Picture this: summer school American Literature class. You're trying to teach the Harlem Renaissance, and after you've talked about jazz, jazz poets, and all things related to a revolution in music, painting, and literature you ask if there are any questions. The hands raise. These are the hands of seniors in high school. They don't ask you about Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. They ask you what jazz is. And they ask you what country it came from.
That was last week in my American Literature course I'm teaching to "college bound" seniors. Yeah, I know. My jaw is used to dropping, but I naively thought they at least had American musical history down. Turns out they don't. They of course know nothing about classical music, but jazz? Blues? Rockabilly? Anything pre-hip hop? Hip hop even? Nope. Can most students play an instrument other than their cell phones? The wine bar was looking awfully good on my way home from school.
How has it come to this?
What Good are the Arts?
Culturally, we have a general disrespect for the arts. I should phrase that differently. We look to the arts, and music in specific, the way we look at sports: It has to have some sort of payoff. It's not enough that we Americans and our children learn an instrument or learn a sport. We have to be the best at it and monetarily successful a la Kobe Bryant or Lady Gaga. Otherwise, we deem it a waste. That's a horrible way to look at the world.
I think back to my time working in a Japanese elementary school where every kid learned an instrument and had music classes on a regular basis. It wasn't a way to build virtuosos but to make sure every child had a basic understanding of this aspect of life. What a concept. No one had to justify the arts in the curriculum it was just there.
Often I think American parents are lost in the idea of specialization so much that we forget the obvious: There is no free choice or specialization without general knowledge first helping one decide. We need our kids to have exposure to a wide range of disciplines, of live and recorded music, and to be fearless enough to sing and play an instrument for themselves.
Music Education: You May Be on Your Own
It is often left to concerned parents to piecemeal together fine arts education at many public K-12s and sometimes privates as well. So many schools are focused on the fill-in-the-bubble mentality that they forget. An earlier Parenting Squad post, The Importance of Arts Education for Children, handled much of this.
For those of us willing to pay for private instruction in music, be it performance or reading music or music appreciation, the payoff isn't supposed to be making millionaire musicians out of them any more than t-ball is going to make them all Major League Baseball players. Its really about producing well-rounded citizens that realize and respect the value and worth of musicians and artists to be no less than engineers and scientists.
My kids get instrument lessons (guitar, piano and hopefully soon, accordion) and I also signed my son up for an online music course through K12 to learn to read music. As a former indie record store employee and singer, I take care of the music appreciation myself. Friends of mine have sent their kids to all manner of musicians for instruction, from classical to the non-profit Rock School. To me, it's all good.
The True Value of Music Education
A while back on this site, a writer wrote a piece called The High Cost of Music, which created a great deal of controversy. 200+ comments from music teachers, parents and students suggest that the high cost of not having music lessons in our children's lives is ignorance of the arts — which really means ignorance of our own cultural history. All children can and should learn to read music and learn an instrument and respect the art. This makes sense. All of us should have some general knowledge acquired by being in the close proximity of experts. It is distinctively American that we assume we must either look for greatness in our children or give up hastily and onto a new "hobby."
If in the case of my own children they become musicians (be it classically trained or punk rock), I'll be happy and content with it. But it's not what I'm aiming for. If the music lessons instead yield a discerning ear, good taste, a curious nature, a kick-ass iTunes collection and the ability to gather friends round on a Friday night with guitar in hand, well then it was worth every penny. We Americans have compartmentalized music for so long that we've forgotten the role it is supposed to play. It should both comfort and challenge us, it should be spiritual and sensual (or at least it is to me). There is no cost too high for the elation music brings.