06 March 2009

Instrumentation Revisited

This post is intended as an expansion of an earlier discussion of instrumentation in music education, first explored here (PDF format), with a blog-based addendum here.

In continuing to reflect on my own experiences as a student, it is ever more apparent to me that the need to populate balanced instrumental ensembles is an undue hinderance to music education at every level. It starts with my 6th grade beginning band, where 90% of the students wanted to play either saxophone or drums. Appallingly, percussion was not even offered as an option. I was never privy to the exact reason behind this, but I have since hypothesized that either the discontent among those who were not selected to be percussionists had become destructive to the learning environment, or that giving the students implements which were designed for hitting things had proven to be a bad idea. Whether it was either or both of these reasons or something else entirely I'll never know; the point is that from the get go, the single most viable option for engaging a majority of the students in this class in a meaningful way was lost.

The saxophone, at least, was offered (alto only, as I recall), along with trumpet, clarinet, flute, trombone, and euphonium. We were asked to pick 3 instruments from these 6 and rank them in order of preference. Where more than the maximum allowable number of students had chosen a given instrument, the assignment would be made randomly, with those not selected being given one of their lower choices. Again, discontent among those not awarded the saxophone was palpable, at least in the immediate aftermath of the assignments. Needless to say, my top choice of euphonium was uncontested, though I believe I did list saxophone as my 2nd choice. Perish the thought.

In no way do I wish to overlook issues of practicality here, which include band directors' ability to find or create music to suit their needs, as well as the availability of school-owned instruments. Certainly, these factors make what I'm about to advocate a bit more challenging than simply forcing students into a balanced instrumentation whether or not they have even the shallowest inclination towards the instrument they are given. Nonetheless, where such inclination exists, doesn't it make sense to take it and run with it, even if it is rooted in the most trivial, commercialized pop-culture stereotypes? Given many students who want to play the same instrument, why not simply start a drum line or a saxophone octet?

I suspect that the answers to these questions may lead down some uncomfortable and contentious paths. It starts with acknowledging the stylistic hierarchy that exists in (more like dominates) music education, and within that, the instrumentational hierarchies that exist within classical and jazz musics respectively. Though they may advocate on behalf of "Music Education" or "The Arts" generally, it's not at all clear that teachers, parents, administrators or arts advocates would support establishing a school drum line as adamantly as they might support the school band or orchestra (or, at least, it was abundantly clear to me that this was not the case when I was a student). The shadow cast by the distinction between high and low art is palpable here, but I'm less troubled by the possibility that one would see fit to make such a distinction than that one might not be able to recognize the potential for high art to take root in the percussion section. In fact, I'm an unapologetic high art snob, and would like nothing more than to see it manifested in every possible way in every possible corner of the earth. If the kids want to play drums, then goddamn it, give them drums and turn them loose. Anybody ever heard of a guy named Elvin Jones?

Teachers themselves seem to view this as merely giving in to the whims of students whose worlds were shaped by television and pop culture, where instruments like the tuba are used merely as punch lines, and where those like the bassoon would be lucky to make it on the air even in this capacity. The act of foisting music and instruments upon students rather than meeting them halfway has become a ritual of sorts, the discontent it sows merely being taken as a sign that learning is, in fact, taking place. It's good for you in an unpleasant sort of way, kind of like eating your vegetables or going to the dentist.

Of the many flaws in this paradigm, perhaps the most glaring is that it invariably squanders what may be the only thing the beginning instrumental teacher has going for them, namely their students' curiosity. Particularly among tuba players, it seems that the stories of seeing the instrument as a kid and saying "I want to play that one!" are too numerous to count. Conversely, you hardly ever hear successful adult musicians say, "I really wanted to play x instrument, but they gave me y instrument instead, so I just toughed it out."

Like it or not, our most basic inclination towards something at that age is often very shallow, yet it can also be eminently valid and accurate. This, at least, is exactly how I would describe my relationship with the euphonium at that age, so much so, in fact, that the tuba (which was similar in design yet even bigger, more impressive looking and eccentric; the precise reasons I chose the euphonium magnified several times) was a tough sell once I'd had 3 years to latch on to the euph. Sacrifice these primal inclinations to some administrator's rigid idea of what "high art" looks and sounds like and you've lost your first best chance to engage students in music in a meaningful and enduring way. The exalted sentimentalism that accompanies such stories when they apply to unpopular instruments contrasts starkly with the contempt that's directed at students who immediately go for the drum set, or who want to play the music they've heard on the radio. Even as an avowed high art snob, I can still see that there's something wrong with that.

Another issue is that of music publishing. Although publishers of educational band and orchestra music seem to be moving towards more flexible arrangements that allow for as many odd combinations of instruments as possible, beginning and intermediate music for like instrument ensembles, or for ensembles of entirely flexible instrumentation (i.e. with a range rather than an instrument specified), are, to my knowledge, still hard to come by. Hence, any teacher who wishes to accommodate the wishes of a large group of students gravitating towards the same instrument is probably in for a significant transcription or composition project. Of course, the music that is available also is nothing to write home about as music, which is yet another unfortunate circumstance. If we simply must force students into standard instrumental configurations, we could certainly use a better reason than the utterly vacuous and often quite horrifying music that these traditionally constituted ensembles get stuck with.


