Filed under: Commentary
In late June I attended a concert given by the new Colorado Bach Ensemble. Before the concert began, I overheard a young woman possibly in her very early 20s discussing the concert with an older gentleman who I assumed to be her father. It became clear that this was one of the very few classical concerts she had attended in her life, and it was very clear that this was to be the only live performance of Bach that she had ever heard. Ever since that concert, I have wondered why the average age of today’s concert attendees seems to be fifty and above. I can certainly remember attending concerts when I was ten years old and seeing young people of my age in the audience. There were even teenagers in attendance. I also vividly remember two mystery shows that were on the radio: one was called the Inner Sanctum, and the other was called House of Mystery. When the heroine or hero was relaxing from their travails, they often listened to music, and the music they listened to was usually Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. And, more often than not, it was a symphony.
That just does not happen today.
I have often written about this, expressing my observation that young people have not learned how to listen to music that might contain something more than an incredibly loud beat and endless repetition of a phrase. In other words, they don’t have to think about the music very much. Additionally, and most unfortunately, today’s parents who are of an age to have children who are relatively young are themselves of an age to have grown up in the era where music education began to be eliminated in the public schools. The cultural changes of the 1960s also wrought a sense of entitlement that manifested itself in an “I can do whatever pleases me” attitude under the guise of cultural freedom. Educators were taught that the most important thing to be aware of was maintaining the student’s self-esteem so that criticism (and I mean criticism in the truest sense of the word: not censure, but critique) became almost unheard of.
The League of American Orchestras recently published a series of articles from many different sources proselytizing solutions to this situation as well as delineating the advantages of arts and music education. However, many of these articles are so laden with jargon that it is difficult to find the motivation to even read them. For example, one of the articles says that, “According to the 2010 Critical Skills Survey by the American Management Association, 80% of executives believe the US economy needs a workforce equipped with skills beyond just the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (the three Rs) in order to grow. In addition to the three Rs, organizations will increasingly value a workforce that has proficiency in the skills of critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation (the four Cs).” What does that mean? They don’t say that that depends upon arts and music in the schools, though it is strongly implied.
Another article in the list proclaims “positive outcomes” of evidence-based studies in academic achievement that document student enhancement of fine motor skills, improvement of recall and retention of verbal information, advanced math achievement, and the strengthening of perseverance. Another article proclaims that the study of music improves one’s success in society, success in life, and success in school and learning.
Yet another article presents the report of findings (it does not say who did the report) and states, “The single most critical factor in sustaining arts education in their schools is the active involvement of influential segments of the community in shaping and implementing the policies and programs of the district.” In other words (judging by the title) the public at large needs to inform the schools how to teach and what to teach. What a mistake that would be.
Nearly all of these titles are circumventing the issue by their dull and obscure statement of the actual problem. It reminds me of listening to some of the banking executives during the recent banking scandals that have hit the United States and England wherein the executives state that instead of firing certain individuals there will be “bank initiated departures.” It was also noted (and reported by columnist Lucy Kellaway in the Irish Times newspaper) that these executives needed to become involved in “up-skilling” their employees. As pointed out by Kellaway, this is not only an obnoxious use of the word “up,” but it is also useless to make a verb out of the gerund “skilling”: to skill. Jargon has replaced the meaning and the content.
The problem is that there are two basic programs in music with two different degrees: music education and music performance. Everyone agrees that music and arts teachers in the public schools must be better educated, but speaking just to music education, those who pursue a career in that field do not get enough education in music itself. The main thrust seems to be education courses such as the history of Latin grammar schools and John Dewey’s influence on education. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning about the history of education – I think that it must be learned – but I also think that the subject of music must be learned as well. And why involve the public in arts and music education as one of these articles suggests? For example, I have often been asked by a layperson what other instruments I can play besides piano, after I have explained to them that my degrees are in piano performance. When I tell them that I studied only piano, I have often heard the comment, “Well, what kind of a musician are you if you could only play one instrument?” This, of course, is engendered by the music education system that teaches band directors to learn every single instrument in the band. That takes a lot of time, and usually, there are many instruments that are learned poorly. Why not have more than one teacher at a public school so that the students may learn from a teacher who teaches that instrument well. I am fully aware of the cost implications to the school district, but if one is going to pursue a goal, why not do it well? Perhaps the music education program should be a five-year program at all universities. I also point out that it has always seemd to me that those in art education know more about art than the music education students know about music.
Performance majors are not encumbered by having to take courses outside of music with the exception of basically three different courses, provided that they pass their college entrance exams in English, and demonstrate their ability at writing. Those three courses usually encompass some kind of a coursework in history, sociology, and science. At most universities, but not all, these three course requirements are each one semester in length. Thus, the student is able to spend the rest of their undergraduate years specializing in their instrument, music theory, and music history. The result is that they know a great deal more about music than the individual who is majoring in music education in order to teach our students in the public schools. However, they are not considered qualified to teach music in the public schools because they have not had courses in educational psychology, and basic tools of education, such as filling out seating charts, etc. (I do know of one university where that was included in a semester course of educational tools).
I am not expressing a belief that everyone needs to have the proficiency of an instrumental performance major, but there is no question in my mind whatsoever that the music education system needs to insist that public school music teachers know more about music than they have demonstrated. In addition, those who teach music in the public schools should be trained in music, and more frequently than one would imagine, teaching music is given to an individual who has had no college training in music, but may, perhaps play the piano or some other instrument in their local church. One of the reasons that Suzuki teachers have to work so hard in this country, and one of the reasons it does not work in this country nearly as well as it does in Japan where it was conceived, is that in the Japanese public schools, the students are taught how to read music so that that the Suzuki teacher can concentrate on developing the students ear. As a private piano teacher, I have often had Suzuki students come to me for further piano instruction who are completely incapable of reading music, and, indeed, who do not understand the necessity for learning how to read music at all.
In a perfect world, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the teachers in the public schools were thoroughly knowledgeable about music? Please trust me when I say that I am not castigating music teachers in the public schools: I am castigating the system. I am fully aware that there are exceptions to what I have said in this article, and that there are wonderfully competent music teachers who are supremely prepared to teach in the public schools.
And, would it not be wonderful if classical music radio disc jockeys all had music degrees and that they used what they had learned at the university? That way, none of the announcers would call the BWV numbers of Johann Sebastian Bach a “license plate number,” but take their job seriously enough to explain that those numbers and the initials referred to the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or Bach Works Catalogue, wherein the following number BWV 232 refers to the Mass in B minor, and that the works are not catalogued in chronological order, but are grouped thematically by Wolfgang Schmieder. He completed his work in 1950. And, would it not be wonderful, if these classical music disc jockeys had enough respect for the music that they are “jockey-ing,” that they had some sense that they were in a position of educating the public, rather than just being funny?
Different sources of music education can affect the art (and music is an art) to an unimaginable degree.
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