The Language of Music Advocacy

In a recent class I was teaching on music entrepreneurship, during an idea/feedback section of the class, I became mystified at many students’ inability to express in words the importance of music. Their ideas were wonderful: full of social impact, caring and dedication, but their ability to communicate effectively about the “why” of them was severely limited.

I concede that this is no easy task. Those to whom we speak come from varied backgrounds, and while one set of well-constructed remarks may touch one segment of the group, it may also leave another blank. And some of the magic of effective communication is reading one’s audience and tailoring the core message to it.

However, in thinking about how to teach the language of advocacy I came across a piece of work I did around 10 years ago on the intrinsic value of music. I had been asked to share the podium at an American Symphony Orchestra League conference with Mike Huckabee, the then just-retired governor of Arkansas. Mike was asked to speak about his advocacy for music education in Arkansas during his governorship. I was asked to speak generally about the value of music.

In preparation for this task I conducted a type of meta-analysis, amassing material form as many sources as I could find. What I found sifted the “arguments” for the value of music into roughly 6 domains. I decided that these domains were portals, or doorways through which one could choose to enter into the value of music.  As preparation for my upcoming task of teaching music advocacy, I thought I should revisit these portals and see how they might set the table.

The first of these portals is the celebrations and rituals portal. Most people need to be reminded that weddings, funerals, national holidays, sporting events, etc. rely on music for emotional impact.

The second of these portals is the cultural history and legacy portal, that music provides a window to one’s own culture, and to those of others, and as such evokes personal understanding, empathy and has the potential to build social bonds.

The third portal is related to the two above, but differs in my opinion. It is the voice of the community portal. Here music has the power to express the sense, vision or response of a community (state, nation) to an event or movement, and as such moves the community to a more in-depth understanding and leads to stronger social bonds.

The fourth portal I call the innovation and creativity portal that in perceiving new or new-to-the-listener organized sounds, one’s sense of creativity is stimulated, one’s openness to innovation, one’s imagination is enhanced. This portal speaks to Richard Florida’s thinking, but also acknowledges the ability of music to evoke physic-psychological action.

The fifth portal is the complete education one, that music provides an essential element in the complete education of an individual, not in the “knowing about music” sense, but in the whole brain concept, that it nurtures those parts of our brains that process emotion, feeling and abstraction, and in doing so, leads to better mental functioning. One could call this the “Howard Gardner” portal, in that it acknowledges the brain’s multi-functionality and the need to use it and develop it fully.

The last doorway is the individual portal. Here the individual is nurtured, inspired, and given freedom to contemplate, to be personally and privately allowed to process the complex and rich emotional and intellectual content of this unparalleled art form.

Now – onto the task of how to teach this!

About the author

James Undercofler

Jim has been a Professor at Drexel University since May, 2009. His previous appointment - since August, 2007 - was as the President and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Jim was Dean of the Eastman School of Music from 1997 to 2007. He has played a prominent role in musical arts and music education throughout his career. Before joining Eastman in 1995 as associate director for academic affairs and professor of music education, he was an active, performing chamber musician as well as first horn in the New Haven Symphony. Jim serves as board president, American Music Center; advisory board member, Arts Education Policy Review; board member, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, New York State Association of College Music Programs and American Symphony Orchestra League, and is a founding member, NETWORK of Performing and Visual Arts Schools and Mercury Opera of Rochester.

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