Why Does One Learn Singing

by Mrs. Ruth H. Barrus

Why does one learn singing? Over a century ago Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, was confronted with this question by a sensitive young boy who with two other boys was gathered around him begging for horror stories. Their appetite for horror seemed never satisfied, so Tolstoy recounted the gruesome murder of his aunt whose throat was cut by robbers. Fedka, a boy of ten, "with a tender, receptive, poetic yet daring nature, suddenly asked: 'Why does one learn singing?'" Tolstoy comments: "What made him jump from the terror of the murder to this question, heaven only knows; yet by the tone of his voice, the seriousness with which he demanded an answer, and the attentive silence of the other two, one felt that there was some vital connection between this question and our preceding talk." Tolstoy adds, "He was really asking, what is Art for? And I could not explain."

Yet Tolstoy sensed deeply that there was some strange, profound relationship between beauty and violence, between love and death, and he knew that these boys sensed it too. He studied this question throughout his life. Thirty-seven years after this experience with these boys he attempted to explain this mysterious relationship that exists between art and life in his book What Is Art.

Great writers such as Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and great musicians such as Beethoven, Bach, Bartok, and great artists such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Van Gogh have maintained for us a delicate balance between beauty and violence. Only our affluent and technological age has denied this relationship between the arts and life, and Sir Herbert Read, noted English critic and lecturer, stresses that "our society pays the toll in a mass neurosis whose symptoms are fearful despair, apathy and violence for its own sake." Beauty of expression has been substituted for violence of expression - not violence for the sake of retribution, martyrdom, or heroism - but violence for the sake of violence. Mass slaughter alternates with boredom, and, according to Read, "our reverence for life has been dulled . . . faith in life itself corrupted."

The nihilist Bakunin said "destruction is creation." Sir Herbert Read counters that it is more exactly put - - "destruction is a substitute for creation." The urge to create is deeply imbedded in our natures, and our hands are the marvelous tools of creation. Many psychologists stress that so powerful is this urge in our hands to create that if they become inactive - cease to make or shape things - they will seek to destroy. To destroy is becoming a game that many seek to play.

Destruction is increasingly becoming a substitute for creation and few cities and communities in America are free from its scars and stains. In the Newsweek Feature Service dated October 18, Peter Benchley reports that teenage gangs are deadlier than ever: ". . .they are very much alive and, true to tradition, one of their prime pastimes is making sure that members of rival gangs are very much dead. . .The kids today are more vicious, and furthermore, they're a lot better armed. . .Viciousness for its own sake is common. . .They are deep into extortion and murder. . present a greater danger to the community than the Mafia in the 20"s and 30's."

Violence has ever been with us, but we in our valley have enjoyed a maximum of isolation from it in our relatively quiet rural communities and religiously-oriented culture. Now, though, through the medium of television, it haunts our homes in a kind of repulsive attraction. We cannot escape it, and it will and is having an effect upon us, our homes, our children, our communities. Parents are echoing the confession of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo: "I don't have the answers. If someone would tell me how to stop this needless loss of life, I'd be the happiest man in the world."

And yet there is an answer, and the 10-year-old Russian boy Fedka told it to us long ago when in the throes of the horror story he asked, "why does one learn singing?" This delicate balance between beauty and violence must be restored to our natures. Creation must be substituted for destruction. Hearts must be guided to feel, not just minds to think. Hands must be trained to mold and shape significance, not throw time bombs and pull triggers.

This is our answer. The beauty found in music can help the world as it struggles to maintain a balance in life - on one side violence for the sake of violence and on the other peace and contentment that comes to the inner self.

We must learn singing! We must learn that music can restore an equilibrium to our minds, hearts, and passions - that exhilaration, hope, joy can remain our heritage.