One of the posters commenting in response to my column last week wrote, “Of course you need a healthy music program in the schools,” in reference to my idea about putting student composers-in-residence in public schools. As I read this statement I wondered about its implications. Do we need to have a healthy music program in place in order for composers to work with students?
I remember a composer residency I did with the San Francisco Conservatory. I was hired to compose and be in residence as a composer and master teacher for a fledgling string program the SFC helped start in one of the most troubled elementary schools in San Francisco. This school was located next to one of the more dangerous housing projects. It lacked running toilets, textbooks, as well as supportive administration and teachers. However, the students were eager to learn to play.
My first day on the job hit me with the hard reality of the project: the kids had been with their instruments for only two months and had only learned the first phrase of “Twinkle, Twinkle” with the SFC student interns. Well, that was all I needed to begin. I used the phrase to create a work with canons that incorporated both open strings and variations of the Twinkle theme. With help from the interns, the students learned the music by ear within three weeks. The day of the concert arrived and our little orchestra performed beautifully. All the parents came, with relatives and friends in tow. The kids were so proud of their accomplishments and the teachers and principal were amazed at how focused, poised, and able their students were. Because of the efforts of the interns, the kids, and myself, the concert was a success, and the program’s funders made the project into a permanent after-school music program that became a model for other outreach projects in the city.
So, can we composers actually affect music education? Can we, by our actions, help music programs grow into strong programs? Are we teachers when we compose for young players?
Writing this, I remember a quote from the book I found on the Young Composers Project:
Music is more and more important than composition or theory or performance or pedagogy; that all musicians are educators, whether their locale is the concert stage, the composer’s studio, the musicologist’s archives, or the classroom.
The above is a quote by Edward F. D’Arms, former associate director for the Division of Humanities and the Arts at the Ford Foundation. If we take his view, we all are educators regardless of what arena of music we claim as our specialty. Thus, we can help develop music programs where there are none. We learn by doing. And, by doing, we teach. Or as another poster remarked here last week, “Teaching is just a different form of learning.” So, perhaps it does not matter what shape a school’s music program is in if we are observant and mindful of its possibilities.