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Dialogue of Cultures

"Towards A New Renaissance in Classical Education"

Feb. 7, 1998, Washington, DC 

Committee for Excellence in Education
Through Music

This (long) page includes the following:
Classical Music And Cognition
Classical Curriculum
Here I Stand and Sing
Mice, Music and Mazes
The Second-Year Experiment
Experimental Method
Statistical Analysis
Educated in Christian Culture -
Musical Preparation
Concert Preparation

Mrs. LaRouche's Keynote Speech
Revolution in Music Page

St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig in concert at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at their Feb. 7 1998 concert.
© EIRNS/Stuart K. Lewis

Why Classical Music Is Key to Education

by Marianna Wertz

If your son or daughter can’t read, the fault may very well lie in the type of music you listened to while rocking your child to sleep. If they are on drugs, or part of a gang, or have to be subdued with Ritalin because they “act out,” it may well be because they listen to the ‘‘music’’ of Anthrax or the Grateful Dead instead of Mozart or Beethoven.

This is the conclusion of an increasing number of studies across the nation and around the world, with children and laboratory animals, which are now gaining adherents in such disparate places as the Georgia State House and the Berlin Senate. Included here is one such study, conducted by a 17-year-old Virginia high school student, which shocked the nation in January.

David Merrell won the Virginia State Fair with his experiment, demonstrating beyond doubt that laboratory mice subjected to a daily regimen of hard-rock music became so angry and aggressive that they literally killed each other within days. On the other hand, the experiment also demonstrated the positive effects of a daily dose of Mozart: the Mozart mice improved their cognitive skills--the ability to run through a maze--over those of normal mice, at a statistically significant rate.

However, none of these studies, several of which are discussed below, has attempted to explain {why} Classical music has this powerful effect. The best the experimenters have been able to say is that Classical music appears to increase the ‘‘connections’’ in the brain which are responsible for cognitive ability.

This question was in fact among the key subjects of the Feb. 7 symposium in Washington, D.C., ‘‘Towards a New Renaissance in Classical Education,’’ at which David Merrell presented his study. In a different way, the question was answered later that day at the first-ever concert of the Thomanerchor of Leipzig, Germany in the nation’s capital, which, like the symposium, was sponsored by the Committee for Excellence in Education Through Music, of which the Schiller Institute is a part. A beautiful account of the Thomanerchor’s ‘‘Culture of Education’’ is given below.

Why Classical Music Does This

Lyndon LaRouche was recently asked to explain how the Thomanerchor, including children as young as nine years old, are able to master and flawlessly perform, within one week’s time, the most complicated Classical music.

LaRouche replied that the core of the Thomanerchor’s daily activity, is the working through of the creative discovery of a great mind, in this case, the scores of Johann Sebastian Bach or Felix Mendellsohn Bartholdy. As LaRouche explained, that principle--the mastery by a student of the original creative discoveries of the world’s great geniuses--is the essence of a Classical, humanist education, as, for instance, it was done in the schools of the Brotherhood of the Common Life in the period of the Golden Renaissance. By replicating in his own mind the creative work of discovery of an Eratosthenes, a Beethoven, or a Kepler, the student develops the capacity for creative thought himself, and can thus master even the most difficult concepts at a relatively early age.

The answer to why Classical music improves one’s cognitive abilities flows from this. The competent performance of the music of great Classical composers--i.e., one which is transparent with respect to the counterpoint and cross-voice relationships in the piece--actually has the effect of involving the listener in re-creating the work of the composer in his own mind. This is because Classical music is composed in coherence with what Kepler called the ‘‘harmony’’ of the universe, or the negentropic, creative mind of God, in whose image we are made. That it also has a salutary effect on such creatures as laboratory mice should not be surprising, since the same creative principles apply throughout all creation.

The negative effect of hard rock or atonal music results from its purposeful rejection of that coherence, and its substitution of noise for harmony.

Classical Curriculum

At the Feb. 7 symposium, Schiller Institute Chairman Helga Zepp LaRouche elaborated on this question, discussing the model education system developed in the early 19th century by Prussia’s Wilhelm von Humboldt, a close collaborator of Friedrich Schiller, which was responsible for the flowering in Germany of the greatest geniuses of art and science in the history of civilization. Schiller’s concept of the development of the ‘‘beautiful soul’’ (schoene Seele) through a Classical curriculum, was at the center of Humboldt’s education system.

Zepp LaRouche said, ‘‘Wilhelm von Humboldt was influenced very much by Friedrich Schiller, who defined, as the goal of education, beauty of character. He was fighting very much against the prevailing idea of the schools of his time, that people learn only to have a job, to learn concrete skills, so that you can do your job tomorrow in the best way. And he said this is not important, because when you first develop the beauty of the character, the beauty of the soul, and you make a person a state citizen, who takes care of the common good of the state, who has as his highest idea to be a beautiful person, then such a person can pick up any skill afterwards, as it is required. Because once the character is fully developed, these practical skills are very easy.’’

