Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Arts in Education

Slipped Disc has a little piece about training conductors in the US:
Ambitious young conductors come from all around the world to study conducting in the United States. For decades our schools have sported internationally renowned Maestros, who have passed along their experiences and wisdom, lab orchestras and a plethora of performance opportunities. But is this golden age of conducting pedagogy coming to an end? From my standpoint the future looks uncertain.
The piece itself is rather innocuous, asking questions without delving into them. That is left to the first commentator who makes some good points:
I don’t think that one can see this particular academic shortfall as an isolated incident. One must accept and acknowledge that the USA is no longer a desirable place for study in many disciplines, but particularly in the arts. How can a society that has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment, where arts education programmes have been tremendously cut in primary and secondary schools, still remain a leader in higher level arts/music education? It simply wouldn’t make sense. The average US teenager, or adult for that matter, has hardly any understanding nor appreciation of the arts in general. It’s true that the same could be said for other countries nowadays, but it has reached particularly low levels in the US. So low, that in recent surveys US high school students were, in the vast majority, unable to name two famous composers, or two famous painters. The majority also weren’t able to identify the location of the European continent on a world map. This mass ignorance at a national level has to have an impact on higher education in the USA and explains why the country is becoming a backwater for arts/music education and it will sadly only get worse in the future as the country continues its decline.
Now that's an opinion! A clearly-worded strongly-expressed opinion like this is worth engaging, unlike the innocuous blather you often encounter. How true is this view, though? I always have trouble with the idea that it is "society" that does anything. In this case "society ... has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment." Society has no existence apart from the individuals that comprise it, therefore, "society" has no agency. Education in the arts has been cut because of a number of forces and trends. One of these, I am sorry to say, we can lay at the door of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This was an initiative of the Bush administration, but it received widespread bipartisan support. As a result, teachers are forced to "teach to the test" and the arts generally are considered frills in the focus on writing and math skills.

Modern society is enormously complex and what often drives public policy is private interests. The teachers and administrators have interests wildly different than those of the students and theirs tend to prevail. The truth is that it is largely intelligent and talented individuals who are attracted to the arts. Sadly, the current systems of education are actually hostile to intelligent and talented students so they are repressed and discouraged rather than encouraged and educated.

The fine arts have always been the special preserve of either an actual aristocracy or one of self-selection. They have never had the mass appeal that popular entertainment has (well, except for opera and some Romantic music). The arts when taught and practiced properly usually are not ideal vehicles for political indoctrination so they are not favored by politicians in general. As for big business, there is little money in the arts (except for some absurdly priced paintings and sculptures--$170 million for a Picasso? Give me a break!) so big business doesn't have a lot of interest either.

The arts do have enormous value to the individual who is able to understand and appreciate them. But these individuals are a minority. The trend in modern societies is for the state and its organs to control more and more of the lives of individuals so parents, for example, have less influence on their child's education and the state has more and more. While the parent may have an interest in cultivating the artistic education of the child, the organs of the state really don't. Again, there are exceptions. For some odd reason, Finland seems to be turning out an astonishing number of fine musicians, especially considering its small population.

As the ancient Romans observed, it is always illuminating to ask cui bono? Who benefits? None of the powerful institutions in society really benefit from education in the arts, so none of them support it. It is really up to us as individuals.

Let's listen to some Finnish music. Here is the Symphony No. 8 by Einojuhani Rautavaara, composed in 1999. Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Mikko Franck:


Anonymous said...

There's something obscene about a $170m Picasso. And keep in mind that whoever bought it spent what amounts to pocket change for him. (A good hedge fund manager makes that kind of money in a single month!)

On a more upbeat note, I was listening again to your Symphony 1, which I enjoy greatly. If I may ask a boring technical question: you mention using Finale as a score writer, but I was wondering what kind of soundfont library you used.

Bryan Townsend said...

What we need is a hedge fund manager who REALLY loves music!

Thanks so much!! I'm working on No. 4 at the moment. Yes, I just upgraded to Finale 2014. By soundfont, do you mean the synthesized sounds? I suppose that there are options, but I use the Garritan Instruments for Finale that come with the program. A few years ago they were pretty hideous, the string sounds at least. But they have gotten a lot better. Some instruments, oboe and bassoon, some percussion, sound pretty good. The violins still aren't there, but improved. Low strings are pretty good. Clarinet and flute need to be better.

Anonymous said...

Yes that's what I meant. I'll give it a try. Thanks for the information!