Why Arts Education is More Important Than Ever

Version 2Have you ever stopped to consider the difference between sending or receiving a handwritten letter and an e-mail or text? I hadn’t until the other day, when I joined a discussion on whether cursive should be taught in schools, or just allowed to be forgotten and fall into obsolescence. Some argued that the latter had already happened, and that there was no need to preserve cursive because anything ever written in it worth saving, like the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, had long since been published online and in print. Others argued that cursive provided a level of personalization and even expression that keyed communication simply did not, and that the act of writing by hand fostered more thoughtful reasoning by allowing the writer to linger over words and phrases as they are formed on the paper, and discouraged them from being glossed over as they are hastily put down through a series of keystrokes.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand. As people have stopped learning to write in cursive, they have also stopped being able to read cursive written by others. As I thought about all of this, I realized that often, when my students are doing hand-written work in class, they will add flourishes to certain letters, and draw decorative pictures on their papers, which adds a bit of self-expression and individualization to what they turn in. Occasionally, a student will even ask me, “did you like my picture?” I have learned to turn one-sided assignments over in case there is one of these artistic works on the back, lest I allow it to go unnoticed. I believe students want to put some recognizable expression of themselves in everything they do, and that because they are given fewer opportunities to do so than ever, they seize upon those that they are afforded. Apart from their name posted at the top of the page, a student’s work done on a keyboard and printed out is indistinguishable from all others. In most academic situations, the font is specified, so the appearance is standardized. While other characteristics such as overall writing proficiency can give clues as to the author, these are not vehicles for expression in the way a drawing is. Even poor spelling, which sadly identified me to my undergraduate English professors, can be an indication of the author, that too has been glossed over by spell check.

Bereft of these formerly ample opportunities for self-expression, (spelling errors excepted) I believe the arts have become more important to students than ever. Here, at least, is a discipline where students are, or should be, encouraged to express themselves, to seek out through interpretation the expressings of others, and to be understood on a level that is unparalleled in other disciplines. This offers both an immense opportunity choosing-beautiful-musicand challenge for music educators. For all of our philosophical heritage that espouses the arts as a healthy vehicle for expression, now that we are faced with National Core Arts Standards that overflow with references to “expressive intent,” many music educators, including myself, are left to struggle with just how another person’s expressive intent can be known for certain, and how to teach others to its discovery.

Several new facets of expression emerge from the standards. First, students take on the task of selecting music to perform, and do so based on their “interest in and knowledge of musical works.” While both interest and knowledge can be affected by teaching, both are also resident in students, and when brought to bear on selecting music, become agents in expressing through the selection of musical works. This scenario is quite different from a music teacher who alone selects music for students, and then “sells” his or her interest in the work by requiring them to learn it.

Second, students take on the task of analyzing music they will perform. This analysis is not the sort we did in our undergraduate music theory classes, doing harmonic and thematic analyses of Beethoven piano sonatas and Schoenberg tone rows. No, here students analyze composers’ “context and how they manipulate elements of music [to] provide insight into their intent.” What were the circumstances under which and the purpose for which this music was composed, and then knowing that, how does the music reflect the context and achieve the purpose? What did the composer intend to express when he or she wrote this music? Knowing these things from analysis then informs the performance. Students discover how to handle musical elements according to what the composer meant to express, and become agents of that expressing on behalf of the composer. They also connect with some of themselves, and further interpret the music according to the commonalities they find between themselves and the composer. Once students have performed the work, they analyze their own performance in a similar way, determining if their presentation of musical elements succeeded in conveying the expressive intents they discovered. The ultimate goal of performing music is conveying meaning, and this is first and foremost a matter of expression. 

The whole milieu out of which a composer’s conveyed meaning is born is ramped up when students shift form being performers to composers. When they create music, they are creating musical ideas and then selecting and organizing their own ideas into a musical work for the purpose of conveying their own chosen meaning. Because musical meaning is never literal as literary meaning is, expressive intent in music is at once more general and more personal. Musical meaning is experienced not so much in ideas expressed with words as it is in physical responses such as increased heart rate or sweaty palms, and psychological responses such as a sense of repose, beauty, being startled or delighted. Though we fear being scared, we delight in scary music. It is a safe way to enjoy our humanness manifest in emotions and psychology. Because of how music affects us, it surpasses even poetry in expressive potential. When we have successfully expressed ourselves through music, we are more deeply gratified, more affirmed and set right than we can be by expressing ourselves through any other medium. So while the rest of education continues to sterilize itself of self expression and the valuing thereof, music educators, taking our cue from our standards, must become more embracing and respecting than ever of the expressive intent of music creators and performers, and foremost among them our students.

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