The Humboldt model, she said, included the study of areas of knowledge which are key to the development of the character, including universal history, that each student ‘‘learn in essential ways the entirety of human history up to the present point; because, he said, only a person who knows, over generations and generations, what struggles it took to accomplish our present society, and how many lives were given, how much blood was sacrificied, to arrive at the degrees of beauty and progress we have today, only such a person will value that, and out of that, take the strength to add his own, to give these things inherited by him, more richly and more broadly, to the next generations. And, only such a person has the moral foundation to be a good state citizen.’’

Humboldt also included the qualitative advances in natural science and in Classical, great art. ‘‘Because only if the pupil has at least a foundation in all the major scientific progress made, not multiple-choice learning, but rediscovering the creative act of the natural scientist in physics, in chemistry, in biology; only then does he have access to that faculty in the mind, which the great scientist, at the point of his discovery, and at the point of his creation, actualized, so that the pupil has a training of these greater faculties, himself. And, when you do that over several years of education, you can create genius, because there is no reason why every pupil can’t become a great mind, in any field.’’ Music, Classical languages (Sanskrit, Greek) and geography were also key elements of the Humboldt system, she said.

"Here I Stand and Sing!"

Helga Zepp LaRouche also reflected directly on the Thomanerchor as an educational institution. ‘‘The reason why the Thomanerchor was for me the best way to demonstrate this conception of education, is because the Thomanerchor is 800 years old. It has an unbroken tradition of 800 years! And, in the time of the Thirty Years’ War, only three children were left in the chorus, because you had the Black Death, and war, and so forth. But, nevertheless, three boys maintained the chorus. And, because this was a horrible period, they had adopted a slogan: ‘Here I stand and sing.’ I thought this was very beautiful, because it shows that great culture can give you a tremendous moral strength to go through all kinds of horrible experiences.

After seeing how the Thomanerchor are able to master a new, complicated composition in a matter of days, Zepp LaRouche said, ‘‘I came to the conclusion that, quite contrary to present ideas of outcome-based education, or the ideas of ‘attitude problems,’ and solving those with Ritalin, and making creative children dumb and stupid, that there is a completely different way that one can solve these problems. In other words, if you apply the very method of excellence, as the Thomanerchor has done it in music, you can do that in every other field. You can do it in poetry, you can do it in literature, you can do it in history, you can do it in natural science, and, in a certain sense, if you take that approach to education, all your problems disappear.’’

Music, Mice & Mazes: ‘The Classic/Rock Run’

One of the highlights of the February 7 Symposium, ‘‘Towards a New Renaissance Through Classical Education,’’ sponsored by the Committee for Excellence in Education Through Music and the Schiller Institute, was a presentation by David Merrell, a 17-year-old high school senior from Suffolk, Virginia, of a science project on the effects of rock music versus Classical music on laboratory mice. Because of the importance of the study, both its actual findings and the fact that a high-school student conducted it, we publish here a full account of David’s remarks to the symposium, together with relevant data from the study.

David devised a similar project, for the Virginia regional and state science fairs, in which he won top honors. He carried out the experiment over two years, significantly improving it in the second year. His hypothesis was that music will have an effect on the learning abilities of white male mice: Classical music will have a positive effect, whereas rock music will have a negative effect.

David Merrill, left, with Schiller Institute Founder Helga Zepp LaRouche, and Mexican Tenor Alfredo Mendoza.
© EIRNS/Stuart K. Lewis

In the first year of the project, David obtained white male mice from a local pet store, and divided them into three different groups: a Hard Rock (or heavy metal) group, which he subjected to the ‘‘music’’ of Anthrax Stomp 442. He played about 10 seconds of this CD--which is essentially pure raucous noise--at the symposium, commenting, ‘‘since we really didn’t know of any good heavy metal groups, we just went to K-Mart and asked the clerk behind the desk what’s a good heavy metal group, and she handed us this CD. After about ten seconds of listening to it, we found that that’s the one we wanted!’’

The second group was sujected to a variety of Classical music in the first-year experiment. ‘‘It didn’t matter which one, just as long as it was Classical.’’ The third group was a Control group, which was not subjected to any music.

