An Arts Education Symposium

HOLLIS HEADRICK: If I were working in the schools now as a composer/performer… there’s never been a time when there are so many tools that are available in the music field. I happened to be listening to WNYC, and they were looking at electronic music, so they had some pieces on by Paul Lansky, and some others. Much of it, some was recent, but a lot of this stuff predated what people were doing in hip-hop, which is essentially electronic music, and sampling. You can go back to musique concrète , you can do a lot of things, where, all of that predates what goes on now. As a composer, you have this complete range of things that you can bring to kids to open up a whole new world.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s why I always say to people who are, you know, talk about introducing new audiences to music, why are you bothering to introduce them with Mozart or Beethoven? Play them Stockhausen‘s Gesang der Jünglinge play them John Cage, it’s closer to what they’re already hearing, it’s closer to what they already understand… or Steve Reich

POLLY KAHN: I think that’s absolutely on the mark…I would always prefer to start with the 20th century idiom for kids, and move backwards, because that, their connection to a Haydn symphony is far more remote than, starting with Steve Reich, you know, there’s an immediate, the common language, you have the driving rhythms and pulse, the energy, often the instrumentation, which relies so more much on brass and woodwind sounds rather than string sounds…

HOLLIS HEADRICK: If you try and draw analogies to what kids know, structure, narrative, I mean, looking at Steve Reich, you could use a piece like Different Trains, you can connect that to a study of the Holocaust. You can look at how is this a piece of music. Now how is this different than a piece of, you know, rap, which includes sampling, sounds that were originally created by other creators years ago and have been imported into a current piece that’s referential of a certain time… I mean, all of these things are parallels that you can draw from.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the thing with rap that’s so fascinating is that if you really go in depth into rap, like serious rap listeners, you’ll find tons of references to pop culture, older R & B albums, movies, television sitcoms, even commercials. There are as many loaded references in a Public Enemy album as there are in Ulysses. They’re there. But they’re just a different set of references.

POLLY KAHN: But, then, you go to some of the challenges, too, because around the table, we would all agree. But we have two constituencies who are the agents of the information. Number one, when you’re working in the classroom, a teacher needs to be your collaborator.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

POLLY KAHN: Often, the teacher is far more uncomfortable starting with new music. If they’re a music lover already, they may feel we need to work, you know, we need to work from history up, or even if they have no particular experience with it, people can often be very frightened of it. So part of the challenge is to bring the adults who are in contact with the kids to a degree of receptivity and comfort with any musical experience. You know, what can we do to enable people to go in with fresh ears and a willing attitude to anything they’re going to hear and that becomes a challenge for folks like Hollis and I who design such programs. And secondly, there’s the artist who is the agent of some of that information. A part of what many of us have tried to do in our involvement in arts education is to really turn the traditional model upside down. Most of us were raised with the assumption that there are 500 facts you need to know about Beethoven before you really can understand Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. What we are tending to do is say, what is really interesting about this, you know, this piece of music or these first 4 notes that this guy wrote in this famous symphony, and how can we take something maybe with four notes, create something of our own, and through that, discover ourselves as musicians and composers, learn about Beethoven and Beethoven’s Fifth through a real organic investment in the piece. And once that has happened, then, knowing more about the life of Beethoven is something that might follow, but it is not the opening gate. And we have work to do with artists who need to approach it in a way that is completely at odds with their own training, and we need to break down some of the doors of fearfulness, if you will, that many adults carry into new music experience.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although at this point of the game, I would daresay we have a whole generation, say people who are under 40 or people who are my age and people who are younger, for whom Beethoven is as obscure a name as Bartók.

POLLY KAHN: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: And one is no more frightening or less frightening than the other. They’re all on equal footing. So then where do you begin?

HOLLIS HEADRICK: Frank, I think you really hit on something. I think one of the things that’s the most enjoyable for teaching artists, and certainly when I went into the classroom, is that because most kids don’t know the repertoire of any particular tradition, they’re not coming with preconceived notions. Well, they know what they’ve seen on television or heard, but you can say something to them and elicit the kind of response and participation from their perspective, rather than the perspective that comes from being, or going through, training as a musician, or just being an adult and hearing things and making up your own mind. So what’s always been enjoyable to me as a teaching artist is to go in and deconstruct something and unpack it, and get back to the kind of naïve sense, which is I think maybe what Polly’s referring, not naïve in the sense that you don’t understand it, but looking at a kind of unifying idea and then from there looking at the kind of things that as a musician, you’d get to last. You always learn about the structure and the harmony and the analysis and then from there you work to the meaning of the piece. But if you look at the meaning of the piece first, which is what is ultimately communicated to the audience, and then from there, you go, then you’re able to draw people in, whether they’re adult learners or younger learners. And then you have lots of different ways of manipulating the material, rather than doing it from strictly a musical perspective.

RICHARD KESSLER: So much of this comes out of standardized forms of music appreciation and talking about music. I think that more and more things have been headed towards the direction of, at least thinking that, in order for people to truly understand it, they have to be engaged in it. We have to get to the natural state of being a music maker, the idea of people making music together, experiencing it, and then talking about it. But having that opportunity to be involved with the elements, to be involved in the most basic form of playing with sounds, the most basic form of soundscape and sound construction, and from there, beginning to learn some of the basics of an aural vocabulary: loud, soft, fast, slow, texture, invented notation. But it’s that kind of engagement, in the most rudimentary sense, that to me has always been the door you have to go through… I remember sitting in music history class at Juilliard, just bored out of my skull, because somebody was just talking about music when the last thing I wanted to do was talk about music, I really wanted to make music.

FRANK J. OTERI: After I’d played the piano for a number of years, my family said, “O.K., we’re going to have you take piano lessons.” My teacher said, “Well, your fingering is all wrong. You have to learn about the great masters, the great geniuses and their masterpieces.” I was horrified. I thought, “I don’t want to learn about them. I want to play the piano. And I don’t want to play their music – I want to play my own music.” And I think this notion of masterpieces and geniuses and wow, Mozart is so much better than all of us, we can never be like him, I think this is a really dangerous thing to tell kids. I think it discourages them from being creators themselves. I was all upset with an article in a newspaper that Richard showed me a few days ago. It was about a really interesting education program, but at the end of it…and it was probably totally innocent but it was a real flag for me… the writer said that we could never be like Mozart. I thought, well, why not? You know, I was so offended by that.

MAXINE GREENE: It’s so stupid. [laughs]

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