A Shot To The Foot: How The Arts Ed Field Can Be Its Own Worst Enemy

I have been meaning to write about this these two horribly disappointing Opininator posts in The New York Times:

Beyond Baby Mozart, Students Who Rock, by David Bornstein

Rock is Not The Enemy, by David Bornstein

For about as long as I have been in this field, which is longer than I would now like to admit, I have witnessed the unfortunate tendency for us to shoot ourselves in the foot. It could be the arguments of discipline-based versus integration, it could be residencies versus field trips, aesthetic versus creative, blah, blah, blah. One way or the other, while one ideologue makes their shot across the bow, the people who are not so deeply connected to the arts yawn, and walk away. And many of these people are the ones we need to bring on board.

I do have to admit, I was pretty much startled by the truly unfortunate first post by Bornstein.

Music education hasn’t changed fundamentally since the 1970s. Students are still taught to read notation so they can recite compositions that they would never listen to on their MP3 players or play with friends. The four “streams” in music education — orchestra, chorus, marching band and jazz band — have remained constant for four decades, while a third generation is growing up listening to rock and pop music. And my experience as an eight-year-old is all too common. Many children quit before making progress with an instrument, then regret it as adults. Others play violin or trumpet for the school orchestra or band, then drop the instrument after graduating from high school.

It’s lovely, don’t you think, trashing one form over the other? Classical music and jazz are really just crap that no one wants to play, so in order to make music education come alive, let’s program something that people do want to play: rock and pop music.

Where oh where do I begin? Okay, I am going to , I really am, going to avoid my natural inclination to write a tome here and stick to just a few key points.

1. Kids listen to all kinds of music. Many don’t listen to rock at all. For some it’s country and western, others it’s musical theater, others it’s choral (yes, Glee), still others it’s rap, techno, and clearly Bornstein hadn’t noticed that those jazz ensembles have become quite popular. For those who are provided music education in K-12, the applications to music schools continues to rise, and yes, that includes classical music, the sort that was just too much for Bornstein to endure as a kid.

2. Most of the organizations I know in arts education are  in fact not proselytizing, but rather offering more variety of music and arts than their particular organization focuses on. You see it through curricula, the work of teaching artists, and more. Sadly, I think the author is a bit less than fully informed.

3. The real issue that concerns people is decidedly more prevalent in urban school districts, where lack of access to music and arts education is the real fight. This transcends a question of style or genre. And, this is coming to you from the head of a conservatory of music. Let me be clear: kids need to engage in quality music and arts education, whether it be rock, jazz, classical, integrated, choral, whatever. Our students need the opportunity to experience a variety of great art, as makers and as audience. I care that students get music, not that it be classical or jazz, or polka.

The second post by Bornstein tried to turn the tables by explaining what good music education is and isn’t, give credence to others from the art police who choose one form over the other, and even invoke the very old statement about music and arts education not being there to lead to careers in music. I could have read that statement in 1970.

In the end, it all had that sort of foot in the mouth (or whatever part of the anatomy you might choose) problem, and was really just another incarnation of missing the forest for the trees, while then trying to explain yourself.

With 25 percent of the public schools in New York City lacking one single full or even part-time certified music teacher, for example, to spend time promoting rock over jazz seems quite a waste of time. And, to even imply that the lack of music and arts education is because of the perceived predominance of one style over another, is unfounded to say the least.

The arts education field has come a long way, even if there remains some deeply troubling issues. If Bornstein’s posts did anything, they served to remind me, by comparison, of what some very old rhetoric sounds like. 


5 responses to “A Shot To The Foot: How The Arts Ed Field Can Be Its Own Worst Enemy”

  1. This reminds me of an episode on the Home and Garden channel where a couple of designers (The Novograts?) did a good deed for an underprivileged school and remodeled the music room. Then they decked it out with everything they would have dreamed of as kids. Needless to say it was full of neon lights, drum sets and electric guitars.

    I know plenty of music teachers who incorporate rock music into their lessons through dance and movement. I reward my students with 1 minute clips on you tube by the Mystery Guitar Man, and sometimes show OK GO videos to show them that thinking outside of the box is good.

  2. Excellent post! We spent the weekend in suburban Virginia, where parents were busy shuttling their kids to Friday and Saturday band and chorus rehearsals – with music that consciously incorporated rock and pop arrangements as well asmore traditional repertory.

  3. Richard – you’re absolutely right about ideologs on both sides of the aisle and the damage they do to the whole enterprise of music education in public schools. Bornstein’s posts laud the “Little Kids Rock” program which was very popular with elementary school classroom teachers (non-specialists) when we introduced it in the Chicago public schools. At the same time VH-1’s “Save the Music” program was supplying $30k worth of band and orchestra instruments to 60 elementary schools in the same public school system and helping me to leverage new credentialed music teacher positions. As John Cage once remarked when asked what music genres should be the focus of pedagogy at the college level, “Why not have it all?” Those words have stuck with me through all the yin and yang of competing arts education ideologies. (DR is the former Director of the Office of Arts Education, Chicago Public Schools 2006-10).