Friday, September 9, 2011

It's A Fine Line Between Killing Off And Dying

"I wish more people would consider culture like sports: that it is really there to keep you more physically fit than you actually need to be to drive to the supermarket, and to give you an image that there is another type of fitness possible." -- Peter Sellars, 17 March 2009, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I am constantly hearing how classical music is dying; how it no longer has any relevance; how it is not important to continue to teach children to play instruments in elementary school because it will not play any part in their lives as adults.

It's easy for something to die when it has been systematically threatened, tortured, strangled, and killed off in every way possible. What is more surprising -- heart-warming, even -- is how classical music refuses to die. But that doesn't mean that it won't, eventually, and this should be of much more concern than it is.

Even the most intellectually challenged politician understands that it is much easier to teach something to the young than the old. But that doesn't mean that they recognize the impact of shutting down music education in elementary schools. Whoever decided that all that mattered in schools was the three "Rs" (a problem in itself, as it's really an R, a W, and an A!) sounded the death knell for the arts in general, and music education in particular. The Kennedy administration tried to incorporate physical education into the three "Rs" curriculum, but arts education was not invited to the party even then (I'm not sure who was meant to provide the entertainment . . .).

The ancient Greeks got it right: they had the arts as well as the Olympics because, as Peter Sellars put it in the lecture quoted at the beginning of this post, they "were raising the level every year for the whole society and creating a future." Even the ancient Romans seem to have understood that music was important; otherwise, how could Nero have fiddled while Rome burned?

Seriously, though, if we want to explain why our society is so sick, we need look no further than the cuts in arts education in the past few decades. What is so confusing to me is that we continue to fund the football team but we don't want to fund the marching band to play at the games. And we don't expect the quarterback to just walk on the field one day without daily training; why would we expect the clarinetist to play without daily training, either?

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