RICHARD KESSLER: A comment was made to me by one of the world’s most prominent composers during a conversation we had where we verged into arts education. And this great artist, who shall remain nameless, said to me that the arts education movement was about political correctness, and had very little to do with real art. And I wanted to throw this at the three of you, and to see how you would respond.
MAXINE GREENE: In its earlier days, before the partnerships, before the schools even noticed that there were arts institutions, they were closed in their own room. I don’t know if it was political correctness but I always think of it as defense against shock experiences, defense against novelties, because the job was to socialize and, so I think early art education was like that. And the art educators I know from of old, were very compliant people. Maybe they were painters at home on Sundays. But I don’t believe there’s an example of it at Teachers College now. The head of the art education department was named Ziegfeld; I think when I came he was head of the department. And the present head, found in back of the department a whole slew of boxes. And they were filled with children’s paintings, adolescent paintings that he had done in other countries. He was part of the international art education thing. And they’re hung in the gallery now. We’re having a little argument now about whether you should call them art. They’re correct, you know, and some of them are drawn very well. But you can’t find anything that makes you go: “Boy, how did he do that?” It seemed to me one of the evidences that around the world art education was used to keep kids quiet before this opening to concert halls, and to theater.
HOLLIS HEADRICK: There may be a perception that because of the different kinds of music now available and the fact that there’s so much blending and so much borrowing, and for some, appropriation, that the notion is, if we’re really going to study music, we need to either look at the classics or we need to look at contemporary music, and we need to study these pieces and understand the structure of them and we need to understand how to play them, and that’s the bottom line, in the sense of the traditional focus. So I’m not sure if that’s what he or she meant by political correctness. But I think now there’s a unique opportunity where you have so many different players in education. And I think it opens up a whole new world for students…
MAXINE GREENE: Yeah, that’s what I think.
HOLLIS HEADRICK: It’s not just about the conservatory and what, whether you think of it as classical music or as jazz, or as whatever artificial walls there are. But now there’s a range of opportunities, particularly with younger composers and performers. And kids, because the market is so segmented now for what kids hear that there are so many different opportunities, although there’s not enough opportunity, I think, for them to hear classical music and new music, particularly on the radio. But nonetheless, I think there is the sense of people who come from a traditional perspective – if they were really interested in music, they went through a band or chorus or whatever or maybe they were young composers, and then they went through a conservatory – that thinking of that training in the sense of the academy… that some of those things are not available now to kids in high schools, whether because there aren’t arts programs or music has been watered down now and it may be just music appreciation and it’s not as rigorous. So in that sense, if it is about the kind of political correctness, then one could read it that way. But I would look at it in another way, that these things all exist in a kind of balance. And there are still opportunities for regular learning that are traditional, looking at ear training and theory and all of those kinds of things: analysis that you do, and looking at the great works and whatever kind of tradition…
MAXINE GREENE: …There’s a class difference.
POLLY KAHN: Well, I agree with you. And I think it’s a retrograde point of view that assumes that what may have been true 30 years ago is still true today. And it assumes, number one, a very narrow definition of audience. You know, what I read into that is that arts education is done for the purpose of selling a ticket at full price at some point in the future and that cultural institutions and educational institutions are the same as they’ve always been. And it seems to me that one of the challenges and opportunities of arts education in the last decade or two is that number one, it has, it’s allowed cultural institutions to reinvent and redesign themselves, that I think more and more their view of audience is much larger than it’s been before, that if through education programs, the world of music opens up, if classical music becomes one of the options that’s available to people that they may not have been aware of before, that that’s an important service that a cultural institution can provide, if that leads to someone making the choice for a free parks concert or a stop on the radio dial, that that is a different definition of audience. That’s a worthy investment for a cultural institution. And that secondly, another, I think often invisible opportunity of arts education is that it reinvents the institution itself. If you think of some of the old institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum, or a New York Philharmonic, the traditional view was, we are here, we do what we do. And you can come visit us, and maybe you have a cheaper ticket entry price to do so. But the challenge of arts education has made all those institutions think about themselves very differently, and I think, increasingly, to view themselves as cultural citizens with responsibilities to the community and stronger links. So for the musician who is trained as Hollis is describing in a narrow world of people of his or her talent, going to a conservatory that is a vocational school, some of the challenges that we have is to take those people out of their history and help them learn to be involved in the society.
