Friday, November 09, 2007

What we do versus what we should: NASM

My boss is heading off to the national meetings of the National Association for Schools of Music. Bold are his queries: balance is my verbose response.

I. “future of art music -- the roles of our institutions in developing public understanding and support”

We need a redefinition of both “art music” and the role of the public arts, in order to redefine our institutions’ role in these areas. As long as we are tied to hierarchized models of musical value—models which seek (speciously) to identify inhering greater or lesser value in one music idiom versus another—we are tied to out-of-date and potentially biased perspectives. It is my opinion that a major factor in the erosion of public understanding and support for “art music” is precisely this hierarchizing tendency: the tendency to say “this music is good for you and you should listen to it and fund it, whether it speaks to you or not; and that music is not good for you, it doesn’t merit study or funding, and so we in education don’t have to deal with it.” In the face of such a condescending and dictatorial perspective on any music that doesn’t “measure up”, is it any wonder that younger and more diverse audiences have lost interest in “art music”.

Perhaps we also need to retire that term. Duke Ellington said “there are only two kinds of music: good and bad.”

We should seek an inclusive, culturally-informed, and functional definition and valuation of musical idioms. If a musical idiom speaks to a group within the population of American culture, if it provides meaning and enhances quality of life for that group, then we in education should both recognize and advocate for this value. Any other criteria for value are dated, biased, and exclusive—and they work against our continuing relevance.

Such a “de-hiearchization” would have pragmatic pedagogical merit: students in the 21st century classroom become alienated, disinterested, and unproductive when the music they care about, the music that speaks to them, is devalued or disregarded. If our curricula, pedagogy, funding, and philosophical valuations include their musics, students become engaged, excited, and productive.

Such di-hierarchization would have philosophical and ethical merit: if we base our model of musical value in functional terms, then we can be more inclusive of a wider diversity of musics—and therefore a wider diversity of the rainbow of American ethnicities and social groups. And we can more effectively, comprehensively, and ideally fulfill our role as public universities whose mission should be to serve all parts of that public via celebrating all aspects of our diverse musical heritage.

Curriculum: we should address a wide diversity of the world’s musics, as well as popular and vernacular styles, in the undergraduate survey classroom; we should recruit instructors and offer seminars which can specialize in diverse musics for graduate teaching; we should permit and indeed facilitate a wide diversity of musical repertoires in recitals and the teaching studio

Clientele and community: we should reach out to local and student constituent communities, celebrate their musics and musical values, and make space in concert programs, general education, and public advocacy for those diverse musics.

Faculty and students: we should facilitate, encourage, and fund programs which permit music faculty and music students to perform service as resources to the community: playing, teaching, and talking about the ways that music creates social, community, and human value. We cannot be isolated in our classrooms, teaching studios, or recital halls. We must reach out: to public schools, social-service organizations, city and county governments, employing every persuasive demonstration of the value of music (by both performing and talking about music). We should volunteer.

Suggestion: Every music program should have a “music volunteerism” office or officer, who can field requests from community educators, organizations, or groups and channel music faculty or students into such service throughout the community.

Rationale: The most persuasive argument in support of music’s irreplaceable contribution to public and individual quality of life is to make that contribution: to demonstrate an inclusive, non-hierarchical, culturally-diverse, and passionate commitment to music as a tool for creating community. Every music program should seek public performance, education, and advocacy opportunities—and such service should count significantly as part of tenure dossier considerations.

II. artistic issues for schools of music -- internal opportunities and challenges for professional education and training

Diversify faculty: by ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or by area of concentration. It is not enough that our faculty’s diversity should achieve parity with our student body’s—we should be more diverse: by definition, that is part of the mission of a “university.” NOTE: “diversity” is conventionally understood as dictated by US-government recognized ethnic/minority criteria, in an attempt to correct inadequate diversity within faculties. I would argue that US schools of music are even more guilty of lacking diversity in terms of disciplinary concentrations: we will, for example, allow Black, Anglo, Latino, Asian, female, and/or GLBT populations to study music—but we fail to provide equivalent diversity and minority representation in the permissible fields of study.

Hence, not only our faculty and student demographics, but even more significantly, our topical and curricular categories, need to seek much greater diversity and to dismantle their very severe exclusivity.

III. P-12 music education, especially teacher preparation.

Teacher education in North America is hamstrung by unrealistic and insuperable standardized approaches to testing, which in turn elicit a vicious circle of “canonic information,” teaching to the test, and memorization/regurgitation as standard pedagogies. We need a more problem-solving-oriented, inductive, participatory, investigative knowledge-and-experience model.

Teacher education in tertiary institutions needs to address the above-cited issues of diversity (not only of student backgrounds, but also of topics, themes, and genres studies); see area I above. But it also needs to address new—or very old—alternate models for teaching musical skills and knowledge. Just as there is a wide diversity of musical idioms, western and eastern, new and old, “popular” and cultivated, so is there a wide diversity of musical pedagogies. Most of these diverse idioms have developed quite sophisticated pedagogies which are carefully—after centuries or millennia—tailored to teach the musical skills and aesthetics which a specific idiom believes to be important.

