Music and Truth: Discovery inby Mary H. McNulty
Three Young Adult Novels
No one can deny that music plays a central part in the lives of adolescents. The recording industry makes the greater share of its profits from teenage consumers. In addition to being avid listeners of their favorite types of music, some young persons are performers of music. In middle and high schools, many adolescents are involved in orchestra, band, or chorus. For many, this involvement with the performance of music plays a positive and important role in their lives. Most of them will not go on to become musicians. Many will not continue to play their instruments beyond the high school years. But through adolescent years the performance of music serves an important purpose: it provides a lens through which some important discoveries are made. The struggles of young musical performers in adolescent novels can help readers to discern the role that music plays within their own lives.
Before the first chapter of The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, Patricia MacLachlan quotes Picasso's words, "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." These words are well chosen for the theme of this novel. The central character, Minna Pratt, is confused regarding the truth of fact and the truth of fiction. Through the art of her music she moves to a better realization of the truth of her parents and herself. Music is a means of discovery as well in Virginia Euwer Wolff's The Mozart Season and in Bruce Brooks' Midnight Hour Encores. In fact, the similarities among the three novels are quite striking.
The protagonist in each of the three novels is an adolescent girl faced with a number of questions about her past, present and future. Each of the girls is a string instrumentalist: two of them are cellists, the other a violinist. Each novel follows its main character through a period of several weeks as she prepares herself for a competition or, in the case of Brooks' protagonist, an audition. The outcome of the musical performance in terms of winning or losing is of lesser importance than the discovery that each young woman makes in relation to her family, her background, and the love that surrounds her. Music is a journey whereby she arrives at the truth.
Protagonists as Performers
It was quite natural for Patricia MacLachlan to write a novel about a young cellist since she herself plays that instrument. David Russell in his study of MacLachlan recounts how she accompanied her children to their music lessons and played along with their youth orchestra during their rehearsals (88). The author, then, writes from experience as she recreates the tedium of practice and the thrill of performance.
Minna Pratt, the protagonist of MacLachlan's novel, is acknowledged by her brother as a girl "waiting to be a woman," (3). Still a child, she wishes that her family were more like other families. Her mother, a writer, is not a good housekeeper and sometimes is unresponsive to her children's questions. Her father, a psychology professor, does not teach Minna's brother to play baseball. She is concerned, too, that she does not have a vibrato, a technique in playing a stringed instrument which produces a rapid wavering between a note and a pitch slighter higher or lower. As her quartet members develop their vibratos, Minna feels incomplete without one, and she embarks on a quest to acquire it.
Minna's world is filled with annoyances. There is her family that does not fit the mold of ordinary families; the music she can't play right; Imelda, the first violinist in her string quartet who is full of facts; and Orson, the second violinist, who is full of words; then there is the elevator at the conservatory that Minna fears. These annoyances fall aside when Lucas with his viola joins the group. Lucas has a "radiant smile" (11) and a "lovely eye that wanders" (17). Lucas has a strong vibrato and he causes her to forget her fear of the elevator and to excel at her music, particularly the difficult andante movement in the Mozart string quartet the group is practicing. By the end of the novel Minna does get her vibrato, but before that she learns a great deal about Mozart through his music and she learns to appreciate her imperfect family and herself.
Allegra Shapiro, the young violinist in Wolff's novel, is also intent on performing Mozart for a competition. Allegra, however, is a soloist, and she feels very insecure about competing with more experienced young musicians. As she practices her concerto, she becomes more aware of suffering around her. She comes to know more of her family's fears and the pains of the past for her family and for others. The persons who intersect her life, particularly Deidre, a singer and friend of her mother, and Mr. Trouble, a homeless man who dances to the music at outdoor concerts, help her to understand the power of music and the fragility of human existence. Like Minna Pratt, Allegra finds romance among her fellow musicians, but this does not play a major role in the unfolding of her story. Allegra does not win her competition, but the practice and performance have been for her a maturing process. The author, Virginia Euwer Wolff, is also a violinist, thus having experienced first hand the nervousness before performance and the joy of immersion in music.
