Make Me Feel! Make Me Understand!
By Mrs. Ruth H. Barrus
In a letter to the distinguished story writer Sherwood Anderson, a struggling, aspiring young author asked for advice - whether he should write the way he should and could write, or whether he should write the way people wanted him to so that his copy would sell, for his family was hungry and without shoes. In his return letter, Mr. Anderson told his friend that more important than food or shoes for his family was that he should "make me feel! Make me understand!"
America has been busy for many generations making things: big - then bigger cities; tall - then taller buildings; long - then longer bridges. Now we must make larger planes, bigger spacecraft, more roads, more cars, more things to buy, more things to sell - more! More! They must be bigger, shinier, costlier - things for the affluent teenagers, the commuters, the workers, the retired. Even the infant and those in kindergarten must have their "things."
Have we been so busy making "things" that we have neglected the very purpose, the very essence of life? Is the power given us to act in a world about us to be used to build only a monument of "things"? Why can't this power be aimed at the shaping of human character and human ideals to make people feel, understand, and who will serve one another?
In the midst of our creations, we suddenly have a generation who has turned against our "things" and who cry for their destruction. "All must go," the protestors shout, "to make way for a new and better civilization." In alarm our educators counsel together and ask "what went wrong?" Desperately we examine old systems and make hasty recommendations. Many propose the swing away from the consideration of education for the mass to education for the individual. The individual, they say, must be made to feel again his worth in society and understand again his important role in shaping that society toward significance. How can feeling and understanding suddenly be injected into our lives? One recommendation is that extra emphasis be placed on the liberal arts in our educational curriculum. If the liberal arts can do it, why not turn to the art that can come closest to liberating us - music.
The Greeks believed that music had various ethical qualities; that it had the power to form character. Aristotle claimed that an ethical state was a musical one. "Virtue," he says, "consists in loving and hating in the proper way, and implies, therefore, a delight in the proper emotions; but emotions of any kind are produced by melody and rhythm; therefore, by music a man becomes accustomed to feeling the right emotions." He adds that "music can be judged by its effect on character."Plato tells us "that musical training is more potent than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful. . . He praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes good and noble, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why: and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar."
Each age has had its classical reference. Maybe it is time again to examine the theories proposed by the educators in that golden age of Greece who stated that "an ethical state is a musical one," that moral character must be the prime consideration of education, and that it can best be achieved through the free expression of a harmonious soul which has been regulated by appropriate melody and rhythm. Can this be a road back to feeling and understanding?
Great music is charged with overwhelming human energy and passion, including the highest passions which accompany thought. By listening to one Beethoven symphony one can experience the concentration of the emotions of a lifetime - despair and ecstasy, defiance and acceptance, dark doubt and bright hope - all bound together with an elasticity that soars to fulfillment. Such a listening experience can leave one purged, cleansed, refined, ennobled. It is no wonder that in the year which marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, 85 percent of the literature that is performed by symphony orchestras throughout the world is that composed by this great musician.
Let us take exception with the many and say that the importance and meaning of life is not based on the things of materialism, but on the importance of making us feel, making us understand. In this same vein let us shout for all to hear, that great music packed with the energy of conflict can motivate us to a better life, a more noble life, away from crassness and unfeeling to a life where we feel and understand.