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Culturally Naked Public Education
Does America’s diversity prevent a relevant public music education experience?

by Drew McManus
March 15, 2004

Get ready for a pop quiz: What do you consider classical music?  Most of you probably thought of something along the lines of the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  And although that answer is certainly considered mainstream, it’s only accurate regarding the Western European tradition of what we consider “classical music”.  And after all, American was founded almost entirely by Europeans that brought along with them their sense of values and culture so it makes sense that those standards remain with us today. Ever since the founding of America, we have been struggling with the concept of developing our own sense of culture. 
And since our founding 227 years ago, I would say non-pop American culture has remained nearly identical to its European roots. Our orchestras play the same music as do European orchestras, we read the same notation, and even distinctly American forms of music (ragtime, swing, jazz, blues, and rock) are all conceptually based in a decidedly Western European “classical music” tradition. I feel comfortable making this assessment because I remember sitting in a very “old-school” east coast ivy league music conservatory working out a harmonic analysis for Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag using traditional Roman Number analysis – and it worked without a hitch.  So there’s little doubt that when we talk about classical music culture, we’re talking about the traditional sense of what is accepted as “classical music”. 
Those European roots are as strong as ever throughout America. Whenever there is an analysis of the decline in classical music (or culture in general) throughout the country you can usually count on finding comparisons and contrasts between how the U.S. and Europeans do things.  This past week gave us a bountiful selection of writing on just that issue, the first was a piece published at by William Osborne entitled Marketplace of Ideas; But First, the Bill.  In the article, Mr. Osborne makes a lengthy assessment of the way Americans and Europeans fund cultural projects and the philosophy behind those decisions.  In his summary and conclusions, he states:
“European society illustrates that music education leads to forms of creativity and autonomy… Europeans combine arts education with the living presence of the performing arts within their communities. Classical music is far more relevant to young people when performing arts organizations are a highly present and esteemed part of their city or region.”
Music education is always a hot button issue in this country; its budget seems to perpetually be on school board chopping blocks.  We’re always reading about how those budget cut backs will mean the end of creativity and culture in America.  As a result, orchestras pump multiple millions of dollars into programs designed to supplement public music education programs so they can “grow” their future audience while each new generation of parents rally to save band, orchestra, and general music programs like clockwork.  And I would have to say that these are all good things to do, but only to a degree. 
Now before you start writing hate mail to the Partial Observer editor, let me explain.  I’ve had the unique opportunity in life to experience a very wide range of music education programs, I’ve:
  • Had dozens of years of private piano and tuba lessons.
  • Participated in public school concert bands, jazz bands, and orchestra programs over the course of my public school years.
  • Experienced several summers of private music instruction and ensemble performance at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.
  • Performed in private high school orchestras, semi professional community bands, and ethnic bands.
  • Performed in rock bands and even played piano for my church as a teenager.
  • Attended one of the top music conservatories in the U.S. as a performance and music educator major.
  • Established a private music studio and have given over 30,000 private music lessons.
  • Served as a substitute teacher for public school general music programs.
The one thing I’ve learned through this variety of experience is that it is impossible to focus on any one medium of music in order to “legitimatize” it as being culturally worthy.  To help make my case I refer to one of the other wonderful pieces of arts writing this week appearing in the New York Times by Peter Schneider entitled Across a Great Divide.  In the article Mr. Schneider makes the observation that:
“Animosity isn't the only feature of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Europe is rightly envious of America's multicultural society. There can be no doubt that the United States has produced the world's most varied and integrative culture, and it is no accident that it is the only one to have a worldwide appeal.”
This being said, it makes sense to assume that due to Europe’s homogeneous population, their ability to create a music education curriculum that focuses exclusively on what Europeans unilaterally agree as “culturally legitimate” is quite possible.  The result is a public education system capable of propagating the traditional sense of classical music as relevant to society.  But in America, it just isn’t possible; our diversity makes that an impractical task.  Unless you can have a vast majority of individuals in the country agree that the Western European sense of “classical music” is the paramount artistic benchmark for which all other forms of music culture are judged, then what you end up with is what currently exists: a jumble of music idioms that are as different from one another as they are alike.  Trying to teach children about 300 years of Western European classical music and then how all other forms of American music culture evolved and blended with the variety of non European music is impossible.  In Bach’s day he was the master of all types of music in the known world, but even that is only a small fraction of what we have access to in today’s American culture.
My appreciation for and definition of “music culture” is shaped by my vast experiences from childhood through my formal education years.  And every other American’s definition of what is culturally relevant is probably different from one person to the next.  This is one of the reasons the National Endowment for the Arts has so much trouble defining itself.  Whatever the NEA considers art may just as easily be considered obscene by a large segment of the American public - remember the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati? And how can you justify that a symphony orchestra has any more cultural relevance than a bluegrass band?  Simply put, you can’t.  If this were Germany, we could but in the U.S. you can’t expect that classical music will thrive simply because you increase public funding to school music programs and the NEA.  Appreciation for music culture in America should come from private sponsorship and non-profit endeavors.  Yes, public schools need bands, orchestras, and general music classes.  But we can’t expect a public institution that represents the most diverse culture in the history of the world to legitimize one form of art over another.
Instead, what we should do is teach children and parents the value of going out to support their local art institutions.  Public music education should drive home the importance of being a cultured individual and then let that individual go out to experience all that America’s diverse culture has to offer.  They need to be taught that it takes individual giving in order for cultural institutions to thrive. Culture is nothing more than a unique experience which only it can deliver, and people need to give money to community cultural programs which they feel are important.  These programs, such as orchestras and other classical music establishments, need to learn how to become inclusive environments which invite their community in to learn about and experience what their form of art has to offer.  I’m confident that the power of classical music will always profoundly reach Americans; not because we’re told it’s supposed to in school, but because that’s what it does all on its own.
As America’s cultural diversity grew, the world of European based classical music failed to grow with it.  Consequently, its audience has shrunk to less than 4% of the population and it has found itself at the fringes of a society that doesn’t play by their old rules. You can’t expect people to value what classical music has to offer simply because it is classical music.  So where does this leave us? It finds us in a place where classical music has to compete with all other forms of culture that exist in America. And with a mass media driven society, the competition is only going to grow fiercer. I feel that the mass market vehicle is not the approach classical music establishments should follow, yet at the same time they can no longer rely on their ancestral European model of government funded support either. Instead, it needs to reach out to the multitude of American’s it has neglected over the past 50 years. They’re out there, you just have to start talking to them and letting them discover just how meaningful classical music can be.
Now that you’ve taken the time to hear me out, what are your thoughts?  Does America need to buckle down and push for government sponsored culture as much as our European cousins, or should they promote the value of culture in general and let individuals decide for themselves? Perhaps you see another solution altogether. Either way you should write a letter to the editor and make your voice heard.

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