The Unconscious Influence of Beauty
by Nico Alvarado
They are eleven weeks into their new life as
musicians, and, improbably enough, they
“This is another piece that’s a no-frog zone.”
A roomful of sixth-graders cradling stringed instruments nods soberly at the instruction.
With practiced grace, Mr. Kolb tucks a violin under his chin and places the bow on the strings, and the students’ own bows–silently, instantly–leap to their own instruments. He pauses to remind them to “Walk up to the first note, don’t play it,” and then he slices the strings and they launch into “French Folk Song,” a Suzuki standby. The wistful little tune is made massive: twenty-five violins, violas, celli, and basses dominate the bustle of kindergarteners having lunch in the cafeteria just outside the door.
“No frog! No frog!” Mr. Kolb calls out over the music. They are eleven weeks into their new life as musicians, and, improbably enough, they sound…good.
This is what it looks like to be on the very threshold of the upper school music program at Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs. Their colleagues in the twelfth grade, who are in their seventh year of orchestra, play Mozart and Haydn and win statewide competitions. They are publics school kids; most have never had private lessons. That they are so accomplished is due not only to having excellent teachers (many of whom have doctorates and play in the philharmonic); it is born out of the school’s curriculum and culture.
Named after a classically-trained architect who moved to Colorado at the turn of the century to “take the cure” for tuberculosis, MacLaren is not a private music school nor an arts magnet school but a K-12 charter public school that works to give its students a genuinely liberal education—that is, one that liberates, sets free. Such an education, the school’s founders believed, would be incomplete if it gave unequal weight to the disciplines. So along with the copies of Locke and Rousseau and Dostoyevsky that MacLaren purchases for all its tenth graders, in addition to the computer labs equipped with MATLAB for all eleventh graders to learn programming, the school buys a stringed instrument for every single upper school student and makes music a core, non-elective course: everyone does it, all the time.
The centrality of beauty—not just its appreciation but poiesis, its making—is felt everywhere at MacLaren. One wall is lined with dozens of accomplished self-portraits done by middle schoolers in another non-elective course, studio art. In a literature classroom, the teacher frets about leading students to write towards clarity, yes, but also toward the aesthetic possibilities of an English sentence. The math team debates the right way to lead students into an understanding of mathematics as more than mere computation but as a language in its own right. If the math teachers believe that it is (and they do), then like the greatest teachers of Spanish, or Latin, or Russian, they cannot be content with proficiency. Instead, they ask themselves: “How can we immerse young people in this language? How can we lead them to fall in love with its idiosyncrasies and delights, its ability to say that which no other language can say?”
Up the hall and tucked away, Ms. McCune sings to herself in an otherwise-empty room with colorful felted squares velcroed to the floor. Her song: “The Boatman.” She is preparing for class by rehearsing the song her second graders will sing for the first time today. Although they don’t yet know it, it’s a big day for these students. Having now sung many songs containing the essential run of notes do, re, mi, today they will be introduced to the solfege do, re, mi. They have learned to hear the notes, and sing the notes, but in keeping with their program’s teachings, only now that they have mastered praxis will they learn the theory behind it. Only today will they learn to name the notes.
Such meticulous planning is fundamental to a sequenced course of study. The school’s music program and commitment to providing daily music classes doesn’t begin with the orchestra program in sixth grade. It starts at the beginning, in MacLaren’s elementary grades, where music is also a part of the core curriculum. Unlike the orchestral program in the 6-12 program, the K-5 music program is vocal, based on the Kodály concept.
Kodály’s principles are at once simple and profound. Everyone has the right to music literacy. The voice is the first and most natural human instrument. Folk music is the musical mother tongue of the child. And perhaps most fundamentally: music gives joy and is meant to be enjoyed.
It puts a stamp on the students, on the entire school. All day, children’s voices echo in the halls as they line up for music class, singing, singing, singing. All day, passing adults stop to listen, and smile.
“[We] hope that ere long it will be recognized how great is that unconscious influence of the beautiful,” wrote Thomas MacLaren, architect, in a letter from 1901, “particularly in the minds of the young in forming their tastes, and that their environment should be the best that can be obtained both from a practical and an artistic standpoint.”
Would that he could see us today.
By intentionally cultivating students’ abilities to recognize and produce beautiful artifacts–music, drawings, poetry, drama, etc.–K-12 classical education provides young people with the rudiments of a beautiful life.
As Sir Roger Scruton says in his short book on the subject, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways.
The printmaker bursts his throat telling us about light, telling us about the hillside unveiling in sequence each new day, each hour—the sun layered like paint on groves of olives or lines of dark cypress that spill, no, are quilted, diagonally across the field.
In 1877, George Eliot wrote that she believed she had coined the term “meliorism,” meaning the belief that the world tends to improve, and we can help to improve it. The word was probably in circulation before that, but she certainly drew attention to it and is always associated with it today.
With practiced grace, Mr. Kolb tucks a violin under his chin and places the bow on the strings, and the students’ own bows–silently, instantly–leap to their own instruments. He pauses to remind them to “Walk up to the first note, don’t play it,” and then he slices the strings and they launch into “French Folk Song,” a Suzuki standby.
Virtue is the flagship publication of the Great Hearts Institute. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.