CSO’s Dan Armstrong promotes the role of music in the classroom

CSO Bass Dan Armstrong demonstrates the acoustics of his instrument to an eager student at Sawyer Elementary School in December, 2016.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Daniel Armstrong joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June 1995, after 12 seasons as assistant principal bass in the Milwaukee Symphony and four with the Winnipeg Symphony. Here he discusses the role of music education:

Who was the most influential music teacher in your life?

My most influential music teacher was my very first. As a child in the remote northern town of Kitimat, British Columbia, I took weekly piano lessons from age 4 to 11 from a French-Canadian woman named Bernadette Berry. My lessons were at her house. She followed the Royal Conservatory pedagogy, which included yearly exams and a theory course. She was strict, but never failed to encourage me or praise my accomplishments. I learned that learning was hard yet rewarding work. I remember that many things didn’t at first come easily, like internalizing fingerings, memorizing pieces or doing sight-reading tests, but Mrs. Berry was both a demanding and a loving teacher. The town was lucky to have her.

My deep appreciation for my first teacher has grown with the years. Teaching is hard; you can’t expect quick results, because often you’re teaching long-term habits and ideas, like the value of practice. A great music teacher can change the course of a child’s life, whether or not that child grows up to be a musician.

When did you discover your passion for music?

I can’t recall any singular “ah-ha” moment in which I suddenly understood something profound about myself and my relationship with music, but I know in hindsight that the passion was there. It took me a while to discover it, though. When my family moved to the larger and more cosmopolitan city of Vancouver, with many more cultural amenities, music was just another thing I enjoyed, like hiking in the mountains and some school subjects like physics and math.

There was no orchestra program in my high school. Eventually, I stopped taking piano lessons; any playing I did was totally undisciplined, like putting on a Glenn Gould record and trying to race him to the end of the first Beethoven piano concerto. My dad joined a choir that performed with the Vancouver Symphony, and every week he came home from rehearsals excitedly, declaring that the music they were working on was the best piece he’d ever heard. He’d leave the choral part on the piano, and I started dipping into the piano reductions of the orchestra parts. I particularly enjoyed working out the strange harmonies of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

As a freshman at the University of British Columbia, I was on a science and engineering track; at the same time I played some rudimentary jazz with a couple of friends, struggling, without instruction, to create walking bass lines on an upright bass that my dad had bought in a hardware store. As my friends raptly listened to Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck records, I was in awe of what I heard, but I was too young and inexperienced to identify with their virtuosity. I remember sitting in a math class at UBC and trying to compose a jazz tune in my head (and what a shame — that math prof was full of passion!). I later tried to write down what I remembered, not knowing how to notate the swing rhythms. In my third year, I finally realized that I was meant to be a music major, returning to piano study and taking my first bass lessons. Because I needed an ensemble credit, I sang in a choir for the first time, and discovered why my father drew such energy from his choral singing — music is more than intellectual and physical discipline: It is an immensely powerful expression of our humanity.

How does music education benefit students outside music itself?

There is ample research to document that playing an instrument benefits kids socially, physically and mentally. Music helps kids learn to work well with others, to develop coordination and confidence, and to focus and succeed in school. Above all, music inspires a passion, which is ultimately what makes students self-motivated, and propels them further in their learning. In fact, it propels them further in life.

Passion certainly doesn’t only come from music. I once visited a Chicago elementary school classroom where the students talked with remarkable enthusiasm about their love for math. Here, some fantastic teacher was instilling a passion for algebra and trigonometry, which are also abstract arts. I imagine those kids who loved math so much were also learning it together, practicing, communicating what’s interesting and cool, and helping each other with the intellectual concepts, just as students in a music ensemble learn to work cooperatively and share their passions.

How does music connect us?

Music brings people together, and it also brings each of us closer to ourselves. When our CSO ensemble played for an after-school orchestra program at an elementary school in a Hispanic neighborhood, the students were completely and enthusiastically on top of every note we played.  One sixth-grade girl asked, “When you play, do you ever find yourself getting lost?” She saw me smiling at the idea and persisted, “No, I mean completely lost in the music! Like you just lose yourself in it? I play trombone in the orchestra and when we’re all playing together, I’m just lost!” I was astonished. She had discovered something great that happens in music — happens to her — and she was able and unafraid to articulate it.

To someone like that sixth grade girl, being a part of a great big wonderful thing is an amazing discovery. It was her first experience of the magical whole being bigger than the sum of the parts, and she was transported by it. Her mind was in two places at once: the place where she has to concentrate on her instrument and her part, and the place where she’s immersed in and suddenly comprehending the complex world of the music that the orchestra is playing.

She was telling us what artists at the highest level try to convey, and what I’ve looked for in my own search for musical passion:  maybe we all, in our own ways, seek the thrill of racing with a Glenn Gould recording, or the magic my father felt in choir rehearsals, or a sense of the vastness of a huge choral work sketched in a piano reduction. From the time I was her age, whether I knew it or not, the times I got lost were my best moments.

I was so thankful for that little girl’s reminder. Every time I play in the CSO, I try to be lost in the music! Seriously.

What inspires you to participate in educational and community programming through the CSO?

As a member of the CSO I’ve played in many countries around the world, but the experience of working in all the corners of Chicago is equally eye-opening. Our string quintet has played for people of all ages, in schools, after-school programs, community centers, prisons, senior centers and hospitals, and we try to tailor our presentations for each new audience. These concerts can be hard work, but they take us outside of our normal experience and bring something new to diverse audiences. We’re lucky; many people in Chicago, rich and poor, don’t get out of their own neighborhoods, but music is our ticket to explore the entire city.

We live to create, but in this electronic age, with musical sounds everywhere, many people have very little exposure to live, acoustic performance and little incentive to create their own. I’m fortunate to have been involved in in the CSO’s Lullaby Project, and to see young parents in difficult circumstances participate in the entire creative process of writing and performing music. Knowing from the start that their audience is their child, they write from their hearts. One of these songs became a very moving anthem to peace performed by Yo-Yo Ma and a small ensemble at a South Side benefit concert in June 2017.

I’ve seen our visits break down stereotypes about music and about ourselves. Once, before a concert at a mostly African American school on the South Side of the city, a fourth-grader whispered to me with awe, “You’ve got Chinese musicians in your group!” We might not always match students’ expectations, but our collaborations model the important ways that music brings diverse people together.