The three groups of mice were then run through a fixed maze over four weeks. As time progressed, the mice either got faster or slower. ‘‘But the interesting thing about the first year I did this project,’’ David said, ‘‘is that I actually had to cut it short, because the heavy metal music had made these mice, who can’t understand words, just the sounds alone had made them so violent, that, within three weeks, there was only one mouse left in the rock group. ‘

It was rather interesting, because the mice, they just--they seemed to be so discontent, one with another, and they would separate themselves from the other mice. And then, they’d just turn around, and kill one of the other mice. Whereas, the Classical mice and the Control mice, they were perfectly fine with one another. They didn’t have any problems whatsoever. It was interesting.’’ David then realized that the original experiment had several flaws:

1) With only 18 mice, there weren’t enough subjects for a statistical analysis.
2) The study didn’t last long enough to gather significant data.
3) The test subjects were uncontrolled. Having been purchased from a local pet store, the genetic background of the mice, which can have an effect on the outcome of the overall project, was undetermined; and their ages and weights varied significantly.
4) The communal living conditions, particularly with the Hard Rock group, fostered aggressive behavior in the mice, as they couldn’t interact normally.
5) The music environment to which they were subjected--24 hours a day of loud (90 decibels) music--was unrealistic.

The Second-Year Experiment

David corrected these problems in the second year of the experiment, whose results he presented in full to the symposium. ‘‘I looked at these problems, and I decided that it needed a lot of work,’’ David said. He obtained 72 test subjects from Harlan Sprague Dawley Laboratories, selecting 4- to 5-week old genetically similar male white mice, weighing between 15 and 20 grams. Young mice are supposed to have the best learning potential.

He put the mice into separate five-gallon aquariums, thus eliminating the possibility of subject destruction. He gave each mouse the same amount of food, light, and water: They received 12 hours of light; and the music was kept at ten hours a day, at 70 decibels, i.e., a more moderate regimen than the first year.

He then divided the 72 mice into three different groups. The Control group listened to no music, thus simulating the normal environment of a growing mouse. In this second year, the Classical group listened to Mozart. ‘‘I had decided on Mozart,’’ David said, ‘‘because through the past year of research I had done, it seemed like Mozart was used the most in other studies done with music.’’ He continued the use of the Anthrax CD for the third study group.

David then showed the audience the cover of the Anthrax CD, commenting, ‘‘it is probably the only side of the cover that I could show that’s decent. I’m going to play you a very short excerpt from the CD, because if I made it lengthy, I don’t think anybody would stay!’’

He next played a short excerpt of the Mozart piece, ‘‘Eine Kleine Nacht Musik,’’ noting, ‘‘That was probably much more pleasant!’’

Experimental Method

David’s experimental method was as follows: Upon arrival, each mouse was individually weighed, in order to make sure that they were healthy. Throughout the rest of the project, the mice were weighed each week, to ensure that they stayed within a healthy growth curve. ‘‘If the mice were to suddenly drop in weight, the project would have to be stopped, because it was an indication of stress or sickness caused by the music,’’ David said. (See graph of growth curve--Figure 1). Even though it looks like the Hard Rock groups makes a drastic change from Week 2 to 3, David said, it still remained within the healthy growth curve.

The mice were then put into their individual cages, and given a one-week period in which to acclimate to their new environment. This allowed the mice to settle down and get comfortable with their surroundings, after which they were run through a fixed maze three times, in order to get a base starting time. After they were run through that maze the first time, they were then subjected to music for the following week, and were then run through the maze an additional three times. David continued to play the music for the next four weeks, and ran the mice through the maze three times after each week.

By the first week, David said, the mice knew the maze, or at least got a feel for it. By the fourth week, David said, ‘‘the Control and the Classical knew it very well. The Hard Rock, I hate to say, did not.’’

Figure 2 gives a data table of the average run times in seconds, as well as the weights in grams. Week One, at the top, is the baseline starting time, before the music had been started, David explained. All three groups started out pretty close to ten minutes, about 590 seconds.

Throughout the course of the four weeks, the Control group managed to get their time down to 307 seconds, which is about an average of five minutes. The Classical group managed to get their time all the way down to 106 seconds. So, compared to the normal, or the average mouse, one that listens to Classical, is above average.

The Hard Rock mice, on the other hand, {increased} their time, from ten minutes to 1,825 seconds, which is about 30 minutes. ‘‘I started to have problems with this,’’ David said, ‘‘because while running the Control and the Classical, while I did this during the early part of the school year, it was fine, because it would take me two hours or sometimes down to ten minutes, half an hour, maybe, tops, to run all the mice for the Classical. But, with the Hard Rock, by the end of the fourth week, it was taking me five and a half, six hours a day, just to run these mice. And, it was getting rather extreme!’’

Figure 3 is a graph of the run times. At the left, it shows that all three groups started pretty much at the same time. ‘‘But then,’’ David said, ‘‘by the time they’ve progressed through the weeks, the Classical decreased their time by eight and a half minutes; the Control group went up slightly, or cut off five minutes from their time. And the Hard Rock went straight for the bottom: they added 20 minutes to their time.’’

