Though my forthcoming book, “The Crisis of Classical Music in America” envisions a whole new eco-system for music in the United States, I am delighted to write on the all-important role of the K-12 sector.
A vital part of my thesis is that, all too often, the islands of musical activity in America operate like an archipelago, in which a series of disconnected islands operates without adequate communication among the islands towards common goals. Thus, K-12 focuses on winning gold medals in a series of local, regional, and national competitions.
The collegiate area pays too little attention to the non-majors, producing many too many graduate degrees in an area where professional opportunities are in rapid decline, The orchestras , overwhelmed with candidates for the few positions that still exist, audition players without considering interviewing them. The whole society, instead of thinking about the amazing power of all sorts of music, insists on dividing music’s amazing variety into all sorts of watertight compartments, quite unlike the way in which the concert on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration presented not only Renee Fleming, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo- Yo Ma but Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, great artists all.
In the brief space allowed in what follows, I have directed my attention to additional ideas that would, I think, strengthen the role of K-12 music teachers in improving their national role as champions of music.
Pay a lot more attention to Howard Gardner’s seminal book, Frames of Mind, which posits as fundamental not simply reading, writing, and arithmetic, but, in addition, fundamental skills in perceiving music, in perceiving in three dimensions, in manipulating one’s body, in controlling one’s emotions, and in sensitivity to the words and to the body language of other people.
Carefully consider new standards for those encouraged to teach music in the K-12 sector. While it may be important that economists, historians, and theoretical physicists aim for PhD degrees, why should we ask for such degrees from music educators? Shouldn’t we aim in music teachers for musicality, for enthusiasm for good music of all kinds, and for a love of working with young people?
Working with major foundations, couldn’t we develop more far-reaching longitudinal studies, the results of which showed life-long enthusiasm for playing and listening actively to all kinds of music, in the concert hall, on the web, on CD’s during our endless hours of commuting? Does music study really produce people who listen more acutely, a desperately needed skill in our whole population these days?
Instead of asking young people to perform works of mediocre musical value, wouldn’t it make sense for us to emulate the work of Rochester’s Ned Corman, commissioning new work for first performance and recording from local young composers, who can easily be guided towards writing music of high quality that requires neither great virtuosity nor high expense.
Work collaboratively with young professional chamber ensembles modeled on the work of Claire Chase, founder of ICE (the International Chamber Ensemble) and of Eighth Blackbird, inviting such groups into your classrooms for several days and requiring them in advance to supply you with the kinds of materials that can prepare your students for the excitement of live music performed on a very high level.
Take advantage of the 3-5 pm time slots available in a great many public school settings between the time school closes and parents are available from work to pick up their sons and daughters. I believe that foundation support might well be available in the years immediately ahead for such initiatives.
Read the writing of UCLA’s James Catterall and MIT’s Jeanne Bamberger, showing that music instruction of high quality helps kids stay in school and to graduate, to learn important new skills that will be crucial to them for careers in medicine, politics, law, and business, for example.
Above all, refuse to accept the status quo for the future. There is no reason, at a clearly new time in our history, to continue to accept the mistakes of the past. If you have a good idea, test it on your friends. If some of them like it, write a brief article like this one, seeking additional advocates.
Read more about music in the K-12 sector
A third generation professional musician, Robert Freeman took undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Harvard and Princeton. A Steinway artist, he has taught at Princeton and MIT, having spent most of directing three of the nation’s principal music schools: Eastman (1972-96), Ne England Conservatory (1996-99), and th College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin (1999-2006). He is now Susan Menefee Regan Regents Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Crisis of Classical Music in America.