21 May 2008

You Must Believe In Spring

It's no secret that Minnesota winters can be long and brutal, and our most recent one was an excellent case in point. With spring finally seeming to have arrived for real in just the last couple of days, I once again find myself thinking that I would have rather been a professional baseball player than a professional musician, and by extension, about the sometimes unfortunate parallels between the worlds of sports and music. In spite of the income disparity between professional athletes and professional musicians, the band and the baseball team more often than not find themselves in the same boat when they are attached to a K-12 educational institution, and as with "The Arts," extracurricular sports teams are often sold to taxpayers and boosters based on a dubious array of fringe benefits.

Every time I hear a public service announcement claiming that participation in music helps kids do better in math and science, I can't help but think of the utter loathing that the majority of my music school classmates felt for these subjects, the lengths they went to avoid having to take any "real" math or science classes in college, and the range of looks (from disgust to fear to anger) I receive upon admitting that I voluntarily took Calculus and Anatomy while they were slogging through a remedial statistics course. Similarly, every time I hear a public service announcement claiming that participation in sports builds kids' self-esteem, I'm reminded of the trials and tribulations of my abbreviated baseball career: dysfunctional coaches, irritating teammates, unsportsmanlike opponents, scheduling conflicts, injuries, equipment, travel, and most importantly, the fact that I lacked the talent to continue playing beyond the high school level.

This was anything but positive for my self-esteem; in fact, it was often downright destructive to my own physical and emotional well-being. There are strong parallels here to what I observed in school band, even though I observed them from the other (successful) side: infighting, jealousy, strained teacher-student relationships, varying degrees of commitment among band members, and so on. I continue to meet middle aged people who recall with a joyful smile on their faces how much they hated practicing scales and being made to sight read when they were in high school band. By the same token, when asked about baseball in the context of polite conversation, I'd probably have a good chuckle about having to have my face rebuilt on two separate occasions after being struck by various flying objects in the course of a game. Privately, however, baseball is a sore spot, a continued source of nightmares, and a quintessential case of wanting what you can't have. I wouldn't wish that sort of condition on anyone for any reason, but specifically with regards to music, which I, of course, have grown quite fond of.

In engaging a young person in any given activity, the risk of them loving it sometimes outweighs the risk of them hating it. Perhaps this is why our culture touts the supposedly objective, empirically proven value of these activities that promise to keep the kids only casually engaged; this as opposed to embracing them as a kind of "serious leisure" that could eventually lead that young person away from becoming a cog in the New World Order and towards a lifetime of private, frivolous, enjoyable, rewarding and vital music making. Even composer Ben Johnston says that those of us who fail to embrace the supposed developmental benefits of our art deserve our "social function as dubious luxury items." Johnston's primary beef is with "status seekers," whom we all abhor, yet his words seem to ally him with the bait-and-switchers who sell arts education based entirely on factors extraneous to the art itself. These are people who are themselves zealous status-seekers, eager to paint their career choice as a community service to the rest of us, and for which they should of course be rewarded with our sympathy and tax dollars. Remind you of anyone from the world of professional sports?

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