Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Instruments of Mass Destruction

One of my wife's colleagues was passing through Toronto over the weekend, and had his bassoon with him. Apparently, traveling with a bassoon is not terribly common, as he reported later that the customs inspector at Pearson Airport was initially unconvinced that this odd collection of carved wood and tubing actually constituted a musical instrument. Eventually the bassoon was assembled and played, and the inspector was mollified -- although he inexplicably found the bassoon's sound to be "like a trumpet."

Now me, I found that story hysterical, but I wonder to what extent I'm in the minority on that. Music education being what it is these days, I don't doubt that someone would be mystified at the sight of a bassoon -- assembled or not. Nor does it help the ubiquity of recorded music means that for most of us, the musical experience is nearly invisible, as we usually see neither musicians nor instruments. Half the time we're lucky if we even see loudspeakers.

It wasn't always this way. Before mechanical reproduction took over, all music was live, and being able to play a musical instrument was fairly commonplace. Maybe the average concertgoer wouldn't be able to point out the bassoons in a band or orchestra, but they wouldn't be surprised to see one, either.

Were we better off then? On a global level, I think not. Technology -- whether in the realm of the recording studio or the possibilities posed by digital sampling and manipulation -- has made it much easier to get the sounds in one's head out into the world, and while there's much to recommend the technical skills required to master harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, there are also advantages to being able to conjure almost any sound or rhythmic fillip -- and not having to worry whether the bassoon can actually play that passage you've imagined.

And yet it pains me to see interest in musical instruments become a form of arcana, like knowing the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks. If only there were a place instruments could be borrowed, like books from a library! The closest I ever came to such a magical place was the band room when I was in school -- I still remember the excitement I felt when fooling around on a school-owned tuba or baritone sax. But that was before budget concerns deemed musical education unnecessary. After all, what's the point of exposing kids to bassoons or flugelhorns if they're going to grow up to become customs agents?

This is why "Peter and The Wolf" should be mandatory viewing material in all public elementary schools. To avoid such misunderstandings. :-)
Maybe I'm wrong but.. I recently just emerged from the Peel school system and music education was definately a mandatory thing... Is it different in Toronto?
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