John Laird: You don't have to be a music virtuoso to soothe the savage

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Some columns write themselves. And so it was, near the end of an excruciating week for all Americans.

Beyond Boston, radiating far even from tiny West, Texas, Americans across the land looked for ways to turn the hurt back into hope. One was Rene Rancourt, who stood before a Boston Bruins hockey crowd on Wednesday night to sing the same song he has sung for them for 35 years.

But this night was different. Shortly into "The Star-Spangled Banner," Rancourt lowered the mic and let the crowd take over. The amateur chorus -- hearts heavy from the Boston Marathon bombings two days earlier — responded with the most stirring rendition anyone could imagine.

Rancourt later told a WEEI radio audience: "I'm not sure that the people realized how much help I actually did need. It was wonderful. The sound was carrying me, lifting me up in the room. It was just something indescribable," except to say it was unprecedented in 35 years.

They came as hockey fans, but they left that arena with a new awareness of how music lifts our spirits from the depths of despair, rescues us from the vilest demons and helps us turn the hurt back into hope.

Leonard Bernstein knew this a half-century ago, during another of America's excruciating weeks. Two evenings after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic's performance of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony. (As a related local aside, it was Mahler's Fifth Symphony that was performed last weekend — exquisitely, I'm told — by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.)

Some people back in 1963 wondered if that performance had occurred too soon after the tragedy, but the day after the concert, Bernstein explained why at a United Jewish Appeal benefit. Near the end of his speech, Bernstein said: "We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art."

Bernstein closed with a reminder that was heavily circulated among social media last week: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor the spirit of John Kennedy, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind."

Thus we are reminded how the worst in some people can bring out the best in others. We rediscover how, as Bernstein explained, ignorance and hatred are overcome by learning and reason.

Lest we stifle the sounds

These life lessons about music are not absorbed by children through osmosis. The messages must be taught. The proficiencies demand practice. And yet today, music programs are dismissed by many school budget writers as optional. Especially in middle schools, the fiscal carving knife hovers menacingly over music programs. That defies logic, because middle school is when music best presents itself to the young, developing mind. Like sports, academic competitions and other so-called electives, middle school bands, choirs and orchestras show children how school is more than just a grind.

Dan Wing, president of the Washington Music Educators Association, was quoted in a recent Columbian story: "It's been proven that music students have higher SAT scores, high graduation rates, and higher reading scores." These students learn how music comforts both performer and listener. They better process the pain that pierced us last week and lingers still.

Many of the Bruins faithful last Wednesday night probably thought they couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, even if Rancourt helped them grip the pail. But when the mic was lowered, the hockey fans, collectively at least, began to sound like so many perfect-pitch operatic tenors.

Long will our hearts ache for the people of Boston and West. But the music lives within us, helping turn the hurt into hope.