn to imagine a more hopeful future by listening to our literal and symbolic music, the collective wisdom of our past.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.

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