Desert Island List: Use Your Power for Good

I was struck by an article I read in The New York Times recently, which described celebrities such as Robert Redford leading the cause to help salvage money for the arts in the recent stimulus bill passed by Congress. There was also a post on this site by Frank J. Oteri (“Economic Stimulus“; 2/10/09) regarding this issue, and a great deal of response, both positive and negative. Both articles reminded me of something an old friend advised recently, “Use your power for good.” And how exactly do we do that as artists and composers?

From my perspective as a performer (larger world) and as a music professor (smaller world), I ponder this question all the time. How do the choices I make affect my musical community, or any community at all? And if I had the power and resources to make a difference, how might I choose to spend them? How would I use my power for good?

If I had great personal wealth (if I won the lottery, for example) is one of those questions that everyone ponders at one time or another. Like the desert island question, it can entertain a dinner party for hours. If you could do three things to help support new music in the world, what would they be?

Let me get the discussion rolling by submitting my personal wish list:

As a performer and artist, I would like space and equipment to experiment. I am not interested in big mansions or fancy cars, but instead would build a retreat for composers and artists to come together to work and play. This space would be large enough to hold two Steinway Ds and every percussion instrument imaginable. Yet it would allow for an audience to participate, and it would be acoustically sound for recording. It would also be wired with the latest technology and be spacious enough for art installations. It would be a place where performers and composers could come together and engage in a dialogue that would produce new music and art. Of course, in this dream, the compound faces the ocean, and everyone has their own guest suite. The gourmet chef uses vegetables grown in the organic garden, and the wine is bottled on the estate. Such is my personal fantasy. (Did I mention the on-site spa?)

As an educator, I would want the funding for all schools to have a music program at every level that would include learning an instrument and singing, as well as acquiring skills to improvise and compose. Music would be taught as a basic requirement—alongside math, science, and reading—and would never be considered for cuts, even if there were not enough protractors or microscopes to go around. All schools would have adequate performance space, and there would be pianos and percussion equipment in every room. (Are you sensing a theme yet?)

As a global citizen, I would create an audience that appreciated the arts, by making it accessible to everyone. The audience would be drawn from the students listed above, who would value the music education they received and “pay it forward” to their children, and their community. In this perfect utopia, everyone would have a job, and music concerts would be free and local. Everyone would own a piano (and… a marimba?), and everyone would sing. The National Endowment for the Arts would be a national treasure, and the resources for music would never be threatened by budget cuts, or economic crises, or changing administrations. Musicians and other laborers in the arts would earn a real living wage, and the culture of a great nation would be as important as its stock exchange. In this fantasy, there would be no bills that threaten to cut arts funding, and no need for celebrities to save the day. Perhaps even my artists’ retreat would become unnecessary.

But this is only dreaming. In reality, I continue to commission composers as I can with the limited funding available to me, and I play concerts wherever there is an audience to listen. I teach students that music is important to their lives and to their future communities, and I support my local arts organizations with any money I have to spend. I write my congressional leaders, and I vote at elections for leaders who support the arts. I value diverse artistic culture in my life and my community, and I share my enthusiasm with anyone who is willing to listen. These efforts may be small, but I hope they will make a difference. Economic realities aside, we can all use our power for good. Actually, there may never be a better time.

3 thoughts on “Desert Island List: Use Your Power for Good

  1. amykincaid

    Let’s Do This
    Great straightforward and powerful needs. Why can’t we raise enough money and engage enough partners to do this? Hope these wishes come true, without having to rely on lottery!

    Reply
  2. Ann Millikan

    If you could do three things to help support new music in the world, what would they be?

    Establish the American Ministry of Culture. The Ministry would be responsible for allocating arts funding to each state.

    1. Each state would then have a huge on-line data base of working artists for each region that included skills, expertise, etc. Schools and other organizations could then access this information to find out who was available and qualified in their area for residencies. Every school would employ a composer-in-residence. Music making would be a part of every child’s education if they wanted it, and if they didn’t, they’d at least know about it and would grow up thinking composers were a part of every day life. When a composer was asked at a party, “So what do you do?” and they responded, “I’m a composer,” the next question would no longer be, “What do you play?” it would be, “Where are you working?” We would be visible in the community. Everyone would understand what we do.

    2. Every major orchestra would have the equivalent of the MN Composers Institute every year. Every orchestra would have a composer-in-residence, and new works would be featured on every concert. A data-base of works by living composers would be made which were drawn upon nationally with pride (a constructive form of Patriotism!).

    3. Instead of 53% of our Federal budget going to the military, only 20% of it would. That additional 33% at the current military budget of 515 billion, would bring 169 billion to the Ministry of American Culture. Imagine what your state could with 3 billion. Funding commissions? Funding orchestras? Funding new music ensembles? Funding composers-in-residence? No problem!

    My desert island scenario, in other words, is completely attainable if we got our priorities straight. And it wouldn’t just be music in the above scenario…it would be poets, playwrights, filmmakers, dancers, painters…all of us would be out there working in our communities not as some special elitist thing, but as cultural maintenance that we as professionals help everyone in the community participate in. We are already doing it, but with a fraction of the resouces we need, we could do so much more. I personally think we’d be a lot “safer” society if we nurtured creativity and critical thinking. Artists are problem solvers – every project we undertake requires it. Our skills are useful, and powerful.

    Reply
  3. Lisa X

    The question of what to do if I win the lottery totally misses the point that I have won the lottery. If you don’t know what I mean I kinda think you are hopeless but maybe this helps: Global Rich List

    So the real question is what have I done and what am I planning to do with my winnings. Truth is, I have spent and will continue to spend it selfishly. You?

    Reply

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