Teaching Children The Music Of The Soul

Each year in May, my synagogue hosts a concert series for preschool, kindergarten and first grade students from across our area. Our local symphony orchestra and its beloved conductor, David Alan Miller, demonstrate their passion for classical music and their devotion to educating young people with a varied program of famous pieces that engage kids and their teachers in serious fun. Dressed up as his trademark character, Cowboy Dave, Miller leads the orchestra in taking the 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 that they tell the kids is a kind of echo of Joni Mitchell’s famous song, “Big Yellow Taxi”. 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 Brahms’ 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 recognizes 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 their own neshamot, their souls. These are important educational and spiritual goals for every child. They are even more important for children from poorer neighborhoods and 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 local education budgets make their consistent access to adventures in music and the arts less certain, and programs like this concert series 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. Right now in America, a fierce debate rages about repairing education to better prepare young Americans’ entry into a shaky job market and to help America to better compete in the global market. This debate too often deflects our attention from that equally critical value of education, learning for its own sake. This is roughly equivalent to what Jewish tradition calls Torah lishmah, Torah study as a sacred act that has no ulterior or utilitarian motives attached. In his essay on this concept, the hasidic theologian, Shalom Noach Beresovsky, explores one ancient Talmudic source, Tractate Avot, chapter 6. It connects a person’ study of Torah for its own sake with outstanding spiritual and moral qualities of character that that person can acquire. These include friendship, humility, moral integrity, deep spiritual insight, and a loving, forgiving nature, among others. Commenting on the tradition’s promise of such unbounded blessings for Torah study, Beresovsky asserts that it widens a person’s perspective on life to be able to see beyond him or herself as the center of the world. In doing so, he or she cultivates a love for others and for God that someone learning for more selfish motives cannot cultivate.

Naturally, every student approaches education, whether in Torah, music, or any other subject, with mixed motives. Rabbi Beresovsky and Maestro Miller nonetheless make an excellent point that striving to learn for its own sake, and not merely to make money or be competitive, is what civilizes us and must not be lost among the myriad competing goals of education. No adequate price or statistic can be placed on a child’s development of artistic sensitivity, his engagement with spiritual ideas, moral values and human experiences, or her cultivation of those creative impulses that help her to grow as a human being. When we curtail these aspects of education in the interests of more pragmatic, skills-based goals or trimming school budgets, we run a greater risk of creating a new generation of “Buds,” highly skilled boors with dangerously narrow, self-centered world views. Whether we are teaching them to appreciate Puccini’s Tosca or God’s Torah, we thrive as a society when our young ones learn to internalize our literal and symbolic music, the collective life wisdom of our past which is the music of the soul.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.