A bit older than the other two protagonists, Sibilance Spooner of Midnight Hour Encores is a more seasoned musician. With a number of competition awards and recordings behind her, she now aspires to study under a famous cellist at a San Francisco music conservatory. With her father she takes a journey, both literally and figuratively, to her audition. As Sibilance prepares for her audition, her father tries to prepare her to meet the mother who had rejected her sixteen years before. She, like Minna and Allegra, falls in love briefly near the end of the book. As in the other two novels, the process is more important than the performance, even though the girl does not realize this until afterwards. By the end of the novel, Sibilance has a better understanding of her past and of parental love.
Although Bruce Brooks, author of Midnight Hour Encores, has a keen interest in music, he is not a cellist himself. Perhaps for this reason his protagonist, Sibilance, does not fully convey the experience of playing her instrument. Minna Pratt describes her competition performance as "a little bit like dying," (131) but of her audition, Sibilance says, "I sail through a movement from the second Beethoven sonata as a kind of cool wind, then jounce through a transcription from Kurt Weill's violin concerto," (Brooks 254). It is only in listening to music that she reveals any sort of emotional involvement. When hearing the Russian cellist Dzyga for the first time, she describes the experience: "Then his playing pulled on me, deep in my chest and legs and eyes, and I felt as if I knew nothing, as if my body was just being made. I sat there and shivered and blinked, like a baby hearing a voice it loves before it knows words," (32). The author, as a listener of music rather than a performer, is apparent too in the words of Sibilance as she describes the conclusion of her audition, "I close my eyes too, and instead of feeling myself play the music I seem too to be a listener, evoking the music by hearing it a millionth of a note before it comes" (255).
Undoubtedly, music is a central force in the life of each of these young women. It is through intense practice and a total involvement with their music that they reach understandings of the persons and influences in their lives, understandings that for them are stepping-stones to maturity.
Minna Pratt's music teacher, Mr. Porch, tells her, "Life and music are not separate, you know," (MacLachlan 45). Minna did not know this, nor did Allegra Shapiro or Sibilance Spooner as each embarked on her preparation for her big performance. Their lives and their music soon become entangled with each other. As they identify with their music so they find themselves. Minna practices so intently that she feels that she is "Minna Booth Pratt, hidden in the package of Mozart," (104). Allegra Shapiro's violin teacher, Mr. Kaplan, expressed this identification in other words, "Great music isn't something we master; it's something we try all our lives to merge with" (Wolff 166z). Sibilance's mentor, Mr. Gustavus, urged her to put her feelings into her instrument so that they would be one with the sound that came out.
Protagonists and Their Parents
Each of the three protagonists has a problem with her parents that is worked through while the period of rehearsal goes on. Her mother's seeming lack of attention upsets Minna. Her mother just does not behave like other mothers. Mrs. Pratt is a writer of children's books, and she carefully answers all of the questions children send her in fan letters. Minna believes, however, that Mrs. Pratt does not ask her own daughter the right questions, and when Minna asks questions, her mother does not respond with the right answers. Her father, a psychology professor, does not behave as Minna believes a father should. Her brother, McGrew, is the worst player on his baseball team, and she blames this on her father who does not play catch with him. After Minna visits Lucas Ellerby's house, she is even more painfully aware of what she considers her family's shortcomings. Dinner at the Ellerbys is a civilized affair where no disagreeable subject can be brought up, no arguments can be conducted at the table. At the Pratt household, however, the conversation is loud and lively, and sometimes involves shouting matches. Minna does not mention the upcoming performance at the competition to her parents for fear that they will come to it and make a fuss. Lucas does not tell his parents about it because he is afraid that they will not make a fuss.
Minna, angry with her mother, writes her a letter about the problem but signs a different name so that her mother will think it came from one of her readers. Her animosity toward her mother and her negative feelings toward the less-than-perfect Pratt household dissipates when her mother takes in without question the eight tanks of frogs that the Ellerbys refuse to allow Lucas to keep. Unlike Mrs. Ellerby who regards the frogs as "aliens creatures," (MacLachlan 111) Mrs. Pratt welcomes them into her writing room and enjoys their company as she works.
