Friday, April 6, 2012
Music education sets careful boundaries
Sidd Finch gave the French horn a spell of glory. The bassoon is still waiting. (Image from "Strong Memories")
The acoustic guitar is a marvelous instrument because it allows a single person to be so expressive. If you need it amplified, just set up a microphone. Accompany it with a human voice, and there's hardly anything more expressive.
Guitar playing is a lifelong skill. The piano has the same attributes but it's a pretty big and unwieldy instrument - expensive too. Laurel and Hardy's most famous "short" was about moving one. The electronic keyboard has liberated this instrument.
If you want to learn the guitar or piano, public schools aren't going to give you much help. If you're a kid you might be interested in "band." More accurately, your parents might "decide" you're interested in band. So you put your finger to your chin and wonder "which instrument?"
Well, why not learn more than one? That seems interesting but it's not how the system works. You pledge yourself to an instrument and are then supposed to stick with it. One could argue the decision is made too young.
That instrument helps define who you are as you grow up. After a certain point, we aren't supposed to ask questions about it. It becomes like fate.
Why does a trombone involve a slide in contrast to other brass instruments? The slide makes it a completely different proposition for learning. A trumpet player would examine a trombone like he's examining a rare artifact - almost scared of it.
Kids are encouraged to play these instruments with a passion. It's supposed to be a fulfilling commitment, but problem is, what happens after age 18, assuming you're not going to go on and play in college band? What is a clarinet player to do?
Band isn't alone in terms of this dead end quality. Think about high school football. How many of these young men, the ones who won't play college football, ever do anything close to playing football again? Or how about the kids who slavishly go through French class, conjugating verbs like crazy? Do they ever really go out and "speak French?"
So here's the point: Much of public education is devoted to getting kids to engage in activities where they follow a model of conformity. Education stands for nothing if not for promoting conformity. We're supposed to learn to fit in with society, and the acoustic guitar isn't in sync with this because it's such a powerful tool for self-expression. Self-expression could easily open the door for non-conformity.
There is nothing dangerous about a clarinet player. Now, the double-reed players? That's another story. OK that's a joke. Bassoons have value as firewood, I might chirp.
The very boring French horn was made to seem interesting when the "Sidd Finch" character, created by the late George Plimpton, played it for relaxation. He'd go down to the dock on the beach.
The instrument went back to its usual obscurity after that episode. (The Finch character was a prank, made up as a baseball spring training phenom who could supposedly throw a baseball faster than anyone.)
A band instrument is pretty worthless unless you're meshed in with many other players. This is a very limiting factor when you get past your school experience. Like football, an instrument like a French horn or clarinet will be retired to the dustbin.
And yet our education establishment thinks these experiences are quite vital. Same with conjugating verbs in French class, or dissecting crayfish in biology. Why can't formal education guide kids into activities that will have more lasting value?
The foreign language field was woken up to a certain extent. We hear about "immersion" and "immersion camps." We have realized this is the only way to really learn a foreign language. I am vindicated because my apathy in the French class I took (i.e. was force-fed) is shown to be well-founded.
Why are kids on their own to learn the acoustic guitar? I would say it's for the same reason bluejeans were banned when I was in high school. There was zero practical reason for this.
The guitar is "dangerous" precisely because it can be so expressive. It promotes the individual too much. So it isn't in sync with the objectives of public education which has the stultifying goal of conformity. Band members learn to perform as part of a cohesive unit. We recognize autocratic control in the form of a "director." It's really kind of militaristic.
The idea is to work as a unit to put out a "product." It's a model for the kind of challenges we'll face later in life.
Learning a guitar along with popular song form, perhaps with an interest to compose, makes you want to have your own personal imprint. This isn't what school is about at all. Once you are empowered with your own imprint, you might become political. You might look at the world around you and see flaws.
The whole idea behind popular music is to be emotional and honest. Look at the power Woody Guthrie attained. You are on your own if you want to follow this model. The public schools aren't going to teach it because it seems empowering in the wrong way.
School encourages you to perform as a cog in a system that will enhance business success. We once saw profits as just a means to live a comfortable life. Today they have become a total end in themselves, like it's a game.
People are forced to take ethics classes or seminars if they're caught gouging or lying, as if we need a class to simply realize we need to be fair. The class just has a cleansing effect, I suspect, reminding people "don't get carried away." It's not as if you did something totally wrong.
Bluejeans were a preferred attire for boys when I was young. So it made perfect sense they were prohibited, right? Why? Somehow, through how our popular culture evolved - James Dean? - bluejeans came to be seen as rebellious. Public schools cannot acquiesce to such a thing.
But, a simple pair of pants? What intrinsic qualities do bluejeans have that make them unacceptable? If they're not worn out they look quite fine, which you can say about any kind of "pants" or "trousers." (What lousy terms: "pants," "trousers.")
As a kid you didn't want to wear dress slacks to school because you might be teased. That was church attire. Your parents would drag you to church.
I once read that "corduroys" were developed as sort of an end run around school dress codes. They didn't really seem different from jeans.
I remember a music reviewer writing about a jazz band that had a young following, saying the audience was mostly "high school trumpet players wearing corduroys." Why on earth was the choice of pants significant in some way? This was as crazy as banning bluejeans. It could give one a complex.
I might ask the stupid question: Isn't the purpose of "pants" to cover one's legs?
Finally we all got a solution as the years went by. We got "Dockers" and other like versions. These were practical pants to wear anywhere. They bridged casual and formal. They had no political connotations. Whew! What a crazy time in which I grew up.
I regret not learning acoustic guitar. I didn't even learn about the "AABA" song form until I was college age. High school music never taught me about the "blues." If I played any "blues" it was off sheet music when the slavedriving director would guide us through, stopping us constantly in rehearsals (waving his baton constantly to get us to knock it off) so he could tell us how we screwed up. A perfect preview to the world of work that awaited us.
And that's what public education is all about.
I remember we played "Basin Street Blues" in pep band. But I was never instructed on blues song structure - the chords etc. If I wanted to learn how "verses" and "choruses" were organized in popular songs, I was on my own there too.
Popular music can make the masses restless. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as an alternative to "God Bless America." The lyrics for the latter seemed unrealistic and complacent. Guthrie wrote songs that came out of the dust bowl. Was he a communist? Maybe.
He was embraced by the leftist folk music community in New York City.
I remember "This Land is Your Land" as the theme for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. RFK picked up where Gene McCarthy left off. "Bobby" was assassinated.
It's fascinating to look at the fourth and sixth verses of "This Land." These are obscure and often omitted in recordings. Why? Because they accent protest and class inequality. A person can share a pretty strong message like this with only a simple acoustic guitar.
Public schools would much prefer you play the trombone. And play football. And conjugate verbs in French. And dissect crayfish.
Completing all that, a kid might well wonder if he was the only sane person in an insane asylum.
If you insist on learning the guitar, you might learn to pursue music with an attitude like what Guthrie articulated: "I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you."
A little too subversive perhaps.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org