Arts Education

Let me be a little more didactic than usual: as individuals and as a society, we can do a hell of a lot to prepare ourselves to deal with the world, other people, ideas and problems if we bothered to put a little money into arts education, especially music.  Not every child taking music lessons is going to turn out to be a creative, or even professional, musician.  But every person who applies themselves to the study of music is going to learn a sense of discipline, abstract thought, structured problem-solving and the skill and patience to listen to others, and this happens for any kid who sits in a music class and sings songs with all their friends – they don’t even have to join the choir.

And in this country, by singing songs they’ll learn a hell of a lot about what America really is and can be.  I have pointed out in the past how music expresses historical truths about America which are ignored in public/media discussions.  And this revelation, “Whose Country?“, from Andrew Sullivan offers proof of something else, that ignoring the music of America condemns one to ignorance of America itself.  Studying and writing about politics, regardless of the prestige of the degree or the accepted media position of the publication, seems in practice to depend on a theoretical notion of behavior, culture and values which has nothing to do with how Americans actual behave, what they value and especially what American culture is.  That’s how a relative late-comer like Pat Buchanan can think that America is a culture of white people and white ownership, which is as a matter of fact completely wrong.  Except in politics.  Culture is about how people live and eat and sweat and fuck and worship and dream, it’s the blues and jazz and classical and rock and murder ballads and dance tunes.  Sullivan has discovered a bit of the truth, and it seems music helped him along.  That’s great, shame it took so long.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


  • I’m not American, but I hope you’ll accept my thanks for elaborating as you have. Great food for thought, and my immediate impulse is to agree very strongly.

  • I think you’ll find these quotes apropos. I put it at the top of my year plans for teaching band at the international school I’m at:

    “If musicking is indeed an aspect of the language of biological communication, then it is part of the survival equipment of every human being. To music is not a mere enhancement of spare-time enjoyment but is an activity by means of which we learn what are our ideal social relationships… If music is to explore, affirm, and celebrate one’s link with the great pattern which connects the whole living world, then all musicking is serious musicking. Whoever engages in a musical performance, of whatever kind, is saying to themselves and to anyone who may be taking notice, This is who we are, and that is a serious affirmation indeed.” Christopher Small, Musicking

    “We are moved by music because musicking creates the public image of our most inwardly desired relationships, not just showing them to us as they might be but actually bringing them into existence for the duration of the performance. This will clearly involve our deepest feelings, and thus the act of musicking, taking place over a duration of time, teaches us what we really feel about ourselves and about our relationships to other people and to the world in general, helping us to structure those feelings and therefore to explore and evolve our own identity.” — Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue

    Also, you should check out this National Endowment of the Humanities workshop that my partner did called “Voices Across Time: Teaching American History Through Song.” I know it’s been very influential in her teaching and I was totally jealous that I couldn’t do the workshop, too!

    cheers from Germany!

  • Andrea, thanks for the comment, nice to hear from you all the way from Germany! That is an interesting project, I really believe intuitively that would work.

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