Allegra Shapiro of The Mozart Season also must come to some understanding and acceptance of her parents. Perhaps she is not as dissatisfied with them as Minna Pratt is with hers, but Allegra chafes under what she believes is their overprotectiveness. The situation comes to a head when they discover that, faced with sleeplessness because of the tension of the coming competition, she has been going out to ride her bicycle alone at night after everyone else was asleep. Through the help of her brother, David, she is able to understand her parents' fears for her. They see life as something fragile and beautiful. Allegra's great-grandmother, whose picture hangs above her bed, died in a Nazi extermination camp. Her mother's friend, the emotionally unstable Deidre, lost her child because of a drunk driver.A sudden thought hit me. My mother saved insects' lives and then saved their carcasses for the exact same reason she rocked Deidre in the music room, years after Deidre's daughter was dead. It was because something is alive one minute and dead the next. Like my great-grandmother Leah. Or my other great-grandmother in Kansas, lying on her deathbed waving her arms in the air asking for horses and then she stopped breathing. Bro David was right: my parents were terrified. (Woolf 151)
Sibilance Spooner of Midnight Hour Encores does not live in a two-parent household. Abandoned by her mother before she was a day old, Sibilance has grown up knowing only her father. The two of them fit together comfortably, so comfortably, perhaps, that Sibilance takes for granted her father's love. Her intent in asking her father to drive her to San Francisco is not, as her father supposes, to meet her mother, but rather to audition for an admired Russian cellist and with it the opportunity to study under him. Through the trip, Taxi, as she calls her father, tries to recapture the spirit of the sixties so that she will better understand her mother when she meets her. The introduction to the music and nostalgia of that era he arranges for her does not prepare her for meeting her mother, who has now moved beyond her hippie past and is a successful businesswoman. What the journey does, however, is that it reveals a side of her father that Sibilance has not seen before. As she comes to the end of her audition, Sibilance knows that she has a hard choice to make. Should she stay in San Francisco because of the musician she wants to study under and because of the mother she has found, or should she return to Washington with her father? After her audition she sees four persons who are especially moved by her performance: her mother, her father, the Russian cellist, and a young man to whom she is attracted. She says, "At last I see that I can't base a choice on how I think they feel about me. The difference is in how I feel about one of them,"(Brooks 256). Although she now has found the mother she never knew, Sibilance more importantly has also found a father that she supposed she knew. Through her music she is at last able to see the love that her father has been offering her all of her life. In an encore, she plays a medley of popular sixties songs as a farewell to her father, thus jeopardizing her audition. She then returns with her father to the East Coast, realizing that his love was too precious to lose.
Protagonists as Realistic Female Teens
Of the three novels, Midnight Hour Encores has the most gifted and perhaps the most unbelievable protagonist. Sibilance Spooner does not struggle with her music: she appears to be mistress of it. Articulate and self confident, she has no modesty concerning her talent and her accomplishments. At sixteen she claims to be ranked third or fourth among the world's top cellists. After winning scores of international competitions and having made a number of recordings, she boldly admits, "I'm my favorite player," (16). But as a character, she is not entirely believable. She doesn't fit the profile of the musical genius: she does not come from a family of serious musicians, nor did she manifest unusual musical ability at a very early age. When she decides that she wants to play the cello, she begins with a full size instrument, so presumably she is physically large enough to handle it. Music is something she does well; it is not a challenge and a means of expression. She is accustomed to getting whatever she wants, and she knows all of the tricks to achieve her goals.
It is Allegra Shapiro of The Mozart Season who is more believable as the young musician. Her parents are both musicians, so she has been raised in a musical environment and was encouraged early to develop her musical talents. During the summer of the novel she is occasionally employed as a page-turner for the musicians in outdoor concerts. But music is not Allegra's sole focus. Her instructor held off preparing her for the Mozart competition until softball season was over, knowing that she could not play ball and focus on the rehearsals for the competition at the same time. She is by no means a confident performer. She struggles for excellence, and at one point in her rehearsal of Mozart, Mr. Shapiro reprimands her for trying to " . . . upstage the nineteen year-old boy who gave us this concerto,"(Wolff 163). As Allegra continues her practice, she tries to get inside her instrument. Her expression is aided as she looks at the small purse that had once belonged to the great-grandmother who died in the Holocaust and as she thinks about Deidre's sorrow over her dead child. She is concerned, too, about Mr. Trouble, the homeless man who is trying to find his lost song. When she plays the Mozart concerto in the competition, she plays Mozart in memory of this great-grandmother. She plays well.I took my violin down off my shoulder. I was in Portland, Oregon, and I'd just finished doing what I'd promised and feared to do. I was twelve years old, standing with my two feet on the floor and my arms hanging down. I might never even tell anybody about Leah and her goose and her feather bed in my mind. A whole story of her had happened inside the music. (230)
Allegra is not disturbed when Karen, a nineteen year-old violinist, has won the competition. She is disappointed and tired, yet she knows that she will be fine. Her experience has helped her to put her life into perspective. Her performance couldn't bring to life the victims of the Holocaust or the child of Deidre. It couldn't heal the brain damage suffered by Mr. Trouble. It did, however, bring her closer to her great-grandmother from the past, her parents in the present, and to the person she will be in the future.
