Gurdon: On a school field trip, music does its magic work

Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"We're going to be sitting around for two whole hours!"

"Does that seem long to you?"

"Yes! Ugh!"

"Doesn't it depend on two hours of what? Two hours stuck in traffic is not the same as two hours of listening to beautiful music."

"Yes it is," said the sixth-grade plaintiff, but she was smiling. There was really no way of avoiding the school field trip to watch a rehearsal of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra unless she were to fall violently ill. Say, that was an idea!

"I think I'm starting to feel sick."

"Fiddlesticks," returned her flint-hearted mother. "Off we go."

But if truth be told, she felt a spark of sympathy in her maternal heart. The mother remembered the outrage she and her schoolmates had felt when their own sixth-grade field trip was ruined by high culture. They were made to go to the Clark Art Museum, in Williamstown, Mass., if you can believe it, while the other sixth-grade class went to an amusement park.

Wow, were they steamed! It wasn't just the prospect of going to look at boring old paintings with their boring old teacher, whom they had variously nicknamed Mr. Nasty, on account of his charisma, and Mr. Lightbulb, on account of his hairless scalp. No, much worse was the criminal injustice. They would be looking at pictures. The other sixth-graders would be shrieking with pleasure on scary rides and stuffing themselves with cotton candy. It wasn't fair!

Only many years later would the woman reluctantly concede just how unfair the incident had been -- to the other class. Those sixth-graders had spent the day in empty fun; she and the other recipients of Mr. Nasty's cultural enrichment program had been given access to great beauty. Indeed, the memory of a certain painting of nymphs and a satyr had never left her.

So it was that the flint-hearted mother and the disinclined daughter joined a large school party at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on a recent afternoon.

Onstage sat a large number of men and women looking, in their jeans and sneakers, as if they'd just walked in off the street. These people all held instruments, from which emerged glorious waves of music that were anything but pedestrian. Between them and the audience stood -- or more to the point, danced -- guest conductor Juanjo Mena. With winks and smiles and happy little steps, he coaxed from the orchestra ever more energetic versions of the same bars of music.

The children endured this cultural onslaught variously. Some waved their arms at exciting bits. One covered her ears when the brass instruments blared. One reclined with head thrown back and eyes closed, in extravagant boredom. Another folded over her own legs, in the airline brace position, waiting for the crashing to stop. Two naughty misses couldn't stop whispering and had to be separated.

Yet for much of the time, many of the girls simply gazed at the orchestra. In their faces you could see abstractedness, a suspension of self-consciousness. It is in such moments that art does its work, and there is a union between the listener and the symphony, or between the eyes and the painting they regard.

Was the art really working that day? It's hard to tell. Maybe the girls won't be able to tell until they've grown up and their own daughters are griping about field trips.

"What did you think?" one of the chaperones asked, afterward.

"I liked it, I guess," said one girl.

Her friend nodded. "Yeah. It wasn't awful."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at

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