"Education in Music" Position Statement

August 31, 2005

Those of us whose lives are immersed in serious musicwe who compose it, perform it, teach it, attend concerts, buy recordings, in many respects live for it and in fact, make our living from itdo not understand why so few people in todays world have any interest whatsoever in this most beautiful art. Having lived intimately with it since childhood, the music and its disciplines form a deeply embedded set of operating instructions within us. We are not unlike the Apple Computers of the world surrounded by a sea of PCs; we dont run their software and they dont run ours.

It is this impasse that has brought the CMS executive board to the statement Education in music for all individuals is every musicians responsibility. This is about more than converting PCs to Macsit concerns nothing less than the survival of an art which embodies centuries of human civilization. Two generations of American public school students have graduated without significant education in music. American Idol is the result.

Within the sanctuary of the Ivory Tower we can immerse ourselves in something as complex as Bachs St. Matthew Passion, a work with religious, historical and literary meaning illuminated by music of surpassing beauty and craft. It is, however, only through education that we have access to all thisBaroque polyphony does not come any more naturally to a 21st-century American than the German language of the text. The vast majority of the population is unaware of the potential depth of this listening experience. Indeed, they are often openly antagonistic towards it, deeming it elitist, irrelevant to contemporary life, and (as even some of our colleagues would say) the product of a long-dead, European white male. They are, in short, a lot like the average students in our classrooms. We know the enemythe question is how do we reach him?

Our situation has parallels with the oft-lamented demise of a true liberal education. If Johnny cant read, how can we expect him to understand Shakespeare or Schopenhauer? And Johnny is not alone, according to Jonathan Kozols 1985 book Illiterate America, which claims that 25 million Americans cannot read at all, and 35 million more cannot read at a level meeting the full survival needs of our society. The United States ranks 49th among the 158 member nations of the U.N. in its literacy levels. The situation could not have improved in the last 20 years.

Its easier to make a convincing case for universal literacy than for a similar kind of music education. Everyone understands the benefits of a society that can read, but even those of us who know the joys and benefits of music have difficulty communicating why it is so important to us. We talk of edification, of aesthetics, of something beyond words. Every human society discovered on earth has musicsurely there is a purpose for it. If we are indeed to educate anyone else, we have to be able to explain its value. I therefore think that one of the most useful things CMS can do is lead an all-out research effort which quantifies scientifically why music is good for you, and why good music is even better for you. Before we have that information, our entreaties will become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Armed with such proof, we have a better chance of reestablishing music study in public school education, as well as a golden opportunity to redefine music education. It is interesting to consider that Bach wrote the Matthew Passion for performance by and for ordinary people who were not rich or privileged. They were, however, educated enough in music to bring it to life and, presumably, to get something of value from listening to it. Its performance was for them a contemporary experience that nonetheless had intellectual and emotional resonance beyond the temporal. Almost certainly they could read music. Is that so much to ask of music education today? Bach was most certainly a music educator; within the last century, Orff, Kodaly, and perhaps Hindemith come to mind as examples of similarly gifted music educators. They were first and foremost musicians (composers, performers) to whom teaching was a natural part of their job description. They did not limit themselves to teaching. Looking again to the liberal arts, Plato and Aristotle were, in addition to being writers and thinkers, teachers. The goal of any education should be to lead the student as far as they can go. American education, including its music education, has been above all utilitarian: teach the student enough to get a job. In music, this has translated to: teach the student enough to play the sax in the marching band. We can do better.

Even at the highest levels of music education (in the selective conservatories and schools of music) our goals are utilitarian, directed toward producing the next generation of performers and teachers for the extremely limited number of pre-existing jobs. If we are to accept the premise that education in music for all individuals is every musicians responsibility, then the most elite teachers must also broaden their horizons. I have a great deal of trouble imagining a Galamian turning his efforts toward the masses, but if he had only instilled in his students this worldview, I can easily and happily imagine how much healthier serious music might be if the likes of Pinchas Zukerman engaged school audiences more often, or if Mr. Gs many lesser known but eminently talented students who are now teachers were to set their sights on making violin playing as common among the young as watching American Idol. In CMS we know how many thousands toil in the fields of musical academe, tilling the same soil year after year. We, too, can do better.

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