How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

By Lawrence Henry
web posted June 1999

The joke has been told a thousand times. I remember reading it as a supposedly "true" anecdote in Reader's Digest when I was a kid. That version had violinist Jascha Heifitz being hailed by a man on a New York street. The man asks Heifitz, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" And Heifitz replies, always "without breaking stride," "Practice!"

Like all good stories, it comes to mind at intervals. I recalled it most recently after reading a long, long essay in The Atlantic Monthly (May, 1999) by Francis Fukuyama, titled, "The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order." In his article, Professor Fukuyama describes and analyzes the social breakdown of the post-World War II West, and offers his hope that "the very powerful innate human capacity for reconstituting social order" will prevail over and against a number of "technological" factors (birth control, woman in the work force, welfare subsidies, the Internet, global economies, etc.).

Early in his essay, Professor Fukuyama writes, "Religion, though often helpful to this process (i.e., reconstituting societal cohesion), is not the sine qua non of social order, as many conservatives believe."

That's where I thought of the apocryphal Heifitz story. Why? Because, like many intellectuals, Professor Fukuyama, thoughtful to a fault, does not understand what religion is.

Religion is practice.

Let us suppose that the United States has become a decidedly less musical society than it was in, say, 1910. "Decidedly less musical" means fewer people playing musical instruments, fewer people able to identify major works and styles of music, fewer people able to read written music, fewer people attending live musical performances of classic musical works (not only Beethoven, but Gershwin, Rogers & Hammerstein, and Duke Ellington). "Decidedly less musical" means fewer people able to sing and fewer people actually singing in any kind of ensemble. "Decidedly less musical" means fewer "live" musical groups entertaining at traditional venues, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, night clubs, holiday gatherings, parties, and the like. "Decidedly less musical" means fewer music teaching programs in schools of all kinds at all levels.

Now let us suppose we wanted to reverse this trend. Let us suppose that we had in our charge a young boy or girl, three or four or five years old, and we wanted to help that child to become "musical." Let us suppose that we wanted, as well, to make our family more musical, or our church or our chapter of the Lion's Club, or our town more musical.

What would we do? Would we hang pictures of musical instruments on various walls? Would we show our children videos of cartoon characters playing in a band? Would we buy bed clothing for the nursery festooned with staffs, clefs, and notes?

Those things don't make a child, a family, or a social group musical. No, we would start our child taking music lessons. We would organize willing members of our family or club or church into a choir or a band. And we would start to practice. We would practice alone, and in groups. We would get better. We would try to find venues for performances, and we would find those venues, and we would perform.

And having performed once, having reached our particular "Carnegie Hall," we would not stop practicing. We would do it again, even with no hall in the offing. Musicians do that. According to biographer James Lincoln Collier, Benny Goodman practiced on the day he died.

Now let us acknowledge, along with Professor Fukuyama, that our society has lost the music of religion, the near-automatic reference to moral and cohesive norms that religion provides - admittedly, not exclusively, but that religion provides pre-eminently. How do we get back to those norms? How do we re-create the musical cohesion that, in Western society, has been so thoroughly "disrupted"?

Professor Fukuyama points hopefully to the politics of liberal democracy, and to human nature. And there is something to that. But David Klinghoffer, in his book "The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy," uses a striking metaphor. Ethical acts apart from religious roots, he says, are like cut flowers, that may flourish in a vase for a while, but eventually die.

You can't play if you don't practice. Religion is not a picture on a wall. Religion is practice: worship, reading, prayer, ritual, charity, confession, absolution, baptism, proselytizing. (Yes, I'm talking about Christianity here; so what?)

Musicians who don't practice sooner or later lose their chops. Again, from Heifitz: "If I don't practice one day, I know it. If I don't practice two days, my critics know it. If I don't practice for three days, everyone knows it."

You can't just pay lip service to a trumpet. You'll lose your lip. People who do not practice their religion lose their moral chops. And so does their society.


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