Figure 4 gives the same information in terms of a delta chart: the difference in average run times between weeks, indicating how much the mice were able to cut their times from the previous week.

Figure 5 gives the delta in graph form. It indicates clearly how the Control, between Weeks One and Two, actually did slightly better than the Classical. But then, between Weeks Two and Three and Weeks Three and Four, the Classical jumped far ahead.

Figure 6 charts the overall learning of all three mouse groups, giving a very vivid picture of just how drastic the changes were between the groups.

Statistical Analysis

David reports that, after accumulating all of the data, which was actually 852 bits, whereas the year before it was only approximately 30 bits, he took it to Michael Doviak, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, for analysis. ‘‘When I explained my project to him, and gave him the data, he decided to run three different tests,’’ David said.

The most important of these was the Tukey’s Studentized Range (HSD) Test, which looked for a statistically significant difference between the run groups, to see if it was important to even notice. A normal, statistically significant fact would be to a p value of .01. After accumulating the data and making the results, David reported, ‘‘we found that, between the Classical and Control, this was from Week Four to One, there was a p value of .01. We then ran out the numbers later, and found that it was even more significant: It went all the way to a p value of .001.’’ The difference in times between Control and Hard Rock was also found to be statistically significant, David reported, at a p value of .001. The difference between Classical and Hard Rock also proved statistically significant, at a p value of .0001.


David concluded from the experiment, that ‘‘music does indeed have an effect on the learning abilities of white male mice. Classical music has a very positive effect on their learning abilities, whereas, the hard rock music has an even greater negative effect on their learning abilities. ‘

‘Aside from the facts which I have been able to show you today, I can say, from my own view and my own opinion, from observing the mice, that it seemed not only to affect their ability to learn, but their ability to cope, one with another.’’ This was reflected even after the experiment was over, David reported.

‘‘After the second year of doing this project--as I said, I kept them separate this year, to try to eliminate the fighting--I would take all the mice to a local pet store, just to get rid of them, and give them away. And, when I did this with the Classical and the Control mice, one group at a time, I would put them into two aquariums, and take them away. That’s 24 mice in 20 gallons. I thought that wasn’t that bad, and it wasn’t, for the Classical and the Control. They were fine with one another.

‘‘However, when I put the Hard Rock mice in there, within an hour, they had just begun fighting so severely, that I had to separate all the mice. And, I gave them about a week just to ‘chill out,’ I guess you could say, and sort of calm down, because I guess the music had made them so uptight, and had been putting such bad messages into them, that they couldn’t handle one another. So I gave them about a week, just to calm down and settle down. I actually played a little Classical music to them, to see if it would reverse the effects.’’

Even a week later, he reported, the Hard Rock group was still fighting, but he managed to get them to the store alive.

‘‘It’s been an interesting project,’’ David concluded, ‘‘and I’ve enjoyed doing it, and I’ve enjoyed the results I found, as well as the research I’ve done. It’s too bad that it’s not a subject that is widely publicized, as widely as it should be, because I found multiple areas of research, which are extremely significant, whether it’s how great the effects of Classical music are on pre-schoolers learning their ABCs, or whether it’s just the bad morals in the hard rock music.

‘‘Something very interesting is that these mice could not understand the lyrics, but the music alone was bad enough, much less the lyrics, which the people are subjected to, but the mice weren’t. And, that’s something that I think is pretty significant as well.’’

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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Berlin Study Shows Superiority
of Classical Music

Schiller Institute Chairman HelgaZepp-LaRouche, speaking at the Jan. 7symposium, reported on a recent study in Berlin, which demonstrated the superiority of Classical music in educating youth. Here is that excerpt
rom her speech:

Presently, in Berlin, there is along-term study going on about the effects of Classical music education on the mind and on the character of pupils. This study has been proceeding for four years already, and it will continue with the same group for two more years, with pupils who learn either beautiful singing, bel canto singing, or a Classical instrument. The professor who conducts the study says that, comparing one test group of pupils who had this musical training, with another one who did not have any musical training: The first group is more joyful, more intelligent, and more creative!

Fortunately, the Berlin Senate, that is, the government of Berlin, financed this project, which is conducted at 12 schools. Most important, these schools are in socially disadvantaged districts, or poor districts, namely, for those of you who have travelled in Berlin: Kreuzberg, Redding, and Tiergarten, where you have a lot of guest workers, foreigners, Turkish people, other people of low income, unemployed, and so forth. And the Senate financed the studying of a Classical instrument of their choice, for each of these pupils.

Now, the slogan which this professor wrote at the beginning of the study, is a quote by Socrates, who said, “Education through music is therefore the best, because rhythm and harmony penetrate into the innermost depths of the soul, and give it grace > and decency.”

