Juilliard president Polisi sees Western music threatened
New York — SOMETIMES Joseph W. Polisi looks at his eight-year-old daughter and wonders to himself, ``When my daughter is 28, will she be going to a New York Philharmonic concert?'' To the young president of the prestigious Juilliard School, this is more than an idle question.
During an interview in his sprawling office, in which a seven-foot piano and a massive head of Arturo Toscanini seem all but lost, he argues that public school music programs in the United States -- programs that over the years have helped build healthy audiences for today's concert halls -- are in a severe decline.
Children are missing a valuable defining experience in their lives, he says; and American cultural life will suffer the long-term consequences.
Music educators contacted by the Monitor agree. Such factors as shrinking school budgets, falling enrollments, a rise in vocational education, reaction to the 1983 ``A Nation at Risk'' report, which sent shock waves through the educational world, and a gradual change in educational philosophy have been pulling the rug out from under music teaching in public schools, these educators say.
Enrollments at Juilliard and other front-line music schools are not immediately threatened by the situation in the public schools. But the professional life of Juilliard students could be affected by a decline in classical music involvement among the nation's students. And Mr. Polisi says that decline is very real.
``There's no question but that, in the past 20 years, there has been a decrease in the amount and quality of music teaching taking place in the elementary and secondary schools of the United States,'' Polisi observes. Looking out his windows at the Lincoln Center complex here, home of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, he adds: ``You've got relatively large audiences in concert halls today. I'm just asking the question out loud: `Is this trend going to continue?' . . . What percentage
of young people will we attract in the future? I'm not just bringing this up from a marketing and audience point of view, but from a cultural, sociological standpoint. There really is an intellectual content to classical music which, in my opinion, is not contained in popular music. . . . I deeply believe that if most of our society rejects traditional Western culture'' -- as expressed in clasical music, dance, drama -- ``we will become a weaker society and a more blemished place.''
Early signs of this trend may already be appearing. Robert Freeman, director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., observes that numerous school systems have changed priorities and that the changes have led to ``the disappearance of many professional positions.'' Mr. Freeman has been pressing for a national survey to gauge the extent of the problem and to provide hard data. ``None exists, to my knowledge,'' he adds.
Among the voices raised over this problem, Joseph Polisi's is particularly ardent. This bassoonist and educator -- who earned a string of degrees from Yale (two master's and a doctoral degree there), the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and the University of Connecticut -- draws his observations from a career that includes the administration of music education and solo and chamber performances around the United States. His ardor stems in part from his feeling that he probably wouldn't be w here he is were it not for the flourishing public school music programs in this city in the '60s.
``When I grew up in New York City,'' he recalls, ``the second I hit junior high school I was inundated with music. The program was there. It was a very aggressive, positive-looking program, where instruments were given to a lot of children and backed up by instruction. And there were a lot of ancillary programs which reinforced it. All of these programs have been cut back drastically. And that's a big problem. We see it in New York. And we see it around the country as well, with some exceptions.
``Right now, you have fewer musical instruments in the hands of students -- I'm speaking of serious classical music. And I contend that the best way to get people interested in music for a lifetime is to get them to play an instrument when they are very young.''
Many students get this kind of introduction, as Dr. Paul Lehman, associate dean at the University of Michigan's School of Music and president of the Music Educators' National Conference observes: ``There are a lot of very fine programs out there and a lot of good teaching and learning,'' But Dr. Lehman adds that in many communities, ``music teacher morale is down. Teachers have left, and the ones that have stayed are discouraged.''
The problem is compounded by the fact that music education and the appreciation of classical music are, as Polisi puts it, up against ``billions of dollars invested in a type of [popular] music that essentially rejects the basic principles of Western art music.'' And they are losing.
``We're going through a very sensual period in our culture,'' Polisi says. Through the media, young people ``are being bombarded by a whole other type of music, which is very captivating to a younger generation.'' There is also a prevailing mood of commercialization and obsession with money. In this environment, he says, the question has to be asked: ``How low will the common denominator become? When do we ask what is important to our culture beyond the bottom line?
``You've got to have cultural leaders in the United States pulling together and saying, `This is not just for music; this is for our culture, our society.' Programs have to be developed from the grade schools up. Many wonderful techniques for teaching music are available . . . , but the money and energy and planning and talent to teach in exciting ways [has to be found]. . . . It's a matter of money, no question about that. But it's also a question of philosophy and zealousness in defense of
Polisi says these things cannot happen without a change in today's educational climate, because teacher salaries are too low to attract the best people, and because music education departments -- the teachers who teach the teachers -- are generally absorbed in less crucial matters.
The results, according to a music educator who travels to many top-level universities giving visiting courses for a day or two, can readily be seen. Even highly motivated students in these classes, he reports, show very low musical literacy, poor musical perception, and a great deal of difficulty ``following the unfolding of a Haydn symphony.''
For this reason, Polisi feels that music educators should reassess their roles. ``Music education should take a hard look at itself and not just blame demographics. The field . . . has gone beyond what it should have become,'' he argues, adding that music educators have become embroiled in ``statistical studies, psychological studies of why students study . . . and esoterica.''
In the meantime, he is concerned that the real world of music listening is crumbling. By getting the nation's children involved in music early, he says, the nation can avert that outcome. ``That's one of our major hopes. If we can get the instruments back into the [students'] hands, then there's at least a shot at involving them in understanding what the discipline and beauty of classical music-making really is.''