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.