What this study found, is that it is not only musical skills which are attained in this way, but that it has all kinds of side effects, namely, that the pupils who are in this program have an extremely positive self-conception: They have extremely high self-esteem, they have extraordinarily developed cognitive powers, they are much more eloquent and intelligent in discussions than pupils of the other group.

They have an outstanding creativity and originality in thinking; they have a great capacity for memory, not only in music, but in all other fields. They have energy, will power, steadiness, and an extremely high flexibility concerning themselves and the world. In a group of 60 in one school, 10 out of the 60 pupils made baccalaureate, that is, the degree which is somewhere between high school and college. You’re about 18 when you make this degree in Germany. Ten of these 60 ended up with 1.0. That’s the best possible grade, because it means they got the best grade in all areas of their education.

The study also shows that these pupils, because of the stimulation of their creative potential, have a normal desire to pursue other areas of creative activity, like painting, writing poetry, composing, doing scientific research, writing short stories, and so forth.

And, the pupils who are involved in this, have absolutely no aggressivity. Their social behavior is vastly improved; they respect each other. If you ask these pupils, “Is there anybody you absolutely can’t stand, you hate?” they say, “no,” while, in the other group, which hasn’t learned a musical instrument, they say “I can’t stand this guy!” There is a big emotional difference

So, what this professor emphasizes, is the connection of music to the character and the mind, which has been long debated, since the Greek Classics, since the Confucian tradition; but, with this study, for the first time, even the people who want to have hard facts and statistics, should be satisfied. And, it’s the first time that a so-called scientific, provable such experiment has been made > And therefore, he recommends that the learning of a Classical instrument should be an essential part of any< educational program.

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Georgia Governor Wants Every
Child to Hear Classical Music

The state of Georgia, under the direction of Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, is proceeding apace on a project Zeller proposed as part of his Jan. 13 address to the State Legislature on the fiscal 1999 budget: To provide the family of every newborn baby in the state with a compact disc or tape of Classical music, in order to improve the child’s cognitive function. In order to dramatize the proposal, Gov. Miller played, during his budget address, a recording of the opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” to startled and, in some cases, delighted state legislators.

The project is proceeding at a rapid rate, according to Gov. Miller’s deputy press secretary, Kristin Carvel, who told New Federalist that “once the Governor gave the budget address, we were inundated with such positive response that it’s not going to be paid for out of the taxpayers’ pocket now. It will not come out of the state budget. And because it’s not coming out of the taxpayers’ budget now, it will probably be able to be in place more quickly.”

We excerpt here from Gov. Miller’s budget address:

“I want to tell you about another initiative I’m proposing and am very excited about. We know that a baby’s brain continues to form after birth, not just growing bigger, as toes and fingers do, but developing microscopic connections responsible for learning and remembering....

“I want to propose something extraordinary that I don’t think any other state does. And it is this. Research shows that reading to an infant, talking with an infant, and especially having that infant listen to soothing music helps those trillions of brain connections to develop, especially the ones related to math.

"There is research that links the study of music to better school performance and higher scores on college entrance exams. There’s even a study, called the ‘Mozart effect,’ that showed after college students listened to a Mozart piano sonata for 10 minutes, their IQ scores increased by nine points....

“So I propose that the parents of every baby born in Georgia--over 100,000 a year--be given a cassette or CD of music to be played often in the baby’s presence. It’s not a big-ticket item in the budget--only $105,000--but I believe it can help Georgia children to excel.

“I have asked Yoel Levi, the world-famous conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, to help me with the musical selection for the tape, although I already have some ideas. For instance, here’s one that a Georgia baby might hear” (whereupon, he played the recording of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven).

“That, of course, is Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ Now, don’t you feel smarter already? Smart enough to vote for this budget item, I hope.”

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reprinted from New Federalist newspaper:

Classical Music Can Save Your Life

Michele T. Walter, executive director of the Richmond (Va.) Symphony, wrote an op-ed recently with the title “Classical Music Can Save Your Life.” With her permission, we excerpt from that here.

Walter reviews studies over the past several decades which show that listening to Classical music and/or getting music training makes children smarter. “Just as peas and broccoli are important to a child’s physical development, it’s becoming clearer that a steady diet of Schubert contributes to the health intellectual development of children,” Walter writes.

She reviews the following studies:

Item: Students with musical training outperform others on the Scholastic Assessment Test. According to the College Entrance Examination Board, test results have shown that students who studied music at least four years scored 59 points higher than others on the verbal and 44 points higher on the math portion.

