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In the Whirled: When the music saves you

Published: Wednesday, April 9 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

High culture has the power to humanize and enrich our lives. As much as our society might think that everything is awesome and we should just let it go, we don’t know when we will need to draw upon our own cultural reserves to save the world.

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Last week, while volunteering at my kids’ school, I heard the strains of “Let it Go” floating in from the gym. I’m sure in the past few months we’ve all endured more than our fair share of this hit song from the Disney movie “Frozen.” It’s become the mantra of every tween, the new staple at talent shows and piano recitals around the world, just as “Part of Your World” from "The Little Mermaid" was the swirly, twirly sensation when I was that age.

As I’ve heard the kids around me toggle between “Let it Go” and the hit “Everything is Awesome” from "The Lego Movie," as I’ve eyed the blockbusters at the movie theater and the obsession that is professional sports, I’ve been thinking about culture. In particular, I’ve been thinking about two New York Times articles I read recently.

The first was a recent story about a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan that assembled 100 children for a makeshift production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The second, and most compelling, story was the obituary of Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest-known survivor of the Holocaust, who attributed Chopin to saving her from the Nazi death camps of her time.

An accomplished pianist, Herz-Sommer set out to learn Chopin’s Etudes, “the set of 27 solo pieces that are some of the most technically demanding and emotionally impassioned works in the piano repertory,” according to the New York Times article.

Sent to Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Herz-Sommer was charged with playing the out-of-tune piano as part of the orchestra that performed for the prisoners and their Nazi officers.

“ ‘These concerts, the people are sitting there — old people, desolated and ill — and they came to the concerts, and this music was for them our food,’ ” Herz-Sommer told the New York Times in an earlier interview. “ ‘Through making music, we were kept alive.’ ”

Most Jews were sent from Terezin to one of the labor and death camps. In 1944, Herz-Sommer’s husband was among those sent to Auschwitz and Dachau, where he later died. Herz-Sommer, because of her concerts, was kept in Terezin with her son until the end of the war.

For them, the music literally saved their lives.

In an era of pop culture, of cotton candy tunes and pseudo-news shows, of whiz-bang movie effects and glossy-coated genre fiction, I wonder if we would be wise to look at high culture as a life-saving tool.

Here in the Twin Cities, we approve billion-dollar sports stadiums and lock out our Grammy-winning orchestra members because we don’t see the need to pay them a decent salary. Look at the fight that school districts make to keep arts in the curriculum, or at the death of the classical style of learning, so beautifully articulated in a lecture by David Brook at last year’s Aspen Ideas Festival. The waning of high culture is more than a little alarming.

At the Syrian refugee camp, the Shakespeare play brought theater to life through the words of the greatest bard the world has ever known. With a backdrop of despair and desolation, the play gave this group of refugees something to live for. It gave them a chance to empathize with these richly textured characters and put themselves into the shoes of the forsaken daughter, the fool and an impassioned king who makes a slew of ridiculous and rash decisions.

Yet even in its tragedy, the play was about more than its story.

“ ‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,’ said its director, Nawar Bulbul,” according to the New York Times article.

In the case of Herz-Sommer, high culture spared her from the camps and carried her through the accompanying grief of losing precious family members. She continued to practice the piano for hours each day up until a few years before she died.

Just as we have to fight to keep our families out of the junk food aisle, in a world of pop culture it seems a battle just to allow in the rich diet of high culture. It takes brain-power and effort. To the untrained ear and eye, it is akin to learning another language, developing a sensitivity to sound, color, texture and nuanced language.

If we want to raise children who are caring and empathetic, we would be wise to look at high culture as a sustainable influence. Last year, a study was released that showed people develop more empathy when they read literary fiction.

Again from the New York Times: “After reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”

That’s an incredible find, especially in a society that could use a decent jolt of empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.

I still remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” as a high school sophomore. I plodded through Hawthorne’s nearly incomprehensible text until I caught sight of Hester Prynne walking through the village with that red letter emblazoned to her chest. I have never lived in a Puritan town or committed adultery, but as a high school student, I connected with the horror of walking through a corridor wearing a label. It’s every teenager’s worst fear. I fell into the pages of that book and didn’t put it down until I’d finished the last, tragic sentence.

I’m sure we’ve all had those moments of standing before a great painting, of hearing a song that makes you hold your breath, of seeing a movie or reading a poem that shakes you, moves you to silence or action.

That is the power of high culture. It humanizes, broadens and enriches. As much as our society might think that everything is awesome and we should just let it go, we don’t know when we will need to draw upon our own cultural reserves to save lives.

Hopefully those reserves will be more than skin-deep.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com.

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