For Minna Pratt, music had not been an influential force in her life until Lucas came into her life, and she began her quest for her vibrato. Driven by her friendship with Lucas, Minna's desire to acquire a vibrato sustains her through the grueling practices both alone and with the quartet. For her, the vibrato is a mark of maturity, a rite of passage. As the time for the performance comes, many strands of Minna's life come together. Her parents, her friends, even the bus driver come to hear her music. Lucas' parents not only come; they also make a fuss in the form of a reception after the performance. Minna asks Lucas just before they are to appear on stage, "Why are we doing this?" Lucas' answer is simple and direct, "Because we love it," (MacLachlan 128). As Minna begins to play, she realizes that the music "seems to come from her fingers for the very first time, not from her head," (131). When a storm causes the lights to go out during the andante, the quartet continues to play. And when the concerto is over and they are declared the winner, Minna realizes that this performance of music is more important than her vibrato. Later that evening, when she was no longer concerned about it, the vibrato does come, and Minna Pratt is further on her way to becoming a woman.
The complete involvement both physical and mental that the performance of music demands in some way can bring the performer to understanding that she may have never come to in any other way. Each of the protagonists of these three novels becomes a more mature adolescent, better able to cope with family life and the larger world because of her music.
Robert Jourdain, in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, culminates his study of the power of great music by revealing its transcendence. He writes,By providing the brain with an artificial environment, and forcing it through that environment in controlled ways, music imparts the means of experiencing relations far deeper than we encounter in our everyday lives. When music is written with genius, every event is carefully selected to build the substructure for exceptionally deep relations. No resource is wasted, no distractions are allowed. In the perfect world, our brains are able to piece together larger understandings than they can in the workaday external world, perceiving all-encompassing relations that go much deeper than those we find in ordinary experience. Thus, however briefly, we attain a greater grasp of the world (or at least a small part of it), as if rising from the ground to look down upon the confining maze of ordinary existence. (331)
For the adolescent girl, uncertain of her identity, at odds with her parents, and striving to make sense of her world, music can have a strong affirming power. This affirmation has indeed taken place within each of the three young women of these novels. Minna Pratt now knows that she is surrounded by the love of her family and friends and that fact and fiction are both ways of getting at the truth. Allegra Shapiro now sees the pieces of her life fit together more closely than they had ever before and she has learned the meaning of the word "empathy" from first-hand experience. Sibilance Spooner now understands better and can accept more fully the one person in her life who truly loves her.
Sibilance, already a first rate performer, will undoubtedly devote her life to a music career. Both Minna Pratt and Allegra Shapiro, however, still have a lifetime of decisions ahead of them. They may not become professional musicians. At a critical time in their lives, though, they have found solace and wisdom in the practice and performance of music. Music is the art that has helped them realize the truth.
Brooks, Bruce. Midnight Hour Encores. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. New York: William Morrow, 1997.
MacLachlan, Patricia. The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt. New York: Harper and Row, 1988 .
Russell, David. Patricia MacLachlan. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Wolff, Virginia Euwer. The Mozart Season. New York: Henry Holt, 1991.
Mary H. McNulty is Professor of English at Francis Marion University, in Florence, South Carolina, where she teaches courses in children's literature.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: McNulty, Mary H. (1999). Music and truth: Discovery in three young adult novels. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 47-50.