Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Day 24 "In the trenches" (sayanora edition)

In about 16 hours we leave for San Antonio, where I'll be chairing a panel discussion on teaching world music to various grade levels (K-12, college), involving teachers from around the state. I was asked to organize this panel--and the slate of 3 lecture-demonstrations that follow it--as an attempt to jump-start discussion, collaboration, and general representation of global idioms at this convention. Particularly important because, with the Texans' band-choir-orchestra bias in secondary education, other options (chamber music, music theory, composition, music history, world music) don't get much representation at that level, either at the convention, or in the curricula of the music specialists around the state who have to conform to Junior's asinine (and dishonest) "No Child Left Behind" Big Lie. Texans are rabid for testing, because that reflects competition, and all competition is seen through the approving lens of football--they even turn one-act plays into a state-wide competition. So, many of the messages that I believe world music has to teach (cooperate, listen, pay attention, find a way to fit in, respect that which is different from you and yours) are rather alien to the K-12 population--or at least, the Grades 7-12 population. Puberty hits, and cooperation goes out the window--and they don't develop much, cognitively, between age 12 and age 19. Hence, competition is still the model when the Texas kids hit college.

I think that's one reason that marching band is so big--not just with the boosters, but even more (and more passionately and idealistically) with the kids themselves: the "band rats" for whom marching band represents a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves, and which generates rabid support from boosters, parents, coaches, and state administrators, but in which cooperation and self-sacrifice is visibly, tangibly valued. It's not dissimilar to the football team itself, in those respects...but where it does differ is that, even in the half-time shows and the summer drum corps competitions, it's about creating something that is beautiful. Football can demand guts, strength, courage, stamina, mental and physical discipline--and sometimes heartbreak--but music, even marching band music, is prettier to hear and see, and it reaches further back into our DNA.

The problem with the band-choir-orchestra K-12 triumvirate is that it is limiting, and tends to be unimaginative. The boosters and the parents want to hear stuff programmed that gives their lil' darlings the chance to defeat opposing "teams;" the conductors and programmers want pieces that are either sure-fire evergreens or instantaneously-crowd-pleasing novelties, the kids spend most of their music-experience time sitting in ensembles learning by rote (and thus never learning to read or hear music with much precision) and come to college thinking that a music degree will mostly consist of more sitting in ensembles learning by rote, and--in general--there is a celebration and a fetishization of the familiar: familiar repertoire, familiar half-time shows, familiar programming, familiar stage-dynamics, familiar style-characteristics, etc. It tends to close them down to the marvelous, exhilarating experience of hearing something you've never heard something before, and thinking, "I don't know what the hell that is, but I want to make that noise." Acknowledging that you don't know something, are not familiar with something, don't know how something works, and that therefore the world is a much bigger place than you imagined, is a wonderful--but for these kids, unfamiliar--experience.

This is precisely the experience that encountering the myriad beautiful, complex, sophisticated, individual, and experientially distinct idioms of the world's peoples can provide. A lot of these kids have been programmed by parents', ministers', or coaches' preference for teaching "small-town values", no matter where the kids are being raised or where their lives might eventually take them. "Small-town values" are fine when they encompass "close any gate you go through," or "don't let your cows stray into your neighbor's field," or "check on the old lady across the street because she hasn't taken her milk in for two days,"--but more commonly, such "values" are actually code for "distrust people different than you," "don't develop an independent streak or a desire to question your elders' values or life choices," or "don't think that just because you're getting a college education your opinions are more valid than those of people who never read."

The K-12 music specialists know this, and by-and-large are willing to perform the (heartbreaking, I'm sure) task of walking the line between standardized testing's moronic lockstep, parents' insistence upon seeing the $$-value-added to every activity or financial outlay, and school boards' cowardly pandering to their perceived base (it's remarkable how ready school boards are to knuckle under to the noisy intolerant few, rather than standing up for the much greater tolerance and inclusivity of the quieter parental many). But, if you're a K-12 music specialist and you're already working 50-55 hours/week preparing and presenting materials for the classroom, you hardly have time to invent a world-music curriculum if you're not already knowledgeable in one of those idioms. And it's almost impossible to get the release time to learn such skills and develop such curricula if your superintendent, school board, or PTA don't recognize the value to youngsters of experiencing the artistic unfamiliar.

That's where we come in. If we're going to even attempt to fulfill the obligations of the public arts intellectual, then we have to help the teachers with materials, procedures and inspiration; provide superintendents and school boards the perspectives, rhetoric, and "intellectual legitimacy" (hah!) of teaching these musics K-12; and fire the imagination of the parents who, if they're on our side, can demand of the infrastructure that they find space and monies for these musics. We have to teach--but we also have to lead and inspire.

If we do this--if we begin to raise generations who recognize that that which is different, unfamiliar, challenging, or demanding is valuable, that it makes us richer as human beings--then we begin to raise generations who can in turn rise to challenges: of a bigger, more complex, more complicated, more challenging world. And can have the courage, the imagination, and the curiosity to begin to repair it.

That's why what we do matters.

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