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What children can teach us about music appreciation

Editorial Staff

Violinist James Ehnes turned 40 earlier this year, and to mark the milestone he's doing a cross-Canada concert tour with pianist Andrew Armstrong. To help kick things off, we invited Ehnes to be our guest editor for a day. Below, an essay by Ehnes on the lessons we can learn from children and the way they experience music.

Ehnes will be guest host of CBC Radio 2's In Concert on Sunday, May 8. Follow our complete coverage of Ehnes's 40th birthday concert tour here.

I had the remarkable experience a few days ago at Rideau Hall of leading a group of 100 young violinists from the Ottawa area in performances of favourite student pieces. I remember these kinds of group events well from my childhood; I studied the Suzuki method, in which group performances and lessons are a major part of the curriculum. (In 1984 I attended the world Suzuki conference in Edmonton and played "Twinkle, Twinkle" with thousands of kids from across the globe.) I was reminded of the ease and joy with which young people interact with music, and struck by how magical that is to see from an adult perspective.

Why is it that this openness, this pure relationship with music, often becomes more complicated later in life?

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When my first child was born, I was fascinated by the way she responded to music. When I spoke to her as a newborn, she couldn’t understand me, but it was clear that she could tell I was trying to communicate something. When I played the violin, I saw the same response. It was an amazing reminder that music is, of course, a form of communication, a way of expressing emotion. This is something so obvious, yet too often seemingly overlooked by “mature” players who instead seem to prioritize technical precision, devotion to textual fidelity, or — and this is perhaps my biggest pet peeve — the visual presentation over the aural.

Young children have wonderfully uncomplicated opinions about music they like, and music they don’t. As we become older, we cannot help but be influenced by others’ opinions; we want to fit in, we want to belong to a certain set, to appear educated, cool, non-conformist. The motivations differ, but the result is the same: people begin to rely increasingly on other people’s opinions, rather than trusting their own instincts. This affects players as well as listeners; players fall into the trap of trying to play in a way that they think will please their teacher, their parents, or the critics, instead of focusing on communicating an emotional message.

Finding your own voice

One of the great challenges of teaching an instrument is determining when a student needs musical guidance and when it is best to let them seek their own interpretive voice. Much can be learned from a great teacher’s musicality and experience, but if a student is ever going to be able to find their true voice, it will come only after experiment and musical risk.

I have never agreed with musicians who feel they have the right to instruct audience members on how best to experience their performances. I realize that people attend concerts for different reasons, and with different expectations. While I am sometimes amazed by people’s motivations (you came to a performance of Mahler’s sixth symphony to relax after work?), I feel strongly that they have the right to experience the event however they choose, provided it doesn’t detract from the experience of others (no singing along, please).

When my daughter listens to the Mendelssohn violin concerto and hears fairies and princesses dancing, who’s to say that she is wrong? And when a musicologist hears Mozart’s mourning over his mother’s death in his A-minor piano sonata, or Shostakovich’s heroic struggle against a tyrannical regime in his fifth symphony, who’s to say that they are right?

If I do have a wish for my audiences, it is that they come to my concerts as free as possible from preconceptions and biases, and with an unencumbered desire to experience the miracle of the great music, which it is my honour to perform. You may like my playing or you may not, and you may like some pieces better than others, but if we all come to the event with the purest motivations — like the children we once were — to experience great music with an open mind, then we have done our part to ensure the continued flourishing of this amazing art form.