Paul CumminsMirror Contributing WriteClassical music stations are dying across the country – so I was told on a recent KUSC appeal for funds. Indeed, this is a sad commentary on our culture and society. Commercial radio is less and less able to sustain classical stations; they can barely survive and then only if private donations flow in. In addition, classical CD labels are fewer and fewer, as are the music stores. There has been a demise of many opera companies and symphony orchestras; schedules of those operating have been shortened, and, in some cases, disbanded. Furthermore, if one looks at the audiences in the concert halls these days, they are virtually all over 40 years old.A few months ago, I reported on the demise of used book stores – as well as neighborhood book stores like Duttons – and now I must add this companion piece about classical music. It is hard not to link it to a general cultural diminishment of the country. We now find high rates of illiteracy, musical illiteracy, school drop-outs, schools with lower standards, and graduates leaving high school with little cultural awareness as schools cut the arts from the curricula.I was lamenting this rather sad state of affairs in a meeting of educators recently and one said, “Well, classical music isn’t really that important, is it?” Also, recently, the superintendent of a Central California school district told me that one 40 minute period a week of art (a drawing class) was all the time her elementary school could “give up” to the arts. (“Give up” as in surrender, as in a reluctant pacification of arts supporters.) So are the arts unimportant and is classical music not really important? I, of course, am appalled by the unenlightened attitudes I encounter constantly while trying to see that children are not deprived of a critical part of their life and growth.First of all, classical music, like all music, is a potential source of pure joy. But this joy is not like all music; classical music has a harmonic and structural depth which many other forms of music do not, and so its rewards are, I believe, more complex and often more deeply felt. Some popular music and jazz music is quite complex and harmonically engaging but not at the level of a Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms.Add to this the aesthetic pleasure of learning about the history and stylistic changes evolving from the Baroque (Bach and Handel) to classical (Mozart, Haydn) periods and from the Romantics (Schubert, Chopin) to the 20th and 21st centuries (Stravinsky, Messian, Lutoslavski). The list of composers is immense and offers a lifetime of study and pleasure.Beyond this, when students listen and develop even a minimal understanding of music, many will wish to learn to play an instrument, which for some will become a life-long passion. But, alas, in our arid curricular waste lands, where testing is king, many students grow up never discovering the pleasures that might have been available to them. Also, talents go undiscovered. And, a concomitant loss is that potential audiences are not developed. The results of this we see before our very eyes – music stores close, orchestras and operas fold, audiences fade, and the cultural diminishment continues.In the schools the sadness is that we now have a new generation of school administrators who were themselves products of such schools with sterile, art-less curricula and hence, never having experienced the joys themselves, do not realize what they are denying their students. It is, of course, a vicious downward cycle.I believe that ultimately this denial of rich arts curricula for all children is a social justice issue. Students at most private schools receive the blessings of the arts; inner-city children and youth all too often do not. The one group (the haves) is allowed to explore and to develop its full human potential. The other group (the have nots) is denied this opportunity. In our unenlightened state, we cut classes from the curricula and experiences which engage students, and then we fret about the disengaged dropping out.The arts are not frills; they should not be considered “extra” curricular; they should not be relegated only to after-school and “exposure” programs. Our children and our youth need our help. They deserve a comprehensive education which enables them to experience the best of our cultural heritage and that which opens new doors for self-exploration.
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