Item: Researchers Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw discovered “The Mozart Effect,” which shows that exposure to Classical music, even for short periods, has beneficial effects on intelligence. Rauscher, of the University of Wisconsin, and Shaw, physicist and neuroscientist at U.C. Irvine in California, performed two studies: one on a group of college students, to see how Mozart influenced their spatial reasoning; the other on a group of three-year-olds, to see how piano training affected their reasoning ability. In the 1993 study, they demonstrated that students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K.448 scored higher on IQ tests than students who heard silence or listened to relaxation tapes.

Item: According to “American Demographics” magazine, about two-thirds of Americans who’ve attended graduate school like Classical music. On the other hand, 57% of those who’ve attained only a high school diploma say country music is their favorite style of music.

Walter concludes: “Parents who dream of their children graduating from Harvard medical school should take note. Encourage their development by introducing your children to Classical music now. In 20 years, they may blame you for depriving them of $200 sneakers, but not for limiting their intellectual opportunities. They’ll be smart enough not to.

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Thomanerchor Leipzig, directed by Georg Christoph Biller, courtesy/Gert Mothes

A report from Alan Ogden

As a German speaker, I was privileged to serve as one of several full-time chaperones for a group of nine Thomaner singers all during their stay in Washington. I emphasize “privileged,” because the experience was not only an opportunity to host these accomplished children and young men, and enjoy with them the experience of staying in a historic (and functioning) monastery for two nights, but more importantly, it was a rare opportunity to get a glimpse inside what makes this unique and superlative Classical musical institution “tick.”

As Americans, we are not accustomed to the quality of sustained and pervasive performance orientation which shines through every moment of the collective life of this choir. I was so astonished at some of the practices and institutional culture in which this group is steeped, that I felt myself in the presence of something almost outside my nearly 52 years experience (which includes a fairly extensive musical background of the type available to educated Americans, and which includes teaching experiences in both school and musical settings). I was left searching in vain for comparisons. The performance of music in a manner true to the spirit and intentions of J.S. Bach, and of the spirit of Leipzig native and Bach-revivalist Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, is the understood, shared mission of the teachers, officials, musicians, and singers of this institution, from the Kantor, Maestro Biller, down to the newest singers, 9 and 10 years old, in the choir.

For one thing, there is something quite characteristically German about the modus operandi of this school-and-choir, which is distinguishable from the individualistic and informal approaches more characteristic of America. It was reported recently that German university students, demonstrating against the vicious austerity now gripping Germany, put on their placards, “Germany without educationr is like kuwait without oil.” so, to be a german classical choir is to be a "representative of one of the highest existing traditions of Renaissance institution, to be the living representatives of a cultural effort unbroken for 786 years, is to have an historical identity and institutional memory in a way virtually unknown in America. Maestro Biller is identified as “the sixteenth Thomaskantor since Bach.”

One of the speakers introducing the Thomanerchor to the enormous audience at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington said (like me, searching for comparisons) that in a sense, we will hear angels sing. Maestro Biller, also speaking briefly (in German) before the concert, dissented, saying that although some of his singers may be angels (“Engel”), he thinks others may be “Bengel” (rascals). He also remarked that the important thing about the Thomanerchor is not merely that they have sung for 800 years, but that all during that 800 years, they have been on the same line, to sing the praise of God. He said that it is important to give this concert in the capital city of the United States, because Bach and political power have come together in one place. So, Maestro Biller, himself once a Thomanerchor singer, suggested some interesting questions, actually paradoxes, about ow this very-highest musical presentation is produced.

Educated in Christian Culture

Everyone in the audience of a Thomanerchor concert notices immediately the quiet, dignified, concentrated, and patient behavior of the singers, as they prepare for and sing their long programs of the most demanding music. “There must be some very strict or strong discipline here,” some are tempted to think. “Why are my children so fussy, when these boys, hardly any older than my children, are so far away from home and so calm?” others think. To answer these question, you must consider the opportunities given the mind, and the discipline within the mind, in an environment of education. What you see, when you see these boys, is not arbitrary or harsh discipline, but rather a group which has been educated, through the art of their music, to a high degree.

As the religious-order friar showed the boy singers through the replicas under the monastery of the holy land sites of the manger in Bethlehem, the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, the home of Mary, the crucifixion on Calvary, and the dark corridors of the Roman catacombs, the site of masses for the dead, and the graves of martyrs -- in spite of the language barriers of Latin inscriptions and the explanations in English -- the meaning of this history of Christian culture was alive and accessible to the students.

As part of their choral rehearsals, they “study text” (sing through and learn their parts) of the great sacred music which is the heart of their schooling, for two hours per day. As young artists, they understood quickly the paintings, panels, sculptures, mosaics, and stained glass windows, as coherent with their own experience and part of their own heritage. Some were reading and translating the Latin inscriptions for their younger fellow choristers, and others were clarifying historical or theological points for their fellows.

