When I was a young boy attempting to grow up in Los Angeles, I had the benefit of a public school education. At the time scholastic achievement was measured not just in academic terms, but in artistic ones as well. For example, my high school had three choruses, two bands, and an orchestra. We also had a composer in residence, who happened to be Peter Schickele. If you played in the band, you did not have to attend Phys. Ed. class. Musical activities took place during regular school hours, not before or after.
All that has changed. There are very few public education institutions that offer the broad-based artistic initiatives of which I was the beneficiary almost fifty years ago. Why did this happen? It would be easy to politicize the matter. Certainly the “race to space” made a difference, athletics took up a great deal of a school’s budget, and there was a growing emphasis on requirements for entering college. All of that is well and good, but we lost something important along the way.
No culture survives without its artistic heritage preserved and documented. The arts in general, and music in particular, are simply another form of history. They document through words, pictures, and sound how one aspect of civilization measures its growth. Music more than the other arts adds the abstract. Not only does it provide a connection to what came before, it opens doors to what is to come. There is a liberating spirit that allows a child’s imagination to flourish. No one can tell another person about the “meaning” of music.
In this age of music videos, we’ve come to rely too heavily on the visual and have lost track of the aural. The comedian Louis Black has observed that, if you hear a song and all that comes to mind is the video presentation that you might have seen on television, you should kill yourself. Perhaps that is overstating it, but certainly it is the imagination of the young person that needs to be stirred.
Along with that, an understanding of the discipline that goes in to any given musical composition provides a basis of understanding a simple principle; you have to know the rules before you can break them. At the youngest ages, children are sponges. All of us need to give them every opportunity to understand the value of the musical art.
There is nothing quite like the sight of seventy or more musicians working together to create beautiful music.I can think of few institutions that are as well qualified to express their art in both words and sounds.These days musicians who enter the orchestral work force are well versed in all kinds of diverse styles.Whether as individuals or collectively, the orchestral musician is in a unique position to educate and enrich the young person’s mind.
These days when I go back to Los Angeles, every so often I encounter a person from my school days. Some have become lawyers, scientists, a musician or two, and a few have already retired, but all of them talk about their years of musical training in the public school system. The impact cannot be underestimated. Let us hope that the young people of the next generation have the same opportunities to experience the joys and pleasures of great music.