As we head into May, most of we music teachers are gearing up for a busy concert season comprised of concerts, plays, recitals, and so forth. We’ve been working hard with our students, probably for months, preparing these springtime presentations, and as the show dates approach, we become even more focused on our performing student artists. This attention is good. It creates excitement as we push to the goal of performing with excellence for our audience, and of reaffirming the value of the arts in our schools and in our communities. But let us not skip to hastily over the word “audience.”
When we speak of the value of the arts in our schools, too often it is only the value of the performers we are really talking about. We say things like “what a great experience for those choir members” or “my son can’t wait to get to school on band days, he so enjoys playing in the band.” While these things are great, we must keep in mind that the students actually performing in the band, choir, orchestra, or dance troupe comprise less than half of the student population. Of what value is all our hard work, and the outstanding accomplishments of those student musicians to the majority of students who are not performing? While the numbers are improved from a generation ago, the percentages of students who are performers in the performing arts are still on the low side. In 2012, 48% of 8th graders in the United states participated in performing arts; and by participated I mean performed. More on that in a moment. As of 2013, 36% of of 10th graders participated in the performing arts, and 37% of 12th graders. That means that 52% of 8th graders, 64% of 10th graders, and 63% of twelfth graders did not participate.
Those non-participants are often categorized as “the audience.” We tell people who aren’t performers that we value them anyway because we performers need people who don’t perform to listen to those of us who do. To try to assure ourselves of future audiences, we create classes for them called “music appreciation” and “general music.” In some schools, students who don’t take a performing ensemble take general music instead, and students who do take a performing ensemble do so instead of taking general music. It’s as if performing musicians don’t need to become more educated music listeners, because everything they need to know about music they learn in band, choir, or orchestra. Such a view has the effect of creating to classes of people: a performing class and a consuming class. But here is the rub: attending concerts and listening to music is also participating in the performing arts.
There is no such thing as passive listening. Whether you know it or not, your brain is organizing and processing all of those musical sounds, making sense of it all so that you can respond to it with emotions, descriptions, or by moving or singing along. People simply don’t listen to music without making some kind of intellectual, emotional, and motor response. The quality of those responses is the value of music in our schools to everyone of those non performing students, who really aren’t non-performing at all. The minute they sing, dance, move, or in any way join in on the musical experience, they have become performers too.
Then there’s the matter of interpretation. Certainly, musicians interpret the music they play, just as visual artists’ created images are interpretations of their vision. But when I go to an art museum, and I look at a painting and reflect on the mood, emotions, stories, and so forth, I too am interpreting the painting. Both the artist and the viewer of art are interpreters. The artist attempts to convey an interpretation, and expressive intent, and the viewer attempts to discover and understand the expressive intent in the form of his or her own life and context. It works the same way with music. The composer conveys an expressive intent through an interpretation of the work as it is created, the performer attempts to understand that intent and convey it through an interpretation to an audience, and the audience attempts to understand the mix of composer’s and performers’ intent by interpreting what is presented. Thus the composer, performer and listener are all interpreters and all participators in the musical experience. The value of music to everyone is found in this commonality of interpreting works of art.
Now think about how that influences our courses of study for the 60% who are not members of our music ensembles or dance corps. Lets begin with some of the enduring understandings from the national core arts standards. For example, one of the enduring understandings is that “through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” For performing students, this goes way beyond learning the notes and following a conductor. For the non-performer, this goes way beyond setting up music as aural wallpaper over which other things are laid. This is where students connect the music they are performing and/or to which they are listening with their everyday lives, and their everyday experience of being an emoting and feeling human being. Students frequently learn elements and structures of music or dance, but for what purpose? Often, these are taught with the promise that knowing them will allow students to appreciate music, and have their lives enriched. That all sounds good on a poster, but what does that really mean? A composer chose those pitches, those rhythms, those dynamics, articulations, meters, phrases, and timbres not so that people would sit around a classroom identifying them, or in a rehearsal trying to dutifully perform them as written. A composer made all those choices because he or she decided that those were the best means by which an expressive intent could be conveyed. Students need to answer not only what is being expressed, but also how is it being expressed. What was the composer trying to express by making the music so fast, so loud, so calm, or by using just strings, or just brass, or just a woodwind quintet? Although the 60% cannot relate to music as a performer does, those students can relate to the music through the expressiveness of the work itself and the performance. If music is a universal language, and if music is to be of value to the majority of the majority that does not play, sing or dance, then that value is to be found in the all-inclusiveness of expressive intent, and all students, performers and non-performers alike, will find that value there together.