Instrumentation as oppression is not just a concern for the K-12 level, but for the college and graduate levels also. College music programs have the instrumentation of their flagship ensembles very much in mind when it comes to admitting instrumentalists as music majors. Given the sometimes spectacular disparity in reputation and recruiting ability among instrumental teachers at the same institution, it's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the top candidate for admission in one studio is significantly weaker than the third and fourth candidates for another. There is often scholarship, assistantship or stipend money available only for the top one or two applicants on each instrument, but if instrumental balance is valued ahead of overall talent and potential, the weaker player would not have to compete directly with stronger applicants on other instruments who might otherwise beat them out for it. Though I can't claim knowledge of a specific case that unfolded this way, based on what I do know about the two colleges I attended, I'd be shocked to learn that this never happened, or even that it was unusual.

With state budgets dwindling, many public university music programs are increasingly dependent on privately-raised money, and they know not only that prospective donors want to see high art, but that they recognize it in only a few of its myriad forms. Invariably, the symphony orchestra is the gold standard. The trombone ensemble is cute, maybe even musically compelling, but it's not going to loosen the wallets of too many retired insurance adjusters. Until something changes on one or more of these fronts, music schools are going to continue to admit a one-size-fits-all student body that meets their instrumental needs rather than providing programs that reflect the unique interests and needs of their immediate communities (interests and needs which, one would hope, included orchestras and bands, but not exclusively, and certainly not to the point where balance trumps merit as an admissions criteria).

The year I was at the University of Northern Colorado was also a year that the school was up for NASM reaccreditation. As part of this process, so it was announced, the school was to put on a collage concert featuring various students and faculty whose performances would reflect the school's identity. Yet after being treated to a classically-dominated program of rather conservative repertoire, it was impossible to avoid coming away with the impression that the concert merely reflected what NASM thinks a school's identity ought to be. Until such accrediting bodies, along with politicians, philanthropists, and community leaders can see beyond the forms that high art has taken to the forms it might take, we'll be stuck with a quasi-authoritarian system of imposing instruments on students regardless of their inclinations. It would behoove us to establish a more egalitarian approach, and to rely on our ears rather than ours eyes to determine its success or failure.

04 March 2009

Government Funding of The Arts (iii)

The final installment in this trifecta of turn-offs deals with the idea of return on investment. In casually following the blogospheric reaction to the threat of cutting NEA funding from the recently passed stimulus bill, I found this study cited more than once by well-meaning commentators, specifically the statistic that every $1 of arts funding returns $7 in revenue to the government.

Artists and audiences alike have long since grown weary of artworks being judged sheerly by the amount of money they fetch. Indeed, in many circles, to express such an opinion would be to mark oneself as a spectacularly naive and shallow observer. Yet when arts funding is in jeopardy, it seems that few are shy about espousing a nearly identical position. Is judging the work by how much people spend on dinner before or after the show really that different from judging the work by what people are willing to pay for it directly? The former may, in fact, be worse, considering that it is even further removed from the audience's opinion of the work itself. What of those who spring for an expensive pre-show dinner only to be thoroughly let down by the evening's events? More importantly, what of art endeavors which don't live up to the $7 standard? Are they inherently less worthy of government support?

It's a long-standing cliche for jazz musicians performing at clubs to complain that in the eyes of the management, "You're just there to sell drinks." I don't think it matters whether those drinks are sold before, during or after the show; the implication is the same. Stomaching such attitudes may be part of life when dealing with booking agents and venue owners, but it shouldn't have to be part of defending the validity of one's life's work in the politcal arena.

I can already hear the reaction to what I've just written: that I'm overreacting, perhaps overthinking also, that arts advocates mean well, that no one's insulting anyone here, and that as long as the NEA funding got put back in the bill, it doesn't matter how it got there. I would be as relieved as anyone if this proves to be an overreaction, but it's hard to ignore the red flags. The first is a familiar one and need not be dwelled on for too long as I've discussed it many times before: in short, none of us became artists because we saw it as a boon to the economy, a way to keep kids off drugs, or any of the myriad extrinsic features so often attributed to The Arts in defense of government funding; more likely, it was just too damn much fun. This is, at the very least, an honesty issue.

But more important than simply disavowing the reliance on extrinsic features in the name of some abstract conception of honesty is to ask whether it is truly in our best practical interests to judge artists and artworks by such features in the first place. In this case, it is most certainly not; in fact, the return on investment standard threatens to become a bludgeon wielded against many of those whom it is disingenuously being used to defend. For example, arts events that take place in dense commercial districts where there are lots of opportunities for audience members to spend money before and after the show would seem to be favored over those that take place in neighborhood galleries or rural areas where few businesses surround the event*. Concerts in bars and restaurants where food and drink are sold would take precedence over those that happen in "performance spaces" where little or no hospitality is offered and a free will donation rather than a flat cover charge is imposed. Visual artists who buy many expensive supplies would be seen as contributing more than than those who work cheaply with found objects. And so on and so forth.

Though the dialogue has been framed to avoid dealing with artworks case-by-case and instead to speak only of "The Arts" generally, this charade can be maintained only for so long. If the return on investment standard is established as a legitimate defense of government funding of the arts, the public interest then becomes to maximize the results by funding the art and artists which promise the greatest return. How long until a subsequent study is released which identifies specific types of arts events as more or less worthy of funding based on their proven return on investment? Perhaps appealing to the generalism of "The Arts" is a blessing in this case as it prevents us from making such distinctions for the time being. However, they can't be far off.

*If you just thought to yourself that audiences buying more gasoline counts as return on investment the same as buying dinner before the show, you and I have some irreconcilable differences.