It is erroneous and arrogant to assume that “traditional Western methods” (solfegge, notation, verbal description, incremental learning, linearity) are the only or the best method for teaching these other musical traditions. Teachers need more practical, hands-on, and experiential exposure to diverse idioms’ diverse pedagogies. They should learn less in terms of abstract theory, and more in terms of individual idioms’ individual aesthetics, repertoires, procedures, and pedagogies. Even a short practicum in each of two or three different world, oral, popular, or ancient traditions would provide a wealth of experiences, perspectives, ideas, and inspirations for new and more imaginative pedagogy.

University music education programs should seek to provide this.

IV. What is most important in these and related areas of concern -- the things we should be attending to as a field, as institutions, and as NASM.

See above, particularly as regards interaction of campuses and various (local and virtual) communities.

V. What are the contextual issues that we face, and what can we do about them?

Learning styles: Students learn differently than they did. They process information differently, at different times, via different media, and via different processes of synthesis. Teaching critical reading, critical listening, critical writing, and critical speaking only according to “old” models of literacy is anachronistic, stubborn, and fails to recognize the value, and the intellectual firepower, that students manifest in the new media. They are not “illiterate”: they are differently literate.

Because most public high schools do not teach critical reading, or expository writing, or research skills, of course our incoming college freshmen lack those markers of literacy. Yes, we can take steps to redress some of these lacks, but we should couple this essentially redressive, conservative, “old-school” remediation by recognizing and exploiting the same students’ very real literacy and expertise with new media: Internet searching, social networking, video and sound editing, the use of “mind-cloud” models of knowledge.

Students with the typical peer-group’s fundamental knowledge of these media (facebook, myspace, wikipedia, youtube, web-cams, smart-phones, iPods, blogs, etc) already have very sophisticated abilities in: synthesis, recognizing tropes across art-forms, collage-knowledge, search technology, iconography, interpretation, critique of sources, etc. To ignore these very real and very useful critical skills because students don’t know how or resist learning to write a traditional research paper is a mistake.

Parental/family/social expectations: we are all now familiar with the phenomenon of so-called “hovercraft parents”: parents who have developed the habit of managing or micro-managing large portions of their students’ lives: registration, housing, bills, course selection, homework, life-skills, etc. Both parents and children have come to rely upon these tendencies, but the over-engagement of parents in day-to-day college lives can work against students developing independence, self-discipline, study habits, and a work ethic. Strategies: make inculcation of “independence, self-discipline, good study habits, a professional work ethic” part of the stated mission of the School. Emphasize that such skills and character traits are an essential part of a successful, adult life as a professional musician and educator. Make our intention of separating college students from excessive or invasive parenting a plus and a selling point—in turn, this makes it much easier to resist parental urges for excessive involvement.

Falling governmental support for arts education: As state funding for public education shrinks, various institutions employ various strategies to attempt to make up the shortfall: expanded donor/giving programs, a “corporate” model (now, thankfully, widely discredited), cutting services, sliding scales differentiating costs of more “lucrative” degrees from others less lucrative, and so forth. Typically these schemes all shortchange arts as part of education and public life.

Instead, change the arena of dispute: continue to argue passionately for the value of fine arts education as part of both the complete university experience, and as part of public community life. In Texas, this is easier: band, choir, and orchestra are accepted to be essential parts of primary and secondary education. Seek language and metaphors that connect these elements as essential continuations in the tertiary arena; e.g., “we educators and you parents and your children have all worked so hard, have given so much time, effort and money for so many years, to make music a part of your child’s life; why would or should we abandon the wonderful contribution that music continues to make in the very important years of college?”

This means advocacy: every faculty member, every staff and administrative member, needs to be provided with language, talking points, printed materials, and most importantly a sense of mission that will let each one be, and continue to be, an articulate advocate for arts education. Every student should receive, as part of the sophomore barrier, a “jump-start” class (as well as continual reinforcement in classroom, rehearsal hall, and studio) in arts advocacy. Every writing-intensive course should provide for at least one writing assignment on the topic of “why I think music improves the life of my community” or something similar. These should then be published on the School's website and on a Facebook group. Students should receive credit for such writing and the most articulate and passionate arguments should receive prizes.

Analogy would be to the public-awareness campaigns which successfully changed attitudes about second-hand smoking, public littering, drunk driving, etc. In each case, an issue which was initially presumed to be peripheral or of only marginal public concern was transformed, via clever and aggressive marketing, to one which was seen as a primary public concern “by all right-thinking people.” The “Art Saves Lives” bumper sticker is a good start at this kind of advocacy—but a bumper sticker alone is far too passive a medium to permanently transform public attitudes. Every school, and the organization as a whole, should have an integrated, clever, aggressive, and most importantly positive-themed public advocacy campaign—and every faculty, staff, and administration member, and every student, should be assisted to become its bearer.

What should we be doing to advance music and music study beyond our regular responsibilities?

See area I above. Also, much better conceptual, organization, and administrative integration and cooperation between and across academic and performance areas. We need to teach music as an integrated, multi-media, participatory, liberating, ancient, contemporary, revitalizing force for community good, accessible to participants of every age, background, attribute, and so forth. Our teaching, advocacy, administration, research, and development should all seek to do this.

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