His clinching argument against music lessons comes in this paragraph:
As for the enduring value of music lessons, I propose an even simpler test. Go on Facebook and ask your friends to chime in if, when they were children, they took five years or more of a classical instrument. Then ask all the respondents when they last played their instrument. I tried a version of this at a dinner party recently. There were about ten adults present; I was the only one who had not played an instrument for many years as a child. All of them confessed that they never played their instrument. Whatever it was—violin, piano, saxophone—they had abandoned it. The instrument sat lonely in a closet somewhere, or in the attic of their childhood home. Or their parents off-loaded it in a tag sale years ago.There is a kind of immediate plausibility about this argument: taking music lessons takes up an awful lot of time and money when you are a kid and the "utility" of this may indeed be questionable. The thing is that you don't know that. I'm not a parent, but I imagine that part of being one is trying to help your child discover their abilities and talents. Perhaps they will show a real aptitude for something, but perhaps they won't. In which case, you need to try out a few things. Do you need five years of music lessons? Probably not, unless you really enjoy them. But I think that you might owe your child the opportunity to take a year of lessons, just to see if it takes. Some ballet might be good too. Some sports. Some instruction in drawing and painting. If you don't try, you won't know. Is this a useful endeavor? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but you don't know until you try. I can pretty well agree with this part of the article:
Now it is clearly the case that if nobody studied ballet or violin, we would have no professional orchestras or ballet companies. That would be a great loss. But for such art forms to persist, it is only necessary that the most eager and gifted students persist in their studies. I’m all for lots of children trying classical music or dance, but we no more need millions of fourth-year violin students than we need millions of fourth-year origami students.Music lessons are the best way of finding those eager and gifted students.
But I have another, more subtle, counter argument. I recently was involved in a business deal with someone I knew only slightly. I had to question a particular exchange rate that was part of the deal and when I did so, the individual reacted so strongly that I had the sense that he could bear absolutely no disagreement or even different opinion. A classic narcissist if not an actual sociopath. Some psychologists think that one in every twenty-seven people is a sociopath. Here is one non-technical definition:
Probably the most widely recognized personality disorder. A sociopath is often well liked because of their charm and high charisma, but they do not usually care about other people. They think mainly of themselves and often blame others for the things that they do. They have a complete disregard for rules and lie constantly.What is the connection with music lessons? As I said, it is subtle. As someone who taught private lessons for many years, I recognize that one of the real problems is self-confidence. Some people do not succeed simply because they don't believe they can. So building self-confidence is important. But the problem of being simply too self-centered, over-confident and unable to recognize one's own weaknesses is not actually a problem! Why is that? Well, I like to think that we have Bach to thank. I had a student who had a somewhat dissociated personality. Not a sociopath, but not one that easily related to others. He was playing a pretty substantial piece by Bach. In the lesson, after he played it through, instead of commenting, I just asked him to play it again. Then again and again. Each time it was different because he started listening to himself more and more. Playing Bach is like holding a mirror up to yourself: it is very demanding music and it almost forces you to come to terms with it. It takes you outside yourself. I suspect very, very few sociopaths take many music lessons. It is just too damaging to their egos.
If you have a mild tendency towards being a narcissist or sociopath, I suspect music lessons might be an antidote. This is just my crazy theory, but since I have started spending a lot more time in the business world, I notice more and more people I would characterize as narcissistic or sociopathic. In the music world, the only people like that I noticed were record company executives.
Now some Bach:
UPDATE: I notice that Paul Berman has also written a rebuttal to the article by Mark Oppenheimer.