Forest for the Trees

Forest for the Trees

We cannot learn about life simply through the sciences or technology or business or marketing or law or even education. Artists need—must—be allowed to “say something important.”

Written By

Rob Deemer

There has been a good deal of handwringing over the past few years about the glut of information and interaction that many of us voluntarily subject ourselves to every day online, but every once in a while I find myself seeing patterns and making connections between seemingly unconnected items. This may be because of my own distracted mindset—I tend to multi-task to a fault—but it’s occasionally helpful nonetheless to make sense of the chaotic and granular nature of the world we live in.

Recently there’s been quite a lot of “stuff” ricocheting around the social echo chambers that resonated in one way or another. For example:

Let’s start with the Common Core Standards scores in New York. Basically, you have external administrators (many with little to no experience in the subject area) foisting unreasonable and unproven expectations upon those for whom they are responsible. It is feared that many of those administrators have skewed agendas in regard to curriculum and teacher performance, and now that the first batch of disappointing scores have been announced, those in power will be able to push for changes—namely cuts in subjects outside of their STEM-colored worldview. (Hear a group of students from Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School respond to the statement, “The Arts are extra-curricular and disposable,” here.) Even those on the periphery—the media—act as myopic cheerleaders; the New York Times editorial linked to above does not question the viability of the tests themselves, but rather argues that more teacher training is needed in order to facilitate better test scores:

These scores should be seen as a kind of baseline to evaluate student progress from here on out. Instead of sniping at the outgoing mayor, the candidates who are vying to succeed Mr. Bloomberg need to figure out how to advance the reform effort. That means making sure that teachers are fluent in the instructional methods that help students reach the new learning goals. That, in turn, will require high-quality professional development programs that help teachers master the necessary classroom skills.

This idea is rebutted by one of the top educators in the state of New York, Carol Burris, principal at South Side High School in New York City. She points to those very fears about expectations, evidence, and agendas I mentioned earlier:

Because of the Common Core, our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations. New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include ‘cuneiform,’ ‘sarcophagus,’ and ‘ziggurat.’…

What is equally disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases…

The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools—from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations—all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change…This is all to be enforced by their principals, who must attend “calibration events” run by “network teams.”

If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.

Proof of that last statement can be found in the article regarding the changes at the DeKalb School District. In order to make room for a double (88-minute) period in math for their 7th and 8th graders, the school board voted earlier this week to phase out a period during which students could choose to take elective courses in general music, art, computers, and health. Here again, skewed viewpoints and agendas are in place:

“We’re behind where we probably need to be in acceptable standards for math teaching time, and this will bring us to where we need to be,” Board President Tom Matya said.
“… There’s a give and take here, but we only have so many hours, so many minutes in the day that we can teach, so we need to prioritize what items we are teaching.”

What Matya does not say in this statement is that the change will also enable the school district to cut the equivalent of three full-time teaching positions. This is indicative of changes happening all over the country—those who hold the purse strings using narrow content models in order to cut positions, increase revenue, lower taxes, and appeal to the base desires of their “audience”—the voters.

So what does this have to do with new music?

Besides the obvious disintegration of our future pool of audience members, performers, and composers altogether, the current situation in education in our country in many ways mirrors our own situation within the concert music community. Symphony orchestras and other artistic organizations have been weathering similar onslaughts for the past two decades and the current landscape is strewn with deceased and injured ensembles that succumbed to poor planning, narrow programming, and weak financial stewardship. A 2010 Anne Midgette article I recently came across outlines the almost-humorously low numbers of classical recordings being sold.

And yet, there seems to be an equally strong pushback against this paradigm within the new music community, as can be seen by the other articles I listed above. The number of festivals, camps, and workshops focusing on new music is steadily rising, spurred on by the ever-growing number of entrepreneurial chamber ensembles who see such endeavors as integral to their missions. Princeton’s programming concept, where a new or recently composed work is placed on almost every concert, is a model that other orchestras and large ensembles could copy with ease. Steinberg is demonstrating how good can come out of disaster (most of their developers were senior employees from Sibelius who were let go in a restructuring shakeup by their parent company, Avid) and why the common wisdom should always be vigorously questioned.

All of this loops back to the one article I haven’t yet mentioned. In his essay for NPR answering why he writes symphonies, Kevin Puts lays it out simply and effectively:

The symphony is not a trifle. It is not cute or hip or light. It says something important—about life and death and cosmic stuff—and it does so without embarrassment. What it needs to say cannot be said in a few minutes; it is not short attention span music. It is music for the patient listener.

This is the crux of the whole thing—the forest for the trees, so to speak. Life, in its many facets, is all we have. We cannot learn about life simply through the sciences or technology or business or marketing or law or even education. Artists need—must—be allowed to “say something important” about life: in a symphony, a sculpture, an art film, a poem, a monologue, a ballet, even an exquisitely designed building or a subtly crafted meal. If children are denied the chance to explore the rich world around them through omission and distraction, then not only are we losing our potential artists for the future but also the vast number of non-artists who won’t have that patience or understanding to hear what those artists are saying.