A Good Offense

I’m sure I’ve held forth on this subject before, but will do so again at a friend’s pointed request. A new cousin (new to me, that is—I have found several in recent years, and it is delightful) has posted several links to my Facebook page on the subject of music education, whether or not it should be “defended,” and related issues. One of these is Peter Greene’s Stop Defending Music Education on HuffPo (“Defend it because music is awesome in ways that no other field is awesome.”). Music Parent Tony (from Music Parent blog) takes the By Any Means Necessary position, observing that the differences between utopia and reality make the debates for arguing funding priorities justified, and rightly throwing some arched-eyebrow shade on the Greene quote in the parentheses, above. And an interview clip with English stand-up comedian Stewart Lee—an unashamed artistic idealist—rightly points up the problem with fighting battles on your opponent’s turf. If you win the argument on their terms, you still don’t win; the best you can hope for in this case is bullying someone into alloting a few more dollars in student awesomeness so those troublesome parents will go away. And given the increasing prevalence of gunmetal-gray utilitarianism amongst our legislators and even some school administrators, all that means is that they consolidate their propaganda and stomp out arts programs once and for all next year, helped (doubtless) by burgeoning anti-tax sentiment and a timely twitch in the financial markets.

I see Greene’s point, but “music is freakin’ magical”—another of his phrases—isn’t much of a defense. It’s universal it’s great it’s important it’s human it makes us who we are…look, however much I empathize, this kind of effusion doesn’t get the job done because it sounds like the stereotype of the incoherent artist, a type easy to dismiss with smiling condescension and what-alternatives-do-I-have withdrawal of financial support. Those with less artistic experience than we have, those who don’t know what we know, cannot be expected to be persuaded by ranting and arm-waving. Righteousness is of no help, here, and we cannot rely upon it.

So, what to do? How to advocate for, if not defend, Music Education as a priority? I start a new semester in two days, and my School of Music has a long and prominent history in Music Education, Bands, Jazz, Orchestra, Choirs, etc.—it is a so-called “mainstage” school, and if I resented that when I first came here, I understand it better now. No, our primary focus isn’t on producing virtuoso carbon-copies of whatever Famous Teacher loans his or her name and occasional high-maintenance presence to the institution, and we are not a musical think-tank of Bœthian pretension. Now, hot players are indeed made here and I take no little pride in many of our academic achievements, but they aren’t the main focus. So with my own School of Music in mind, what we corporately aspire to and strive to send students and teachers out into the world to do, I’ll offer my own take. In this case, I think that the best defense is a good offense.

Forget test scores, forget the idiotic “Mozart Effect.” People with serious musical experience, in school or out, know the following:

1) How to take (and benefit from) constant criticism;

2) how to perform under pressure;

3) how to self-correct much faster than others;

4) how to communicate non-verbally;

5) how to work alone, with independence and self-motivation; and

6) how to work collaboratively with others, especially under highly stressful, high-risk conditions and negotiating various wild personalities.


Not enough? Here’s something more global: good parents and teachers know that if a young person finds That Thing, the thing that can consume you, you’ll never give up the feeling you get from it. Now, that Thing can change; it may well not always be Pokémon or Music or Star Trek or Baseball or Chess. But the sense of something grabbing you by the throat and dragging you along with it because it’s just that great is both a tremendous gift and as good an investment in future success, stability, productivity, and happiness that you will ever find.

Not everyone can, should, or wants to be a professional in music; there are many other aspects to life. But thinking as a potential employer, how would you feel about hiring someone who possesses the qualities outlined in my six items, above? That’s why music, theater, and art should be primary expenditures in the public education system. And, of course, young people keep up on the academics just so they can be involved with such activities—as they do with sports, which never seem to be fighting for their curricular existence. It’s a win-win-win-win-win, which is why the shriveled minds that think of the arts as an “extra” are doing exponential damage to the educational system.

We all have That Teacher—a high-school choir or band director, a piano teacher, a scholar-mentor, and the most fortunate among us have several—who passed the flame on. Music is wonderful on its own; no argument, Mr. Greene. It also makes better citizens of people—a point understood by sages from at least Aristotle to Shinichi Suzuki—and unavoidably, folks) makes more resourceful, creative, independent, dependable workers. I see no benefit to keeping that particular light under a bushel.

Want to kick the local and national economy in the tail? Make sure the schools have competently taught and managed arts programs with sufficient funding.

Or, you could go low-tax, I-built-that, finger-wagging austerity route. Let us know how that works out for you. Our kids—musicians’ kids—will still thrive because we prioritize that. Sorry about yours; turns out hangin’ in the mall, owing to a lack of in-school options, isn’t much of a catalyst for excellence or heuristic for valuable skills, but we warned you.

My favorite line from the Boss: “No retreat, baby, no surrender.” A good year, everyone!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to A Good Offense

  1. Jason R-W says:

    Please send this to the NYTimes, more need to read this.

  2. So how does one get in the Times? (I know: practice,practice, practice…). But I wonder if they have to ask for it before they’ll publish it. I had a letter in there once, but this—or what I’d send them—is far too long for that. How does their op-ed policy work? And the moment they saw University of Northern Colorado, how likely is it that I wouldn’t end up in the control-D Outbox?

  3. Thanks for the mention of my Music Parents’ blog! Eloquently stated, for sure. Thanks for a great read.

  4. Sara Haefeli says:

    Wonderful. I have my own points I would like to add to your list.

    7) the ability to creatively problem solve. (I think this is more than just self correction. This is large-scale, long-term, difficult work.)

    8) ability to innovate.

    Innovation in any field is an act of creativity that is best practiced in the arts. Many of our schools are moving to a “drill-and kill” model of instruction, whereas the Chinese are moving as quickly as they can to a more open, creative form of instruction. We need to see that our greatest economic asset is not industry but innovation.

    I also strongly believe that the path out of poverty is motivated by one’s ability to imagine a different future. That’s what music and the other arts do for people–they give life to the imagination, they enable us to envision something different.

    One more related point that the gun-metal gray utilitarians may not ever get behind is the idea that C. S. Lewis calls the moral imagination. Empathy and sympathy are driven by one’s ability to imagine what it is like to be a different person in different circumstances. (There was a recent study about sympathy and kids who read literature.)

    That’s my quick two cents before heading off for convocation at my own teaching institution!

  5. Pingback: Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path | Dial M for Musicology

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