Monday, 29 June 2009

Music. Martial Arts. Being renaissance men (and women)

As a parent, it’s very easy to fall into being overly protective in defense of your offspring in all the small battles that life brings. In our house one such battle has been with my eldest’s piano teacher – who feels that she isn’t showing enough commitment and has vented his frustration by telling her to find another teacher. (For fuck’s sake !) But in this case the battle points to something bigger that is a particular pet-subject for me.

She’s not one of those kids who are dragged by the ear to music lessons. She’s very into her music – of all kinds – and is constantly messing around and jamming on her own and with friends. But she is also a normal teenager with a life - and all the conflicting distractions that brings. The sort of distractions that get in the way when it comes to developing into some sort of nauseating child–prodigy. Thank fuck for that. But apparently such is the preciousness surrounding the whole piano-lessons thing that unless you are just such a one-dimensional prodigy, the view seems to be that it is not worth bothering at all.

I’ve often found exactly the same attitude in martial arts. If you are not interested in transforming yourself into the ultimate fighter or something like a secular Shaolin monk then you’re wasting your time*.

Personally I think this attitude stinks: It’s our hobbies and our interests that should define us – not our work. And having a well-rounded and broad spectrum of these interests tends to make for well-rounded individuals. There’s a myth that happiness lies in doing one thing well - that might play in a Zen fairy tale but I believe that in real life doing lots of things to varying degrees of attainment is more likely to keep you sane.

Part of the problem is that in many fields the teacher isn’t exactly a well-rounded individual themselves. If they weren’t ever a normal teenager themselves how are they now going to relate to pupils who are? Or if they don’t have to juggle work and family with their training how are they going to understand students who do?

More fundamentally, it’s a feature of our times that we are rapidly becoming spectators rather than do-ers. Once it was the norm rather than the exception to find musical instruments in the home – the rot probably started when people began to listen to the wireless. Once a man would no more leave the house without bearing some sort of weapon than he would walk around naked – that declined when we became ‘civilized’ with police forces. If you wanted to put an academic label on it you could say that it is a process of alienation.

So I'm making a plea to reverse this trend and try and get back to the idea of being renaissance men (and women). Maybe not superstars in any given field but having a go - and having fun trying. And in the meantime we’re trying to find another piano teacher.

*(As an aside the whole temple based warrior-monks thing is only one aspect of how martial arts developed. Equally important were the village schools, where a teacher, who practiced a trade to make his living, taught students in their spare time. The equivalent in the West was the yeomen longbowmen who would practice archery and other English martial arts like quarterstaff and wrestling after a day’s work. And incidentally they eventually triumphed over the full-time warriors of the knightly class).

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