What We Live For
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, October 18, 2006
It’s not news to anyone that arts and music education in American schools hails from a long tradition of pitiful to nearly nonexistent. It may be news to some that in the last five years it’s gotten much worse, though it won’t be news to anyone to discover that in this as in other American degradations of late, President Bush has his fingerprints all over them (save those fingerprints: he’ll get his booking yet). This from Alex Ross’s “Why Brahms Belongs in the Classroom,” in the September 4 New Yorker: “When President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2002, he probably did not intend it to have a debilitating effect on arts education in the United States. The law rewards schools that meet certain testing standards in core subjects—reading, math, the sciences—and punishes those that fall short. Seventy-one percent of school districts have narrowed their elementary-school curricula in order to make up the difference, and the arts have repeatedly been deemed expendable. In California, between 1999 and 2004, the number of students enrolled in music courses fell by nearly half, from 1.1 million to five hundred and eighty-nine thousand. Music education has been disappearing from schools for decades, but No Child Left Behind has transformed a slow decline into a precipitate fall.”
My wife Cheryl and I live with our two children in Florida, in a county named after Henry Flagler, the man who founded the Standard Oil Co. with John D. Rockefeller, then invaded Florida and remade it in Donald Trump’s image (a few years before Donald Trump was, heaven help us, allegedly cool). It’s been all downhill from there: tourism, condos, go-go development and, naturally, a Bush governorship just now about to expire after eight years of giving real estate its biggest boom ever. Our county’s claim to fame we never asked for? It’s been the fastest-growing county in the United States for the last couple of years. If that had translated into the fastest-improving educational system, it’d be one thing. But madcap development usually profits the developers and their trail of speculators at the expense of everyone, and everything, else—education and our environment included. Florida has traditionally been a state that hasn’t had time to value education anywhere near its lust for lucre and real estate. Teachers are paid pitiful wages, turn-over is every school district’s bane, and the constant flood of new arrivals ensures a permanent state of disruption, especially in crazed-growth counties like ours, giving us schools that have more in common with circuses and carnivals than institutions of learning. The Education State, Florida ain’t.
It’s not the districts’ fault. But it’s not as if you hear a groundswell of parental fury to force the state to change things for the better, either. What gets parents’ goat here tends to have nothing at all to do with education—football schedules, bus routes, lunch menus, the usual gossip. Add to the mix the lethal effects of No Child Left Behind, which has reduced our schools to neurotic test-practicing and test-taking gulags, and you get little more than a parody of education. The arts, naturally, have no place in all this, unless you count the occasional art elective (if you’re lucky to get in) and band, if you think band has more than a step-cousin relationship to music.
Three (or was it four?) years ago Cheryl and I noticed an after-school program offering string instruction to students. Our daughter was eight at the time, our son yet unborn. The charge was about $120 per quarter: very reasonable, for those who could afford it in addition to whatever a violin might cost. We enrolled our daughter. She took to it. It was a small program. Good teacher (Jonathan May out of Orlando). Relatively small class. But like everything else around here, you got the sense that it couldn’t quite last: In fact May had to leave (he was overstretched), and his various replacement just didn’t add up to much. The program edged toward a slow death. By then Cheryl had become its principal cheerleader and coordinator, cobbling together salvaging operations and managing a recital or two along the way. But it couldn’t possibly last very long at that rate. The school system, needless to say, was no help: it was dominated by a superintendent who might have felt more at home in North Korea than in Flagler County.
Then fortune struck. The superintendent, teetering on a precipice, left. He was replaced by a musically inclined opposite. It might as well have been the Glorious Revolution’s Second Coming (complete with Bill of Rights for the arts, in effect if not quite in writing). The school board, too, no longer under a North Korean protectorate, breathed more freely and vaulted music education back onto its agenda. Cheryl saw her opening. We’d fantasized about a free after-school music program all along, underwritten by some generous patron. The new super sent word that he was waiting for a proposal. She pitched the idea. He embraced it. We’d get that music teacher who’d been here three years ago, enticed by a surer wage. The school district would pay his salary and provide us space in one of its middle schools. String classes would be entirely free (but for the instruments), twice a week. No one, no one with a desire to play would be turned away. Plus, three concerts a year in the county’s biggest venue.
The News-Journal, where I work, is owned by a violinist and a Medici of sorts, when it comes to the arts locally. With his support the paper agreed to be one of our chief sponsors, producing our three concerts’ programs, giving us generous coverage and plenty of advertising. The program couldn’t fail. It hasn’t (check out our Web page). Last fall’s recruiting drive brought in 130 students. This fall: 225. The program now has four music teachers. Our concerts, donations and advertising in our programs netted enough money to buy two dozen instruments, including eight or nine cellos (at $300 a bow) to give to students who can’t afford their own. We worked out a deal with the County Commission, whose transportation system, usually devoted to the elderly, now doubles up and gives students in need rides from their schools to the bi-weekly rehearsal venue. Simple principles. Fantastic results. Who ever said music education shouldn’t be an integral part of every student’s education?
And why? What does it matter? What difference does it make, really, beyond the snobbery of claiming to know what Köchel listing this Mozart piece happens to be or whether it’s proper or not to clap between the largo and allegro movements of a trio? I can only quote in answer Ruth Desrosiers, the violinist, quoted in that same Alex Ross piece I cited earlier: “But what does it do? I don’t know if it changes anything right in a single moment in anyone’s life. But it might change how someone thinks. Maxine Greene talks about the arts creating openings, this mysterious clearing in people’s lives, so they walk out of the forest and can breathe. Maybe, at that moment, music becomes a huge part of their lives. Or maybe they use the clearing to see themselves in a new light, and go on to do something different. It could be any kind of music, could be any other art form.”
The program has had its usual issues: what program of this size won’t, although considering the number of people involved it’s a wonder the usual wet blankets and obligatory asses are so rare. Most obscene complaint that we hear over and over? “The program shouldn’t be free.” There’s your Republican legacy for you. The disdain for “free” education, the greater disdain for education considered a “luxury,” when it ought to be considered a norm. (Ironically those people doing the complaining are the first to line up for instrument scholarships and the last to volunteer their time: another no-fail testimony to the Republican ethos of this SUV-gazing early century in our increasingly a-cultural America).
And last Saturday, we had our first concert of the new school year (minus the slick programs from the News-Journal, because I stupidly turned in my request for production there too late). The newest kids performed those old standards, the D major scale and “Hot Cross Buns,” the slightly more advanced kids played Offenbach’s Can-Can and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and our advanced kids gave us a bit of Handel, a couple of more obscure bits, and, for our jazzy bit, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (give it a listen in its original form in this old, old vinyl recording I just digitized). Best part of the evening: the way parents bunched up near the stage before the concert to find and photograph their child (or children, in a few cases) in that massive cluster of musicians on stage, all fidgety and beaming.
I could go on about Saturday’s concert, but let one of our students’ uncle describe it in his own words (and his own luminous pictures, such as the one illustrating this piece). He summed it up better than I could, and for every parent (or uncle or aunt or admirer) in the hall: “Tonight, my nephew Noah had a very big night… his first concert - as a violinist no less in the Flagler Youth Orchestra! He’s been playing now for a few weeks and definitely showed off his talent tonight. He was awesome and had a smashingly good time. I’m proud of you Noah for getting up there with confidence and being a part of a really cool thing. Vaughn [the writer’s young son] also was impressed and says he can’t wait to hear your first solo.”
That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is what we live for. And Cheryl, we owe it to you.