Music education and gun violence

school band

Eaglebrook Middle School band concert, 2012. Sorry, but their Flickr profile doesn’t identify where they are located.

Three interesting and important stories about music education have come to my attention over the last couple of months. Then came the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As it turns out, there is a connection.

Just before Christmas, I heard an interesting interview on the radio, found it on line, and emailed it to myself. Somehow, I couldn’t find it the first time I looked for it, but it turned up the other day when I was looking for something else.

It’s an interview between NPR’s Scott Simon and Marin Alsop, conductor of both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra. Last summer, the latter had become the first Brazilian orchestra to play for the Proms in London.

Music education in South America

With that, South America took a new position on classical music’s world stage. But it’s not a new beginning. Alsop calls it “a moment and a long gestation period.” It is the culmination of years of work in South American music education, which has borne fruit internationally.

Years ago, Brazilian nuns began a program called Goree. It is a more than simply classical music education. It has always aimed at shaping the fabric of society by shaping the way young people interact.

Brazil is hardly unique in using classical music that way in its educational system. Well-known conductor Gustavo Dudamel is the product of a similar Venezuelan program called El Sistema. Among his other accomplishments, his worldwide tour with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra brought Danzon no. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez to international acclaim.

Last week, I wrote about one aspect of Luis Szarán’s more recently started efforts in Paraguay to bring not only the joy of participating in classical music, but simple dignity to the poorest of the poor.

Music education in the US

American music education used to revolve around classical music. Then one bunch of ignoramuses figured that music programs in the schools cost too much money and another bunch started to complain that classical music is elitist and appeals only to people of a certain economic class.

If that’s the case, how did a young teacher in Brooklyn get his classes of primary students so excited to sing from a Rossini opera in the original Italian? And then attend a dress rehearsal of the same opera at the Met with such rapt attention?

But here is the connection with Sandy Hook: music education in South America is about quality of life, not just some expensive add-on for rich kids. Alsop cited a young Venezuelan who, after being taught to play clarinet, said that it felt very different from a gun.

What does music education have to do with guns?

Crime scene tapeAm I saying that learning classical music would prevent mass shootings? Of course not. But it probably would prevent a lot of the street shootings that happen so often that they’re never reported except locally.

Paul Hindmith observed, “People who make music together cannot be enemies, at least not while the music lasts.” And people who learn cooperation as children seem less likely to shoot at each other over petty squabbles when they grow up.

In this country, people often hold up sports as an example of how the discipline of teamwork helps to build good citizens. That’s true. And for anyone thinking of the spectacular murders and crimes committed by professional athletes, keep in mind that classical musicians occasionally behave just as badly. It’s just that none of them are famous enough to justify national coverage when they do.

But why, may you ask, do I point only to classical music in this post? What about popular music?

  1. As I have pointed out in several earlier posts, Italian opera started out as popular music. I’m thinking of a line from Music Man: “rag time—shameless music that’ll grab your son, your daughter, with the arms of the jungle. . .” Back when that story was set, ragtime was popular music. Does it get much play on pop stations? Or hasn’t it somehow morphed into classical music, just like Rossini has?
  2. Popular music has never required musical literacy—the ability to read and write musical notation. It has never required understanding of music theory or music education. In short, it has never required any education. That is not to say that musicians with impeccable training have not gravitated to popular music. But there’s nothing much about it to teach.
  3. Traditional orchestra, chorus, and band programs depend on larger ensembles than modern pop ensembles. Am I the only one who thinks it strange that a series of summer band concerts with nearly a hundred performers on stage can end by banishing 80% of them so that the series can end with a 17-piece “big” band? On the other hand, when has there ever been a vogue for 17-piece rock bands?

Bands, especially jazz bands, have never properly come under the heading of classical music. But on the other hand, they along with orchestras and choruses, require not only musical literacy, but cooperation among the members of a large number of people in order to produce music that is structurally more complex than recent popular music.

That statement is not offered as a value judgment, but as a description of the greater level of discipline and cooperation necessary to prepare a concert of classical music for performance.

How about if we leave off mindless squabbling about gun control (mindless because everyone seems to have set talking points but hardly anyone seems to have any listening points)?

How about if we restore orchestra, chorus, and band to their rightful place in our schools—and not just the rich suburbs, but especially the ones in our poorest and most hopeless neighborhoods? After all, music programs used to thrive in some of them.

How about if we add to the best of our own tradition the South American emphasis on dignity and quality of life, on changing the hopeless mindset that perpetuates poverty and violence?

Yeah. Dream on. But if we actually do all that, we’d soon find ourselves living in a more peaceful, secure, and equitable society no matter what happens with gun control.

Photo credits:
Eaglebrook School band. Some rights reserved by Eaglebrook School.
Crime scene tape. Source unknown


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