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The Boy and the Piano

Luis Dias

The John Lewis & Partners (a chain of high-end department stores in the UK) Christmas advert has become something of an annual tradition in British popular culture ever since the first advert was launched in 2007, and is one of the signs that the countdown to Christmas has begun.

Of all the adverts, last year’s offering, ‘The Boy and the Piano’ (described as a ‘viral love letter to music lessons’), which featured Sir Elton John, was voted the UK’s favourite.

Since its release, it has been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube, and when it was launched the advert achieved a search interest score of 79/100.

The advert “warmed the nation’s hearts by focusing on the joy of music”. Indeed, it is more than just a plug for John Lewis. By re-enacting vignettes from Elton’s John’s life, backwards from his superstardom through to his early years on the road, and even further back in time to his pub-playing nights all the way to a magical Christmas morning when he finds his grandmother’s upright piano waiting for him in the living room, all gift-wrapped, we are reminded what a powerful gift music can be.

It isn’t clear whether Elton John did indeed get his grandmother’s piano as a Christmas gift, but it is certain that it was his earliest introduction to music. Within a year, his mother recalls, he was picking out the tune of ‘Les Patineurs Valse’ (better known as the ‘Skaters’ Waltz’) by Emile Waldteufel by ear, and had begun to play at parties and family gatherings. His family got the message, and enrolled him for formal music lessons when he was seven. You could make the case that the exposure to his grandmother’s piano (whether gift-wrapped or not, whether on Christmas morning or not) altered Elton John’s life and made him the towering icon he is today.

He evidently agrees:  “It [was] a lovely opportunity for me to reflect on my life in music and the incredible journey I have been on, and how first playing my grandmother’s piano marks the moment when music came into my life,” he told the press about the advert.

“It’s the story of how a gift changes a little boy’s life,” says Richard Brim, chief creative officer of the team that produced the short film.

The film begins and ends with him picking out the notes of his ‘My Song’. “My gift is my song”, he sings. One gift begets another.“Some gifts are more than just a gift.” This is the parting shot, the punch-line of the advert.

Indeed, the gift of music is much, much more than “just a gift”. The joy, the sustenance, the nourishment, the emotional support even, that one gets from music is indescribable; it has to be experienced. It is a gift that goes on giving.

I have written before on the beneficial effect of music lessons on a child’s academic performance, and the positive neurophysiological changes in the brain from early exposure to music (lasting well into later life, staving off dementia among other advantages), so I won’t repeat them here.

The University of Cambridge has developed research proving how music can help people better themselves. Specifically, they found that children who make music together are becoming more compassionate and gaining a key component of emotional intelligence. Isn’t this something our country, our world, needs more of? It is one of the many reasons behind our ensemble, Camerata Child’s Play India.

Other research from the UK has shown that if you play a musical instrument or sing (and not necessarily to a very high level), you are less likely to litter, less likely to have a criminal record, more likely to pay taxes, to care about the environment and social issues, more likely to vote, more likely even to return library books on time! In other words, there is at least an associative (if not causal) link between music and becoming a better citizen, a better person.

I was present when a mother was urging her child not to give up when he showed a flagging of interest in music lessons. She had experienced a bereavement, and wished she had the crutch of music to help her cope through the tragedy; apparently music had helped her close friend to pull through and continue to find meaningin life again. It was a benefit from music that I had forgotten about. But then I remembered how it helped me as well through many a crisis.

There are far many more extra-musical benefits accruing from an education in music which are extremely useful in academic performance: important life lessons such as discipline, perseverance (practice makes perfect in music and elsewhere as well), the rewards of incremental progress at any given task, etc. When you play an instrument, you are only as good as the sound you are able to produce. No amount of money power or influence can ever change that, or help you to produce a sweeter tone, better intonation or phrasing. This can come only from hard work (with proper guidance, of course) and nothing else. These lessons can be extrapolated not just to school and college, but for life.

I was watching a video documentary ‘Little Mozarts’ about the Gandhi Ashram Kalimpong, established in 1993 by a Jesuit priest from Canada, Fr Edward McGuire. It is truly heartwarming to see and hear the sea-change in the lives of the disadvantaged children that have been its alumni since then. As Kamal Gurung, head of its music department says towards the end of the documentary: “Music is with you at every point in your life. Music is a friend for life.”

This has been our experience at Child’s Play India Foundation as well. We began our own journey sixteen years after the Gandhi Ashram school, but after a decade of our own existence, we have life-affirming stories of our own. Some of our older children are already showing the potential to become teachers themselves (just as at Kalimpong), and a few are helping beginners through their paces. We have watched scores of children grow in confidence through the gift of music.

As Christmas and New Year approach, many of you are probably planning your shopping for loved ones. Some gifts will be treasured, but many will just be expensive tokens that languish in a closet or drawer.

Why not give a meaningful gift to someone less privileged than you, something that will be life-changing, life-affirming, character-building, joy-spreading?

You can give a disadvantaged child the soul-nourishing gift of music this Christmas. Our Adopt-a-Musician scheme is an affordable way to do this. A donation of just `500 a month (or 6000 a year) helps us defray the cost of the music education of one child. For more details, do visit us on www.childsplayindia.org.

Some gifts are more than just a gift.

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