As their two tour buses carried the choir and their German teachers and chaperones by the Lincoln Memorial, and I explained that Lincoln was the When one of the men on tour with them wants to call them to attention on the tour, one word is sufficient: A booming “SILENCIUM!” from a familiar voice instantly brings everyone’s attention. No disorganization here!

When the groups are to divide to the lodgings for the night, the boys themselves prepare the lists of groups in advance, balancing each group between older, middle, and younger boys. When the lists are read off by a teacher, once through the names (last names only) is sufficient, even in a cold outdoor setting. When the chorus gathers for a concert, the roll is taken by the boys themselves for their section. No guesswork, no trial and error, no wasted time. When a younger child begins to act up, there is no big dispute, only a clear statement of standards of behavior and a reminder of “the way things are done in the Thomanerchor” (and have been done, for centuries).

The details of life on tour are no problem for this group. High morale, esprit de corps, and self-discipline are hallmarks of their method. Accustomed to seeing each other as friends and collaborators, with whom they live and work, each boy is confident who will wake them, and that they will not be rushed or late. The older ones make sure the younger are in bed on time, before they go off to talk or play cards. Each knows how to arrive on time for breakfast. No one would think of leaving the table without clearing the table. The boys are unfailingly polite and friendly to their hosts. Delays or disruptions in schedules are greeted with good humor and a degree of patience which would be astonishing in an adult. I thought that perhaps my assignment as chaperone would include making sure they had their concert clothes ready at the right time, or that their socks had been washed, or that they should be ready with thei scores, waiting for the bus at a certain time, or that they shouldn’t go out at night and try to find a 7-11 store, or that they were in bed at a reasonable hour. Really, I shouldn’t have worried. That is all water over the dam for them.

I realized, that they are not newcomers to what it takes to make music. The details have been honed over the centuries. John Sigerson, who did his own stint as chaperone with another group, commented that he suggested one of the younger boys take a short walk with him the day after the Washington concert. No thanks, the boy replied; “I would enjoy it, but it takes me about 25 minutes to pack, and I wouldn’t be ready for the bus if I went out now.”

At breakfast, I asked the boys about their concerts. I said, have you performed all over Germany? “Yes,” they answered. I pressed the point: “Other countries too? the Czech Republic?” Yes, they answered, and Poland, Austria, Italy, Greece, England, France, and Switzerland. Have you performed in Sweden or any other Scandinavian countries? I asked. “No,” they replied, “The last time we sang in Scandinavia was in the thirties or forties; I think 1938.”

“Oh?” I replied, “that was when you guys were really young!” They really didn’t think this was so funny. I realized, that they think that everything the Thomanerchor has done, THEY have done. They understand THEMSELVES as that being that historical institution, not as a motley group of boys who happen to find themselves in this situation.

Musical Preparation

When asked how the incoming nine-year-olds are screened, they said, “it is those children who are most attracted to singing who are chosen.” Traditionally, the Thomanerchor boys are drawn from the Leipzig local area, but they explained that since German reunification, they are now drawing from the Munich area and from other parts of Germany. Roughly half of their singers, currently, are Leipzig-area natives. They have accepted one boy from Switzerland. The boys average about a year out of singing during their voice change, when they lose their status as a member of the alto or soprano sections and cease being able to sing at all, and they count the days until they can rejoin the rehearsals and performances as a tenor or bass.

Every student at the St. Thomas school is required to learn to play an instrument, and most study piano. Each boy, in addition to his regular academic courses, studies choral singing and rehearses either in small groups or as a whole chorus, hours per day. They only have one hour each per week of private voice coaching, and this time is generally spent in singing exercises.

They said that although it is known to happen, as part of the individual voice instruction, it is unusual for any of the boys to work on any Lieder. They are choral specialists, and stick to the choral work. They do not generally sing parts which are not their own, they explained, but master their own part. One American teacher asked them, “What if one of the boys wanted to branch out into individual singing, say, into opera?” The answer was, “He could only do that if he got permission from the Kantor first, and then he would have to take a test, but before he could take the test, he would have to have the permission of the Kantor.’ The Kantor, for his part, is a figure of great respect and authority, who apparently speaks to the boys only on the most important musical and performance matters, and who commands total attention simply by speaking

Concert Preparation

The preparation for a single concert, apart from all the educational, musical, voice-training, rehearsal, and logistical work, which by the time of the concert date has all been finished, begins hours in advance, with attention to proper eating (not too much before the concert), and the final stage before getting dressed and getting to the concert hall: “Schlafruhe.” All the boys sleep before each concert. This is an example of the dedication to excellence: They set aside an hour and a half to two hours for sleeping before all concerts. The reasoning, as explained to me by one of the teachers, is this: The singing is improved by sleeping; therefore, since we want the singing to be as good as possible, obviously, the boys must sleep. There is no dispute about this. The boys obey this rule: They agree; they cooperate; they sleep. Below age 15, it is mandatory. For ages 15 and above, sleep is recommended, but rest and quiet, minimally, is required.

Next comes the sound check, at least in the very difficult acoustical environment of the National Shrine, which is an enormous, cavernous echo-box, similar to all very large churches. This is a process of singing bits of the concert pieces a couple hours in advance of the concert, with one of the older singers functioning as conductor, as an understudy, and the Kantor listening from various points in the church, and, by bits and degrees, instructing the student conductor and the singers on how the performance is to be adapted to overcome the problems presented by the acoustics. The adjustments are complex, but the amount of time required to complete them successfully is also known in advance.

The process involves changing the tempi to the exact tempi appropriate for the response of the space, the echos, and the “layering” of sound, for the benefit of the audience, and for the benefit of the singers who will be presented with intonation problems resulting from the changes in pitch as the echoing sound comes back to their ears. It involves adopting certain approaches to tone quality demanded by the specific environment, varying perhaps from piece to piece. It involves, also, carefully adjusting the balance between the eight sections to the requirements of the space. (Two soprano sections, two alto, two tenor, and two bass sections used in the mostly double-choir repertoire: that is, eight-part polyphony.)

The Kantor also speaks quietly, at length, with the assembled choir: he speaks to them about their place in history and their responsibility, and the history of the Thomanerchor, about their relationship to the audience, about the circumstances surrounding the specific concert.

The next stage is to assemble in a warm-up room, for the long wait until the time of the concert. The room available was too small for such a large chorus, but they handled the situation magnificently. They spoke quietly with each other and with the several adults who travel with them. Some read schoolbooks or novels. Some of the younger ones carefully studied their complex musical scores. It was hot and crowded, without enough seats, but calm and concentration prevailed.

Someone had provided inviting large bowls of delicious-looking red punch, with ice floating in it, in these hot and stuffy conditions. But not one singer touched the punch. No one said, “Don’t drink this punch, it’s too sweet and cold for your throat.” Yet, because of the level of preparation by the chorus, not even the youngest drank any punch. Instead, some bottled water, kept at room temperature, was passed around, and some drank about a half cup of it. As the brief vocal warmup was about to start, those who had medical problems, a cold, a cough, a stuffed-up nose, a sore throat, or a cut finger were treated by a person from the small Thomanerchor staff.

The maestro ran the chorus through some exercises they have, for a period of time not exceeding ten minutes, primarily designed, it was explained to me, to properly focus the vowels just before the performance. These excercises for the most part seemed German-language specific. When the singing began in the warmup room, there was no commotion. It turns out, that with no specific last-minute instructions needed, all 90 boys had entered the room earlier in the exact order required, to be in their own place in their own section! A little special upper-body physical stretching and posture exercises were done, led by the maestro, to refresh the mind and body for the coming performance. A small time was then spent in a little last-minute focusing of the choral presentation, and a little more work on the tempi.

Their work is very, very efficient, owing to the high level of musical education they have accomplished. They are working on the accumulated experience and institutional memory of the better part of a millennium. The conductor will refer to a very advanced musical concept, which the boys already understand, such as the idea of “quietly concentrated.” The chorus will instantly respond, correcting the phrase in the way the maestro wants it, because of his brief reference -- no long explanations. And it stays corrected. The chorus does not fall back to a lower level. They are excellent, and build very quickly on their excellence.

I had the feeling, once again, that I was witnessing something magnificent and unusual, which exists because of a long, accumulated and concentrated process of perfection, and dedication. Any feeling of confusion, of doubt about what to do with the formidable acoustical challenges of the church, of “Let’s try this and see if it works,” was absolutely non-existent. This is a cultural achievement previously nearly beyond my imagination.

Finally, the maestro speaks again with his students. He does not condescend, or doubt. He speaks to the singers with respect, as artistic collaborators with him in a great project. He speaks quietly about their hopes for a successful performance. He reminds them, that from this moment on, until the end of the concert, not one word will be spoken by any singer “The only sound we will hear is the sound of your feet walking through the church to the risers.” He thanked the boys for the “toil” and effort that they were making. Then, without a word, they all walked through the lower church and up the stairs to their places in the sanctuary. The 9,000-plus people in the audience that day know the rest.

Of course, these are actually boys living in the same reality and the same decade of historical crisis other boys around the world are in. Some are from broken homes. Some are wearing earrings. Some are lonely. They are surrounded by hostile political and cultural forces. In many ways, they are boys like any other. But because of them, because of the passion of the Classical composers who gave them their compositions, and because of the education and dedication of those who teach them, they have brought many thousands of Americans, this month, that experience of a moment of passion and happiness which, setting a standard, will help us win our war.

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