RICHARD KESSLER: Polly, you’re particularly on the mark about audiences, and I think that it’s a value judgement about audiences. And I think that there are artists out there and people involved in the art world who see one audience being of greater value than another. Being on the stage performing at Alice Tully Hall at an 8 o’clock concert, for a paying audience might be of greater value than making music with students in P.S. 165 or whatever school it might be. And that, I think, is part of a big question about what artists do, about the value of being a music maker no matter what the environment may be. You would make the assumption that if you’ve gone into music and you’re a professional musician or composer, or you’re an artist, you go into it one against odds that you’ll make it, and you go into it because you have a burning desire to be a creative artist, a music maker, to be a painter. But you sometimes see these artists making those judgements that well, they’re doing the school gig, but when they do the concert at the Metropolitan Opera, that’s a different story. They place a value upon that. And I find that a little disconcerting, frankly.
POLLY KAHN: Well, I think we’re also in a point of real transformation with regard to that. I mean, you’re certainly correct, certainly all the training in professional schools leads one to only value yourself as an artist. Again, a musician in training – almost their sole basis on which they judge themselves is how well they’ve mastered their instrument. And then as they’re trying to find work in the music business, it is based on that audition. Nothing else matters. But increasingly, you have artists who are making their way in the world through a diverse package of opportunities, and arts education is creating this appetite, this need for teaching artists. Part of the challenge for folks like Hollis and me is professionalizing the skills of those artists and through that, raising their value. You know, we’re making a tremendous investment in the training of artists, because we know that there are skills that they need far beyond their artistry that may never have been developed in their previous education. And to achieve the kind of standard that we want for arts education we need to make that investment. My experience is that musicians who are involved as artists feel that there is a tremendous benefit to them. That that discipline that it imposes – what is it like to communicate with people who do not necessarily know or value what you do, something they’ve never been challenged, for the most part, to ask themselves before – is a tremendous growth opportunity for them. And I think that this sensibility will begin to penetrate into the bigger institutions. In the orchestra world we’re beginning to see orchestras that are willing to make professional development opportunities in this area available, slowly, to musicians. We’re beginning to see service conversion where musicians have a package of responsibility and education is one of them that they can elect into. So that I think 20 or 30 years down the road, we may well see this as a much more valued component and an anticipated component. But we’re in that learning curve right now.
FRANK J. OTERI: You might even say that when you play that gig at the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic or wherever and you get a good review, you’re basically preaching to the converted on some level. And even if you get a bad review, there’s still a basic understanding of what you do. But if you’re successful in the classroom, and if you develop a new audience, and if you get those people in the classroom to engage in what you’re doing… and I would even go one step beyond that, not just as audience members but to get your students interested in the possibility of being a creative or interpretive artists themselves, whether it’s through visual arts or through creative writing or through music, then you’ve really succeeded on the next level. You’ve shown that the passion can be translated beyond yourself.
MAXINE GREENE: What do you do about kids’ creativity in another domain of music? I’ve run into it with hip-hop or with rap. Kids are being creative. I was once in Taft High School , doing something very unsuccessfully with poetry… [laughter from everyone] …and as they translated Spanish, and 2 kids came up later, the kind of kids I’d be afraid of in the street, and they said, “You could help us. If you know something about poetry maybe you can help us with rap.” And I was very touched by that. You know, but it’s another mode of creativity we don’t know a lot about.
FRANK J. OTERI: The fact is that rap is poetry and it’s improvised poetry…
MAXINE GREENE: It’s creativity.Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter