Youth Power & Peace in the Music of the Spheres

Dr Jill White

BBC 3 & National Youth Orchestra

21 September 2004

Dr Jill White recently retired as Music Director of the National Schools Symphony Orchestra. Previously she was Music Director of the National Youth Orchestra of GB.

The speaker approached the subject, in an informal non-academic way, with anecdotes of her own experience of master performers and composers, who in spite of their exceptional virtuosity were, as she put it, just ordinary people. She emphasised the emotional aspects of composition and performance rather than the intellectual. She illustrated her talks with mainly contemporary and 20th century sacred music. These included:

Extracts from David Fanshawe’s ‘African Sanctus’.

Rutter/ Cambridge singers, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’.

Gregorian Chant, ‘Sanctus’.

Bryn Terfel singing Vaughn William’s ‘The Infinite Shining Light’.

Mussorgsky’s ‘A Tear Drop’.

Elgar’s ‘Pomp & Circumstance’ from 1948 Bath Festival.

Choral movement of Mahler’s Symphony no 8. ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’.

The power of music

Music is a powerful social tool. Individuals, companies and even nations (think Eurovision) buy into the image it can convey. A pastime, a marketing money-spinner and a global branding tool, music is fundamental in establishing identity, whether corporate, cultural or individual. The relentless rise in the sale of mobile phone ring-tones is just one example of how we identify and define each other and ourselves in sound. It is one of the few universals: the singing and playing of folk lullabies and of work or of war songs is worldwide and as old as the proverbial hills. Since man was able to utter sounds and imitate birds and other creatures, music has been essential to the development of homo sapiens. At our basic, most atavistic level, we need sound. Without it, our civilisation could not have developed.

Co-operation, communication, a consciousness that we are part of something collective that is greater than the sum of our individual parts: this is what marks humans out as a species. Playing in an orchestra, singing in a choir, respecting the composer’s instructions, responding to the conductor’s interpretation: these things not only lend us confidence and give us the opportunity to face challenges or overcome technical difficulties — they let us listen to other people, blend together as part of the overall sound-picture, feel the quickening pulse of the heart of what we have created. They echo and reinforce our status as part of an organic whole; remind us that we do not live in isolation, but as part of the world community.

In my opinion it is not essential that everyone has the chance to learn to play an instrument in an orchestra, though there are many educators who believe that this should be our aim. Rather, I firmly believe that everyone should be encouraged and taught how to listen to music. To be an active listener, whether on radio and CD or in concert halls and stadia, is to have a curiosity to discover. I do not deny that classical music requires a keen ear and patience: a symphony is often 600% longer than a pop song - but cricket or football matches require lots of time, too!

But more than this, I believe that ‘listening to music’ should be interpreted in the broadest possible sense. As the French proverb goes, c’est le ton qui fait la musique (it is the tone which makes the music): an understanding of tone enables us to appreciate and interpret not only conventional music, but also the music of the human voice. This is fundamental to successful communication. If we know how to modulate the voice in pitch and pace and pulse, then even the most disturbing ideas or criticisms can be delivered in a helpful, constructive way. If we want to rouse a crowd, the voice can do that too — even without amplification. It is, of course, not so much what we say, but how we say it. Seen in this light, a ‘musical’ appreciation and understanding of the voice is both a signpost of our collective humanity and a means of conveying that to others; it is an underused conduit for peace.

To achieve this understanding we need an appreciation of music’s fundamentals: of breathing so that we can control our phrasing of speech patterns; of how tone conveys emotion. It is, I believe, a common fault in our education systems that we in stiff-upper-lipped England (perhaps not the UK as a whole) are traditionally recognised for disguising our emotions; for placing importance in the cerebral and fearing to unleash the threatening forces of our emotions.

Pitch, pace and pulse: the pathway to global peace

To deny the passions that underlie, underpin, and form the foundations of our very existence is to pretend that we are not who or what we are. Surely we need to learn how to handle these passions, emotions, and visions if we are to grow to our fullest potential. To that end I am convinced that music shows us the way: its collective, communicative qualities are the ultimate expression as Brahms told a pupil — ‘music goes from the heart to the heart’.

Sound is the cement of our species — it can soothe, stir, irritate, stimulate, pacify, enrage, organise or protect us. I also include silence in this sound argument! Let us rejoice that technology has advanced in our age to bring all music to all peoples. Let us think about how it can train us to be sensitive to its shades of tone and emotion. If we listen properly, we will instinctively understand. It is not necessary to be an international pop or classical or world-music musician to understand music’s relevance and power. The only virtuosity we require is the ability to realise the true potential of sound: not so much open-mindedness as open-earedness! Above and beyond everything, we should be able to hear Pythagoras’s music of the spheres; even now, astro-physicists are using sounds and rhythms to interpret the universe!

Music is so much more than pure entertainment: it defines us as individuals and as separate, distinct societies, races and nations, and yet it holds within it the power to rise above these differences and remind us what we share. Music is a place of meeting; of learning, cross-pollination and fusion between styles and traditions. It is when the communication and understanding that music enables breaks down, that wars advance and peace recedes. This is the lesson we should teach our children.

‘Music is a powerful social tool.’

(extract published by John Catt Educational Ltd, 2004)