The Promise of the Blank Slate

The Promise of the Blank Slate

The Promise of the Blank Slate

The Promise of the Blank Slate

by Rena Kraut


Last summer, my almost-six-year-old learned how

to swim. I sat at the edge of the pool, watching as

he was launched forward by the instructor and

managed only a few dog paddles before he was

pulled aside for extra help. He tried not to cry;

I peeked from behind a shrub. Later, when he

stumbled, shivering, into his Stormtrooper towel,

the only thing between him and quitting was the

post-lesson reward from his teacher, a piece of

candy clutched wetly in his hand.

Learning is hard; without willing participants,


Playing clarinet in college, I had to virtually start

over and relearn a host of things I had been doing

wrong. It was miserable. I sounded like a beginner,

and the joy of making music was gone. What a

humiliating experience, after soaring through high

school on golden wings, to admit that there was so

much I didn’t know.

That admission is easier for a six-year-old, much

harder for an adult. But it blazes the trail for

learning. From my current perspective as a teacher, I

see how differently things turn out for students who know

they are not yet a finished product and those

who think they have nothing to learn. As Socrates

said, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know

nothing.” Which is why, I suspect, so many private

music instructors keep a box of tissues in their

studios. The intimate relationship we have with our

students is not unlike therapy: it involves breaking

down bad habits, undoing patterns, returning to a

“blank slate” stage until the rebuilding begins, to

become the musician, and the person, the student

wants to be.

Some of you may recognize my byline from the days

of the Orchestra’s tour to Cuba in 2015: thrilled to

go along as a substitute musician, I also wrote blog

posts for MPR. Over the subsequent 18 months,

days the revelation that they were to every single

person involved. I believe we—Cubans, Americans,

management—came into the situation as blank

that route, touched down in a country we had never

and spent the next 100-odd hours interacting with

people who had been, up to that point, as distant

and foreign to us as fairy tale characters. With no

expectations, no yardsticks, no barometers, we were

wide-eyed and open as six-year-olds. I believe it

was the childlike innocence and vulnerability in our

side-by-side rehearsal that made professional and

student, Cuban and American, turn to each other

with honest curiosity and a true desire for mutual


At turning points in history, the arts can act as a

messenger, sent ahead of the document signings, as

a sign of goodwill and hope for our mutual futures.

And because children are the most crucial recipients

of that message, there is no better way to deliver it

than through arts education. That is why, with the

support of Osmo Vänskä, plans are underway for

a Cuban American Youth Orchestra to launch in

summer 2018, presenting a national tour of both

the Cuban public and broadcast from Havana to

the United States, it is our sincerest hope that the

young people part ways with lifelong friendshipsand

music in their hearts. Because the Minnesota

Orchestra dared to dream big in 2015, those of us

from that trip can promise, without reservation,

that it will be something these students will never

forget; we can hope, without fear, that music will

help us all become the humanity we hope to be.

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