Not long ago I ran into a former private student. On break from college she excitedly shared her music experiences. I listened proudly until I heard she was a music ed major. That's when my heart sank. I should be happy that she wants to share her passion. But it won't be long before she's looking for employment…and then what?
I live in a district that last year, eliminated all band and orchestra classes at the elementary level. Forty-six elementary schools in all--just imagine how many children are impacted. In early 2010 the district opened a community survey. This question about elementary instrumental programs was answered only by parents who had children participating in elementary music at that time: If a fee of $100-150 to participate in an Instrumental Music Program that meets 2-3 times per week is implemented, would your child continue to participate? The survey results? Yes: 1465. No: 1833. Underwhelming support by 44% of a small, select group. By the time our district eliminated the classes this group had already moved up to middle school.
Why do we need instrumental music? I have a better question: Why do we need high test scores in math and reading? Sadly, it's not about our kids; though they are the ones who suffer from lost opportunities. And in turn, our future will lack adults who can creatively problem-solve.
I read an article today "Trimming Music Ed in the Schools is a Mistake," by Mark George, president and CEO of the Music Institute of Chicago, writing as a guest columnist in the Chicago Tribune. "The arts provide a depth of understanding and even the basis for understanding for some children on their long road to achievement. And perhaps most important, the arts provide a way for children to envision the possibilities of a world outside of their immediate circumstances."
I'd like to think that loss creates space for growth, change and improvement. But my inner cynic sees little hope of ever bringing these lost classes back into the curriculum. Lost classes strike me as lost opportunities. I learned viola in an orchestra class in 4th grade so it's hard for me to imagine a different way. Or a better way. Luckily for my district there is a ray of hope. Thanks to the perseverance of one teacher whose job was eliminated there is an alternative for many of these students: fee-based before and after school band and orchestra classes. It's a great start.
Passing the Baton
For students and teachers everywhere, it is time to move on. Changing schools, growing up, graduating, retiring. There is change in the air for all of us. There is laughter and anticipation. There are tears and goodbyes. It's a bittersweet transition.
I remember graduating and leaving my private teacher of seven years. He was my mentor, my guide, one of the most important figures in my young life. Yet when the time came to move on I never looked back. Thrilled at the prospect of college, a new city and new musician friends I couldn't wait to leave. Now I understand the conflict of pride and loss.
My newest endeavor, teaching elementary orchestra classes, has a special significance for me. Ages ago my 4th grade orchestra class shaped my life. I threw myself into playing the viola with a fervor. That experience started me on my musical path. The path which led me to this very spot. As I bring these classes to a close I wonder about my students' futures. I know I shared my passion and caring. Did I make an impact? I suppose all that matters right now is they made an impact on me.
This weekend the Philharmonic said farewell to our Music Director. Lawrence Leighton Smith and I joined the orchestra the same year. I was glad to win a contract. He was ready to start something new. His passion and joy in music-making was just what the orchestra needed yet he shared more than music with us. He became part of our lives. He stood by us when the orchestra declared bankruptcy in 2003. He married the second flute player. In recent years our quartet performed piano quintets with him and working with him was revitalizing. He coached us like a teacher and he treated us like equals.
After 11 seasons it was time for him to move on. He announced two years ago that he was stepping down. We didn't see Larry much this season. We were busy auditioning Music Director candidates; he was busy writing his autobiography. In January Smith revealed that he had been diagnosed with a form of dementia, Binswanger's Disease. Scheduled to conduct our last two concerts, he was able to lead us in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in April but declining health forced him to cancel his farewell concerts last weekend.
The community threw him a formal party to say goodbye. Two hundred friends, colleagues and patrons were there to honor him. Memorable food. Grateful words. But there was a much more touching tribute. I bumped into Larry during the cocktail hour. He greeted me warmly, took my hand in his and wanted to know all about our quartet concert last month. He told me what a pleasure it had been to coach us. It was a moment I'll never forget. Utter humility. And I'll bet he was just as charming and attentive to everyone in the room.
I've come full circle. I remember how effortless it used to feel to move on. With each May I experience the pride of seeing young musicians taking the next step. Today I feel the solemnity of a goodbye. Farewell Maestro, you will be sorely missed.