To these questions, I would add, “Why?” Why is it important how a composer becomes a composer? Why is it important that performers connect with and perform music of the here and now? Why should audiences give a care about anything other than music that they’ve already heard of? If composition “can’t be taught,” if new music is a niche-within-a-niche-within-a-niche that continually pushes performers to explore that which they do not know or are uncomfortable with, if the presenters and disseminators of live and recorded music base their decisions primarily on the advice of their marketing and subscription consultants, guidance based on the fear that listeners will head for the exits or change the channel, then why does any of this matter at all?
I’ve been asking myself these questions often over the past eight months as I’ve been taking part in an initiative to update the National Core Arts Standards. These standards, voluntary in nature, are “intended to affirm the place of arts education in a balanced core curriculum, support the 21st-century needs of students and teachers, and help ensure that all students are college and career ready.” Last updated in 1994, the standards have driven many of the curricular and pedagogical decisions that have been made in arts education and arts teacher education ever since.
Not to get too deep in the weeds here, but for context’s sake, the 1994 standards for music were broken up into a total of nine topics, including:
1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines
5. Reading and notating music
6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
7. Evaluating music and music performances
8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture
The 2014 music standards, which are currently being revised, are based on the following framework:
Each of those concepts is being looked at by several different subgroups of professionals from around the country, each from the point of view of a different aspect of teaching music. Traditional ensembles (band, orchestra, choir), “emerging” ensembles (mariachi, rock, steel pan, jazz, etc.), harmonizing instruments (piano and guitar), and composition and theory comprise the four main subgroups, and I’ve been working as a member of the Composition and Theory subcommittee since the beginning of the year.
(Yes, I know that discussing subcommittees and 20-year-old guidelines for public school teachers is probably the fastest way to chase a reader away, but stay with me for a sec—I’m getting to the good stuff.)
The changes that are being made—which will be made public on September 30, so I can’t go into great detail—are important for several reasons:
1. The concept of “creativity” is being focused on to a much greater degree than before. The environment in which most young students experience music in school or in private lessons has always been primarily performative in nature—you learn how to play an instrument or sing, and then you perform at a solo recital or with an ensemble of some type. The creative element in this paradigm is negligible; some would say interpretation is a big part of it, but there’s little room for interpretation when so much emphasis is placed on learning notes, rhythms, intonation, balance, etc. With this shift in focus, it is hoped that students will be given opportunities to tap into their own creativity to a much higher degree than before.
2. Composing is one of the most daunting concepts for music educators for many reasons, not the least of which is that most of them have never composed before! Composition is rarely included in music education curricula (with the exception of general music, where only the most basic materials are used) and this inexperience makes it likely that not only will those educators’ students never be exposed to composing, but students who discover composing will not get much help or support. The work that my group has been doing is centered on providing educators with clear guidance as to how to work with students who are composing for the first time, those who have some experience with composing, and those students who compose at an advanced level.
3. In other creative fields, exposure in education to contemporary examples is commonplace—incorporating contemporary poetry, theatre, dance, visual art, and filmmaking is considered a natural way to connect with younger students. It is only in music that artworks from the past are elevated to the almost total exclusion of those from the present. However, if students are introduced to creating music themselves at an early age and encouraged throughout their formative years to continue exploring music through creating it as well as performing it, their interest, acceptance, and passion for new music will grow naturally. I’ve seen many examples of younger composers who had a limited musical vocabulary suddenly blossom when introduced to repertoire from the last 20 years as well as the last 100 years.
The reason that many in music education push back against this new concept of emphasizing creativity through composition are plentiful and diverse, but they mainly stem from the performance-heavy aspect of teaching music—the assessment-driven nature of today’s teacher education system limits how much exposure emerging teachers are given to contemporary literature, and it’s easier to teach students and assess how they’re progressing if the teacher has a great amount of experience with the music at hand. If the music is new and unknown, this creates a challenge for the instructor. If the music is not only new but was created by the students themselves, that challenge is heightened exponentially.
Will these changes in the public schools affect the new music community directly? On the surface, I’d give it a solid maybe. There will probably always be a number of driven and talented individuals who will emerge from the vaunted halls of our conservatories or the “streets” of Brooklyn, New Haven, Baltimore, or Chicago. There will probably always be new premieres by the same big orchestras from whatever composer pool seems to be thriving at the given moment. There will probably always be non-traditional performance opportunities in lofts, bars, salons, and elsewhere. These changes may increase or diversify the number of creative artists from around the country, which would hopefully enrich our culture and our understanding of who we are.
But that’s not the important part.
Just as any music educator would say that the point of playing clarinet in a public school setting isn’t to prepare for a career in a symphony orchestra, the intent of giving children—and anyone, actually—the opportunity to create music of their own and collaboratively with others should not be to mold the next generation of Rome Prize recipients or next year’s lineup at Le Poisson Rouge. By allowing students (of any age) the chance to imagine an abstract idea, to plan how they could bring that idea to life, to make and play and make some more, all the while evaluating, revising, re-evaluating, and revising again, to experience the culmination of that idea and finally to look back at the entire process, evaluate it, and to dig into the next project with a greater understanding of what came before, by doing all this we allow them to see themselves, their work, and their life through a new, creative lens. With so much need for creativity, resourcefulness, and understanding in the world around us, we will require those visions all the more.