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Response to editorial in USA Today about choruses, orchestras, music education

Dear Colleagues:

A student from Oberlin has a big bully pulpit in today's issue of USA Today concerning high school music education and classical music. His opinion is, in my view, so well-meaningly misguided that I had to respond. I wanted to share my comments with ChoralNet readers, whether the newspaper prints my letter or not.

Here's the article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2011-10-02/high-school-music-programs/50635878/1

And my response:

I agree with David Sall that music education in America needs to better embrace technology in an effort to broaden its appeal and its offerings—but not to the exclusion of classical music.

To imply that Shostakovich (and by extension Beethoven and Mozart, choruses and orchestras) are now irrelevant because people can create their own music through Garage Band means students are not learning the fundamental value and importance of art. Music education in high schools is not, nor should be, primarily vocational. The greatest classical music (of any period—and from any culture) contains nothing less than the emotional history of mankind.

To not know Shostakovich, Beethoven, Mozart, (or Villa-Lobos, Revueltas or Ginastera, for that matter) means to be that much more ignorant of empathy—to understand less about how hope, oppression, joy, beauty, fear, love have molded humankind since the beginning. I would not wish that on any young person. In a world where interconnectedness is more about electrons than personal interaction, we downgrade the teaching of the classical performing arts at our peril.

David Katz, chief judge
The American Prize
www.theamericanprize.org
www.museoffireplay.squarespace.com


 
on October 3, 2011 11:17am
David:  I agree completely with your letter to the editor, but I have to suggest that advocating EITHER side of an "either/or" argument is missing some important points.
 
*Item:  Mr. Sall is a clarinetist, and has been teaching (presumably clarinet) for the past 4 years out of high school.  Fine.  But when he complains that "instruments are expensive" he ignores the simple fact that the human voice is the original musical instrument, the only one designed by God, and the only one that comes as original equipment on all models at no extra cost!
 
*Item:  There is a necessary place for keeping our cultural heritage alive, and that place is the schools.  And that means our SHARED heritage, not just the heritage of specific sub-cultures within our large and varied culture.  THAT'S why we tend to concentrate on the music of dead, white, European men:  they created a lot of our shared culture.  That's changing, and we need to recognize those changes, but not reject history just because it isn't politically correct.
 
*Item:  Mr. Sall is interested in going into politics, and it shows.  "Divide and conquer" usually works for those who have nothing much to offer!
 
*Item—and the most important one of all in my opinion:  The purpose of music education is NOT "making every student a professional musician"--his apparent thesis.  Kodály expressed it best:  his goal was to produce a musically-educated and appreciative PUBLIC, and he attempted to approach it through universal musical education in the schools.  The goal of teaching English and Reading is not to produce professional writers, and the goal of teaching Mathematics is not to produce professional mathematicians.  It is to ensure that everyone has the necessary knowledge and skills to function well in society.  That should very clearly be OUR goal, as well, while giving the small percentage who will be foolish enough to try music as a profession the best possible start on their way that we can. 
 
I meet every week with community band players who are USING what they learned in the school classes Mr. Sall disparages to keep music an important part of their lives, sometimes well into their 70s and 80s, not as professionals but as ordinary people to whom music has intrinsic value, and on another night with string players doing the same thing.  And we all know the value of community choruses and church choirs, all filled with singers who learned to love singing and music in their school ensembles.  I hope that by the time Mr. Sall graduates from college he will have gained a wider appreciation for what music education SHOULD be accomplishing, and also for what it HAS been accomplishing for decades!
 
*Item:  At the same time, I agree with him that leaving the music of today's children and adolescents completely out of school programs--leaving it entirely to the professionals, the advertisers, and the self-appointed gurus of pop culture--is also ignoring an important part of our cultural heritage and an important part of our mission.  And it's one that is better presented in the controlled and relatively safe environment of school ensembles, not left to garage bands or the rock culture that has a deserved reputation for embracing booze, drugs, and sex.  That may be THE most important reason for including show music in our curricula.
 
*Item:  The fallacy of his argument is most evident when he advocates for teaching young musicians how to produce their own songs and recordings.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but he obviously feels that electronic technology should be used to produce professionals, while older technologies (i.e., musical instruments, the voice, and written music) should not.  There's a disconnect there that should be obvious, but probably isn't.
 
I guess it takes all kinds.
 
All the best,
John
on October 5, 2011 7:06am
I am just curious what classrooms Mr. Sall has been in!  In my 8th grade classroom we do everthing from Bach to Bono, with a little Zulu tribal music thrown in as well!!  I also use smartboard technology, web pages, youtube and garageband!  I teach in a small rural community outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We have one of the top band programs in the state, one of the top choral programs in the state and several community music programs with very large memberships.  I have been teaching here for 10 years and currently know of only about 10 students that I have had out of about 1500 that are actively pursuing music as a career in some form or another.  I do know though, that many of my former students enjoy music in their lives daily.   We are teaching for both profession and enrichment.  Music is necessary in everyday life.  You never see a TV show or movie with out it.  It is such a huge industry in so many ways that you don't have to be a "professional musician" to be involved - legal jobs, production jobs, recording jobs, technology jobs..........  etc.!!!!!
 
Good teachers are doing exactly what needs to be done preparing our kids for the future!  Teaching about the past (and other cultures) and looking to the future!  It takes both to be a well rounded musician and a well rounded person!
 
I encourage Mr. Sall to get out of his classroom and visit some of ours!
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