AT a time when pork is one of the worst words a politician can pronounce and every federal expenditure must be justified on grounds of dire necessity, what chance do the arts stand? In competition with health care and Stealth bombers, who dares hold out a hand for violin lessons?
Yet there is danger in simply dividing yeas and nays between the practical and useful on one side and the decorative but supposedly expendable grace notes of life on the other. A society that fails to protect its sovereignty by guns or feed its hungry with bread would, and should, be found wanting.
But what of a society that, because of its bottom-line priorities, allows music to fall silent? Is a shortage of pianists ultimately less tolerable than a shortage of fighter pilots or MBA entrepreneurs? The community without music is as incomplete as nests without songbirds.
Noting the Draconian cuts in public-school music programs in the United States, Joel Sachs, who teaches music history at the Juilliard School, has remarked, "We now have a whole generation that hasn't had music classes in school." The student body at Juilliard is being recruited from Israel, Japan, Korea, and Russia rather than from the graduates of American schools. In 1964, Juilliard boasted a bigger percentage of foreign students than any institution of higher learning in the United States - 19 percen t. But three decades later that proportion has almost doubled, with three out of four piano students coming from abroad. If three out of four baseball players in the US were born and trained elsewhere, what a fuss there would be about a native culture failing to do its job!
How much does it cost to keep a modest music program in public schools? Less than a football team and cheerleaders. But the choices don't have to be either/or. European nations manage to support all the programs the US now funds and with far more generous expenditures in two significant areas, the arts and family care - the agenda of civilization.
Without some small signal of commitment, no more than the downbeat of a baton or the sound of a tuning fork, the numbers of classical music performers and classical music listeners will continue to diminish.
Songbirds are recognized as endangered species and protected. It is time to preserve a kind of habitat in public schools for those who find that musical notes, even more than words, celebrate the full glory of their lives.