Forest for the Trees

There has been a good deal of handwringing over the past few years about the glut of information and interaction that many of us voluntarily subject ourselves to every day online, but every once in a while I find myself seeing patterns and making connections between seemingly unconnected items. This may be because of my own distracted mindset—I tend to multi-task to a fault—but it’s occasionally helpful nonetheless to make sense of the chaotic and granular nature of the world we live in.

Recently there’s been quite a lot of “stuff” ricocheting around the social echo chambers that resonated in one way or another. For example:

 
Let’s start with the Common Core Standards scores in New York. Basically, you have external administrators (many with little to no experience in the subject area) foisting unreasonable and unproven expectations upon those for whom they are responsible. It is feared that many of those administrators have skewed agendas in regard to curriculum and teacher performance, and now that the first batch of disappointing scores have been announced, those in power will be able to push for changes—namely cuts in subjects outside of their STEM-colored worldview. (Hear a group of students from Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School respond to the statement, “The Arts are extra-curricular and disposable,” here.) Even those on the periphery—the media—act as myopic cheerleaders; the New York Times editorial linked to above does not question the viability of the tests themselves, but rather argues that more teacher training is needed in order to facilitate better test scores:

These scores should be seen as a kind of baseline to evaluate student progress from here on out. Instead of sniping at the outgoing mayor, the candidates who are vying to succeed Mr. Bloomberg need to figure out how to advance the reform effort. That means making sure that teachers are fluent in the instructional methods that help students reach the new learning goals. That, in turn, will require high-quality professional development programs that help teachers master the necessary classroom skills.

This idea is rebutted by one of the top educators in the state of New York, Carol Burris, principal at South Side High School in New York City. She points to those very fears about expectations, evidence, and agendas I mentioned earlier:

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include ‘cuneiform,’ ‘sarcophagus,’ and ‘ziggurat.’…

What is equally disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases…

The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools—from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations—all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change…This is all to be enforced by their principals, who must attend “calibration events” run by “network teams.”

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

Proof of that last statement can be found in the article regarding the changes at the DeKalb School District. In order to make room for a double (88-minute) period in math for their 7th and 8th graders, the school board voted earlier this week to phase out a period during which students could choose to take elective courses in general music, art, computers, and health. Here again, skewed viewpoints and agendas are in place:

“We’re behind where we probably need to be in acceptable standards for math teaching time, and this will bring us to where we need to be,” Board President Tom Matya said.
“… There’s a give and take here, but we only have so many hours, so many minutes in the day that we can teach, so we need to prioritize what items we are teaching.”

What Matya does not say in this statement is that the change will also enable the school district to cut the equivalent of three full-time teaching positions. This is indicative of changes happening all over the country—those who hold the purse strings using narrow content models in order to cut positions, increase revenue, lower taxes, and appeal to the base desires of their “audience”—the voters.

So what does this have to do with new music?

Besides the obvious disintegration of our future pool of audience members, performers, and composers altogether, the current situation in education in our country in many ways mirrors our own situation within the concert music community. Symphony orchestras and other artistic organizations have been weathering similar onslaughts for the past two decades and the current landscape is strewn with deceased and injured ensembles that succumbed to poor planning, narrow programming, and weak financial stewardship. A 2010 Anne Midgette article I recently came across outlines the almost-humorously low numbers of classical recordings being sold.

And yet, there seems to be an equally strong pushback against this paradigm within the new music community, as can be seen by the other articles I listed above. The number of festivals, camps, and workshops focusing on new music is steadily rising, spurred on by the ever-growing number of entrepreneurial chamber ensembles who see such endeavors as integral to their missions. Princeton’s programming concept, where a new or recently composed work is placed on almost every concert, is a model that other orchestras and large ensembles could copy with ease. Steinberg is demonstrating how good can come out of disaster (most of their developers were senior employees from Sibelius who were let go in a restructuring shakeup by their parent company, Avid) and why the common wisdom should always be vigorously questioned.

All of this loops back to the one article I haven’t yet mentioned. In his essay for NPR answering why he writes symphonies, Kevin Puts lays it out simply and effectively:

The symphony is not a trifle. It is not cute or hip or light. It says something important—about life and death and cosmic stuff—and it does so without embarrassment. What it needs to say cannot be said in a few minutes; it is not short attention span music. It is music for the patient listener.

This is the crux of the whole thing—the forest for the trees, so to speak. Life, in its many facets, is all we have. We cannot learn about life simply through the sciences or technology or business or marketing or law or even education. Artists need—must—be allowed to “say something important” about life: in a symphony, a sculpture, an art film, a poem, a monologue, a ballet, even an exquisitely designed building or a subtly crafted meal. If children are denied the chance to explore the rich world around them through omission and distraction, then not only are we losing our potential artists for the future but also the vast number of non-artists who won’t have that patience or understanding to hear what those artists are saying.

4 thoughts on “Forest for the Trees

  1. Phil Fried

    “..And yet, there seems to be an equally strong pushback against this paradigm within the new music community..”

    I am happy to see your support for music in the k-12 schools. Sadly principals can be fired if their schools test scores don’t rise not if they cut their arts programs to create more time for test prep. This is a strongest inducement to cut arts.

    As to the above statement of “pushback” I don’t see a connection at all; rather, I see a disconnect between the new music world, no matter its vitality, and the music education world. The Entrepreneurial spirit may work well in delivering a (musical) product an audience wants but not so well at giving a captive audience of k-12 students the education, including the arts, that they need. Strangely a number of giant non-profits that support education do not and will not support the arts. One such organization is run by a composer.

    I agree to your other comments and as a Minnesotan I could see a connection with cutting of k-12 arts programs and the recent lockouts of the MN Orchestra and the recently resolved St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

    Reply
  2. Paul H. Muller

    One argument for music education I would like to see made more often is this: playing music improves other skill sets. Music education should not be intended to produce musicians, but rather music is an activity that rewards practice, allows the participant to see how the component parts work for the greater whole, builds teamwork and nurtures creativity.

    All of the above are important skills for any discipline – especially math, science and engineering.

    The emphasis on test scores is indeed wrong-headed. Too bad the contributions made by music to learning are not as easily quantified.

    Reply
  3. Philipp Blume, y'all

    “Artists need—must—be allowed to ‘say something important’ about life: in a symphony, a sculpture, an art film, a poem, a monologue, a ballet, even an exquisitely designed building or a subtly crafted meal.”

    You had me until ‘subtly crafted meal’ — if cuisine is really an art form – and I do personally rank it far beneath the other disciplines you mention – who is to say that the person who invented credit-default swaps wasn’t also an artist? Or the person who improved upon them? Or the person who convinced regulators that credit-default swaps were morally tenable? Why can’t a financial instrument be a work of art? If we’re going to live with capitalism, isn’t it an artist’s responsibility to stick his/her finger into the loopholes of the machine and go koochie-koochie-koo?

    What about the person who made a human ear grow on the back of a rodent? That person is, in my opinion, a far greater artist than the last dozen Pulitzer Prize winners in composition (except Ornette).

    None of this is to diminish your main point at all, of course. NCLB does need to be revisited, making art does make us better at everything else, etc. But we do ourselves no favors, in the long run, if we turn art into something hermetic, precious, or superior.

    Reply
  4. Joseph W.

    “This is the crux of the whole thing—the forest for the trees, so to speak. Life, in its many facets, is all we have. We cannot learn about life simply through the sciences or technology or business or marketing or law or even education. Artists need—must—be allowed to “say something important” about life: in a symphony, a sculpture, an art film, a poem, a monologue, a ballet, even an exquisitely designed building or a subtly crafted meal. If children are denied the chance to explore the rich world around them through omission and distraction, then not only are we losing our potential artists for the future but also the vast number of non-artists who won’t have that patience or understanding to hear what those artists are saying.”

    I think you’re setting up a bit of a straw man here. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, art finds a way. Short of condemning them to a Kafkaesque existence in a cold, gray, police state (knock on wood), you can’t deny children “the chance to explore the rich world around them.” Sure, there may be children who — if they were born a few generations ago — would have matured into fine violinists or trombonists instead of the financial analysts and engineers they are today, but that’s life. Maybe I would have been a brilliant calligrapher if I’d been a medieval monk, but it didn’t work out that way. I can’t fault people today for lacking the “patience or understanding” to understand the subtle strokes of my delicate Gothic script; I can’t blame the schools for denying them the chance of appreciating that beauty.

    The most striking part of Puts’s article, IMO, is the end:

    “In the end, maybe what that journalist implied was right. Maybe it isn’t too cool to write a symphony anymore. But how cool anyway are we who love the inexorable rising scales at the opening of Beethoven’s Seventh, those wicked, angular piano chords in the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, the counterpoint in the last movement of ‘s Jupiter symphony, the epic ending of the Sibelius Fifth?

    We are moved in that way in which only the symphonic literature can move us. For me, the genre continues to feel right and true to who I am. I owe a lot to it.”

    ‘Uncool’ niche tastes like the symphonic genre are okay (and increasingly all tastes are niche), but it’s unfair to demand special treatment for your particular niche, especially when it’s resource-heavy and has a small audience. Sixty years ago, when your average middle class adult used to sit around listening to Leonard Bernstein or Charlie Parker on a Sunday afternoon, it was common sense that a school should have a good band and strings program. Today, even the last bastion of the band/orchestra sound — film music — commonly uses players’ talents indirectly via sample libraries. The defense of arts programs in schools sounds a lot like the insular defense of teaching cursive. “You need to learn cursive because if you don’t then you won’t be able to understand cursive (which is important because well-rounded, educated people understand cursive).” Times change.

    P.S. It’s worth mentioning that the decline of school music programs coincides with an absolute boom in affordable music-making tools. It’s hard to maintain that little Julie’s musical creativity is being stifled by insufficient band funding when she goes home everyday to a computer with a built-in microphone and GarageBand. Historically music has been something that’s required instruction to do well. A musician needs to be taught how to play the violin correctly, needs to be taught the basic ‘rules’ of harmony, needs to be taught about the various parts of an orchestra and how they blend, etc. But increasingly our culture considers music a DIY affair, and it tends to value music whose creators ‘did it themselves,’ which again is becoming increasingly practical with improving technology. I think the demand that we keep the antiquated European classical musical culture on life support (for the sake of people’s ability to express themselves musically, despite the total glut of music we’re faced with today) comes from a narrow view of how art fits into the larger culture. It’s missing the forest for the trees.

    Reply

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