September 15, 2011

Rock Rulz! Bach Droolz!

I stumbled across a couple of posts from one of the New York Times's blogs over the past few days that discussed music education in the schools. The substance of the posts, and the program they discuss, are interesting in their own right. More interesting, or at least more fun to read and snicker at, is the elitist pearl clutching going on in the comments. For the end is nigh, citizens – rock and roll is going to school.

The program discussed in the first post is called Little Kids Rock. It seeks to add a new track to the traditional public school music programs (band, orchestra, etc.) called "contemporary band," along with providing instruments (guitars, mostly) to make it possible. Instead of relying on a well-worn repertoire of "traditional" music, the program focuses on pop stuff that the kids know and are interested in:
On the first day of class, Little Kids Rock teachers place guitars in the hands of their students and get them practicing chords that will enable them to play thousands of songs. (Many simple lessons are freely available online here.) The kids decide what songs they want to learn and the class is off and running. Their progress is remarkable. Within a year, eight- and nine-year-olds are playing electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboards, and giving concerts, even performing their own songs. And the effect is predictable: the children can’t get enough of it.
The idea is that presenting kids with established methods based on traditional music – be it from the classical repertoire or old folk songs – not only fails to get the kids excited by music, it turns them off from it altogether. That may be a false assumption from which the start, but it seems reasonable to me. Depending, of course, on what the purpose of music education programs is going to be. If it's to being training the next generation of players, that might not work. On the other hand, if the goal is to create kids (and, therefore, adults) for whom music becomes important in their lives, it makes a great deal of sense.

Predictably, the idea that rock music might have a legitimate pedagogical position alongside the old masters freaked some people completely out, to the point where the original writer addressed them in a second post. Putting aside one very relevant criticism (that I'll get to in a minute) and the simple misunderstandings, what shines through is an elitist fear that the barbarians have truly breached the ivory tower: allowing pop in the classroom will "dumb down" music education, or letting kids choose what kind of music to learn about is "quite ridiculous" because "[m]ost popular music that students listen to is redundant and simplistic."

That attitude, it seems to me, is most evident in a pair of comments that are less direct, but still elitist:
Many were upset by the idea that schools should teach anything but serious music — like classical music or jazz. (It's worth remembering that people raged against the introduction of school jazz bands 40 years ago, too.) Diekunstder, from Menlo Park, Calif. (25), commented: '[T]here is no classical music industry shoving its values down the public's throat, rather, it is popular music which pervades every corner of contemporary 'culture.'' And Fed Up (44), worried: 'Is this the death knell for classical music and opera? Methinks so. Sad!'
In other words, school music programs aren't about really teaching kids about music, they're a front in the culture wars, a place to beat back the heathen hordes of the Lady Gagas and Kanye Wests of the world. I'm not going to concede that introducing students to new things and ideas isn't an essential part of education, but if the goal is to link "music" to "dull stuff I have to do in school," I can think of few better ways to do it than place the whole of pop culture beyond the reach of teachers and their students.

And, anyway, as the second post points out, programs like Little Kids Rock aren't out to displace more traditional musical programs from the schools. It’s an additional way of reaching kids, which is never a bad thing. Hook kids on the nuts and bolts of music using what they like, then they might more easily appreciate new things thrown at them later. It's not an either/or proposition.

Now, the one very valid criticism I noted earlier. As several comments pointed out, the arguments in favor of programs like Little Kids Rock appear to assume that they have healthy existing traditional school music programs upon which they can build. Sadly, in 21st-century America, few things are more easily brushed aside than arts programs in schools. Never mind the evidence that kids who participate in arts programs do better in school and tend to be more successful down the road. It's fluff and it doesn’t have a standardized test at the end, so cash strapped school districts see it as a place to trim the fat.

But that's no reason to reconsider how music education programs work where they exist. And, maybe, if the ones that are around are perceived as being more successful (however that's measured), it will be easier to ensure their survival down the road.

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