A pitch for picking up instruments at the office, at home, at school

I am a performing musician and teacher; I celebrate 30 years of teaching this year. Almost 20 years ago, I sat silently as California's Proposition 13 began a nationwide trend that included cutting arts programs and their teachers in the name of local control and tax savings. In retrospect, I see how we may have unknowingly created a "cultural revolution" of denying music and arts education to more than a generation of our children. What were we thinking?

Now the concert halls' audiences dwindle, while many baby-boomer parents aren't exploring music, and their children don't play an instrument, sing, or dance. Both generations are hard-put to explore the possibilities for the future through artistic self-expression. Arts organizations today are trying to help, but their vision of their own future is generally based on a self-defeating notion of "audience development."

This is naive. Audience development or music appreciation or outreach concerts - whatever they might be called - are ill-conceived because they are based on something passive: listening. What's needed is participation in making music.

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, which ended 30 years ago, encouraged listening, to be sure; but Bernstein's special charisma didn't so much make us want to listen as it made us, as youngsters, want to be like him - to play, to conduct, or to be in an orchestra. He was our Pied Piper.

There are other presenters today, such as Young Audiences, who inspire students to want to play. But many of these programs are presented as "The Music Program," rather than establishing (or continuing) a lasting educational program for the community.

An interesting example of a state that has not allowed the cultural continuum to be broken is Texas. Music - classical and jazz, popular and modern - is a part of everyday society. It was saved through vigilance by parents, students, and the Texas Music Educators Association, who during difficult times lobbied the legislature against cuts in the budget and redefinition of music as "extracurricular."

Music has continued to be passed down in almost folkloric tradition in Texas, through a public school system and private instruction that make music available to all, regardless of economic or social background. There are 8,000 public school music educators and private instructors, plus thousands of college students and recent graduates working 2 to 3 days a week in local public schools. Half a million students sing and play instruments; nearly all participate in the University Interscholastic League run by the University of Texas, which administers all the musical solo and ensemble programs for the state, as well as the athletic programs.

As many Texas students are involved in music as in athletics. More than several Texas high school bands have found their way to New York's Carnegie Hall. Parents who have grown up in the system know that music is worthy of their organized support as "boosters." The same parents participate in other ways, playing in hundreds of community orchestras and bands in the state. One law firm, Vinson & Elkins, produces opera programs, mixing talented staff with Houston Grand Opera professionals.

These activities underscore the importance of actually playing - not just listening to - music. The reason people watch and appreciate sporting events, after all, is that they actually play sports, or once did. Adults relive their youth, while the young aspire to be like Michael Jordan or Stefi Graf, and go out and shoot baskets with Mom or Dad or hit tennis balls off the outside wall.

It is incomprehensible to me how anyone could reasonably expect my contemporaries and the next generation, ages 20 to 35, to listen to an orchestra concert. Most are embarrassed to attend a concert or go to a community music school for lessons.

So what is the solution? To parents, I suggest starting or supporting a music program in your local schools or community schools, encouraging music lessons for your children, sitting in on lessons, going to your children's concerts, and taking lessons yourselves!

To CEOs and businesses, I offer the following opportunity to lead: Bring a guitar, violin, clarinet, or voice teacher into work. A community music school can help. Let interested employees learn music for a half-hour each week in the workplace. Dedicate a small room to them. Pay for the lessons, split the cost with them, or let them pay for it themselves; try starting an after-hours choir.

Such efforts have already begun. Boston Philharmonic conductor Ben Zander teaches Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to Fortune 500 employees in single visits. Jazz pianist Ben Schwendener is teaching in the workplace in Boston, and pianist/composer Bruce Harrover teaches employees in an office building in downtown Houston.

We define our own cultural identity by both our geography and our participation. A lesson at school or at the office will make its way back home - and practicing at home will encourage other members of the family. Search out music of your time and play it, just as Beethoven string quartets were played in hundreds of houses in musical Vienna in the 19th century, when Beethoven was a "contemporary" composer.

Culture is available to all of us through a grass-roots movement. The ancient Greeks believed that music was one of the arts that made both the individual and society complete. We missed a generation; we have to retrain, and regain what was lost.

Ladies and gentlemen, choose an instrument and come out playing. Be part of the art. Take a lesson and create music in your own community. It costs so little, and makes life so much sweeter.

Kenneth Radnofsky is a faculty member at the Boston and New England Conservatories of Music and the Community Music Center of Boston.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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