Saturday, December 22, 2012

Violins, Not Violence (An Open Letter to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA)

Dear Mr. LaPierre,

We are all traumatized by last week's events in Newtown, Connecticut.  We want answers; what's more, we want solutions.  You've proposed one: put an armed guard in every school.

In itself, it's not a bad idea.  You're right when you point out that lots of places and people have armed guards already, so why not our schools?  As a solution, though, it's pretty naive.  As some critics were quick remind us, there was already an armed police presence at many of the places that have seen terrible mass shootings (Columbine, Virginia Tech); it didn't help.  The police can't be everywhere, so how many would we need?  One in every classroom?  One in every store, clinic, and movie theater?  When would there be enough?

You pointed to the culture as a source of the problem, and that may be a better step in the right direction.  (Although I must say that I thought your comments were simplistic, and I was horrified by your notion that we need to register all people with mental illness.  What a terrible, un-American idea--from a group that passionately defends a constitutional right, no less!)

How do we change our culture and make it less violent?  I have a suggestion.  Let's give every kid in the United States a musical instrument.  Let's teach every kid to play them, and let's have every kid play in bands, orchestras, guitar ensembles, steel drum bands, sing in choirs, and make music any way we can think of.

In all the things I've heard about the shooters, I've never heard that one of them was in a musical group at school.  They're loners.  But you can't be a loner in the choir, band, or orchestra--you have to be part of the group, and people will pay attention to you.  What's more, you get to work with others--all different kinds of others--to make something beautiful and worthwhile.  And if you were troubled and starting to go over the edge, I'll bet somebody in that group would notice and would do something to help you.

This isn't just a pipe dream.  It works.  It's worked in Venezuela's El Sistema.  It works in Brazil, where the government has made music a universal requirement in elementary and secondary schools.  In Paraguay, there's a town where the kids care so much about making music that they construct musical instruments out of things they find in the landfill.

Music is a way of directing energy.  It's a way to show kids what they can accomplish by breaking a problem down to its component parts and working on it consistently and systematically.  It's a way of developing the discipline to persevere.  And in the end, you're making music.  You're doing something constructive and beautiful.

Your problem, Mr. LaPierre, is that you can't see past the end of your gun.  The only solution you can see to gun violence is more guns, which seems a bit like saying that the cure for alcoholism is more liquor.  You want good guys to have guns so that bad guys can be stopped.  I want people to be less interested in using guns for violent purposes.

My idea is no more a panacea than yours is, but it's a lot more positive.  We will need a variety of approaches to make our culture less violent and less dangerous.  So put more armed guards in schools if you want, but put more violins there, too.  Maybe then, the only gunfire our kids will hear is the sound of the cannons at the end of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

David Schildkret

(I teach music at Arizona State University and direct choirs in Arizona and Maine.)

ADDENDUM (Corrected version):  The earlier version of this referred to armed military personnel at Fort Hood as an example of a place where people with arms couldn't always help.  A commenter pointed out that soldiers don't carry weapons on military bases.


  1. I have tried repeatedly to submit this to the NRA website. It keeps rejecting it saying that the message can contain only letters, numbers, and punctuation. I'm not sure what the problem is. I copied the text only (no pictures) into a Word document and pasted that into the comment box on the NRA page without success. Perhaps this will reach them anyway.

    1. I think the NRA is per-emptively rejecting your views. Pretty snazzy website they must have for this...

  2. A wonderful article. Yes, we need a total, rounded approach. I think the idea of an armed guard at every school is not a bad one. But we need to address the problems with our society. Guns have existed for hundreds of years. My grandfather's High School Year Book contains a picture of him posing with his rifle with the rest of the High School Rifle team - and this, at a Chicago Public High School! Yet, back then, while there were a few mass killings, they were very few and very far between (and the worst one ever in the U.S. which occurred in 1927 didn't even involve a gun).

    I think that teachers who can show they are qualified should be allowed to discreetly carry concealed weapons. We already trust them with our children's lives every day of the week. Israel, the Philippines, Thailand and several other countries allow their teachers to be armed with great success.

    Finally, just a quick point you might want to correct in your article: Ft Hood, like all domestic U.S. Military Bases, does not allow Base Personnel to be armed. Only the relatively few Military Police are allowed access to firearms, except during specific training activities at the gun range. Just like the children and teachers in our schools, we leave our brave soldiers in a position of vulnerability in danger of being slaughtered like sheep.

  3. Thanks, John, for the clarification about Fort Hood. I changed the article as a result of your comments.

  4. I am so sorry, the article is laughable and kind of silly!

    1. I'm sorry you feel that way. I meant my suggestion in all seriousness. I don't think it's any more silly than the idea that guns can stop guns, or that we can expect this armed guard the NRA is proposing always to be in the right place at the right time.

      I think we have to get at root causes, and one of them is disaffected and unconnected youth. Music (and dance, and drama--any performing art) is a way to create the kind of community that will keep such people from being isolated. And I really believe it can stop them before they do something horrible. That's a lot better than gunning them down after they open fire on 6-year-olds.

  5. It is extremely silly to post a comment as anonymous. It would seem the writer is stating something he's actually embarrassed to own up to. Your article, however, is anything but silly. It is absolutely right.

  6. Thanks, Lisa. I'm now thinking about ways to put this into action. All ideas welcome. This charity might be a start: