Classical Music, Education and the Chinese

So, I’ve been thinking about our new NYC chancellor Cathleen Black and her opportunity to create change in the NYC schools. What might be the fastest and easiest way? What are our goals in educating the next generation? The press has been endlessly discussing our education system, our competition with China and our need for a creative, innovative flexible future work force to enable us to compete nimbly with the rest of the inter-connected world. In addition we hear about the death of classical music and in particular the struggle that our symphony orchestra’s and other performing arts organizations are going through. You might wonder what is the connection between these subjects, why would I juxtapose them? Well I think they are related and important as representing what is going wrong in our world view. We have spent the last 30 years de-valuing so-called elitist culture and cutting and denying our children access to some of the great genius of the last 500 years by de-emphasizing the study of classical music and art. We teach to the test now and in our rush to overhaul the education system we cut out the very subjects that might contribute to the much vaunted creative and innovative work force. Meanwhile the Chinese and other countries are working hard to create a more creative work force.  Several weeks ago we read about the city of Shanghai coming in number one on the PISA test and that the Chinese students do not participate in extra-curricular activities, and instead spend much more time studying in school and doing homework,  the same week the Times had an article about how so many Chinese students are studying music- 60 million piano students and 40 million violin students. And studying classical music at that! So here comes the crux of my argument- research begins to show that the study of a musical instrument actually alters a persons brain – it improves their overall ability to make connections and think creatively. Maybe because of the number of brain centers that are activated and needed to play an instrument as well as the physical coordination required. In addition practicing an instrument requires discipline and concentration and  can help students learn how to do that. It also helps them learn how to listen, which is a requirement for learning well in school. Here’s an interesting story that I’ve heard for years- Business schools often accept former music majors (without the usual degree’s) because they know that  music majors know how to be disciplined, study and work with others, they make very successful business people since they understand and have learned  how to work.

So here we have the Chinese with their huge pool of talent, studying hard and at least 100 million of them studying music. Combine those two things and you get a well educated AND creative work force.

So what would I tell our new Chancellor to try in NYC (or any where else in the country) – What’s the fastest most cost effective way to create that innovative, creative work force? How about give all NYC kids music lessons – one-on-one lessons for five years? There is a ready and able work force in NYC to take on the task of teaching these students. (See the NY Times article about free-lance work in NYC dying out and how the music schools in NYC alone are graduating upwards of 500 music students a year) Take on this grand experiment – the Chinese are doing it!!  Let’s try something that will help with our new vision of a flexible work force and in addition address the important subject of keeping our cultural flame glowing.

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5 Responses to Classical Music, Education and the Chinese

  1. Terry Schommer says:

    Brava Barbara. Thank you for your insights into our country’s cultural mess. Every single one of my Asian piano students realizes 3 things: they have no choice about lessons once they start; they must practice, and they’d better get their assignments done. Most of my American parents, sadly, all leave that entirely up to their children. The Asian students actually start enjoying and wanting it more when they do well, and so they stick with it; everyone else drops out once they realize it’s going to take some effort, possibly a little discomfort, and more than a year to get any good at it.

  2. Susan says:

    Several points, perhaps some more towards some of your past posts.

    As to Asian versus American generalized childraising norms vis-avis music lessons, schooling, discipline: Just yesterday there was a review of Amy Chau’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It might perhaps be required reading for those deeply discussing this issue. As a first generation college attending mother of Asian-Jewish children, I found even the review to be squirm inducing for the anxiety inducing way it raised the choices moms need to make.

    As for the future of classical music and knowledge more broadly, the challenge it seems to me is to organically integrate the richness of past culture and achievement (in all arts and forms) with the reality of the present and future evolving manner in which people interact with the world. As the world changes, for some, in any field, traditional learning approaches, mastery and craft — whether it be apprenticeship to master violin making, legal clerkships to bar to partnership, to moving from shop floor to CEO — will still work — and I am not suggesting that ANYTHING substitutes for practice and time in expertise and craftsmanship.

    But you also want a world of amateurs and appreciateurs. Patrons and purchasers. The new world of youth teaches itself languages in the privacy of its own rooms without going to language school, explores foreign cultures without having to share hotel rooms with parents, sees art movies more obscure than those we hunted down and watched in sticky movie houses… thanks to the internet.

    If they hear a tune they like on a commercial they point their iphone at it and know who wrote it and the original lyrics in a few seconds. What if it is a piece of classical music? Is there an app that can quickly link them to other music like it that they might like? If the composer is still alive can an app run a quick video about the piece, or the composer conducting it? If a person hears a piece of music, can he or she identify the instrument and find an app with some well done immersive lessons? enough to really get started and then, if desired, move along to real lessons or classes (and if not, be an ever so much more educated consumer?) If they look for piano and guitar lessons apps or on-line, or bass or electric guitar, will they find that even those geared towards rock and pop still find a way to place all music within a universal, with illustrations and examples that opens up music and possibilities to them?

    I am a complete music imbecile by the way, so these are my non expert musings. What little experience I have is being a lifelong friend of musicians and a lay listener.

    • All true- and yes you can learn more and more with the world at your finger-tips, a fabulous expansion of all that is available to learn. My worry is that for so many they don’t know how to learn and research, even on the internet. If you de-value the various subjects and don’t understand how things inter-connect you cannot benefit from all of the new resouces. Been reading the reviews and comments on Amy Chau’s book and, as the daughter of immigrants and the kid with the strict parents- I HAD to practice, never talked back etc, I can understand both the pro’s and cons. Without the rules that parents set up kids don’t know what to do- they follow the easiest route often. Of course Amy Chau is a child of immigrants too with all of it’s insecurities around becoming and succeeding in America without connections and a lot of money. What will be interesting is to see how her children parent as second generation Americans. For sure to me though, in the coming years we will have to contend with a China where there is a work force that is disciplined and ready and able to compete with the rest of the world in a way that will change the world order in significant ways.

  3. Bobbi Katz says:

    I’m a writer, especially a writer of poetry for young people. When Poets House in NYC was between their old home on Spring St. and their new home on the Hudson, they invited me to do a poetry workshop at the Mulberry St. Library. It was a rainy day, but the library was abuzz with Asian elementary and middle school kids and their moms. Only one mom allowed her child to stay in my workshop! “Poetry…waste of time…” I heard the same argument from moms in Japan;however, in that situation I was able to point out the benefits, since their were no children present.
    I agree with all that Barbara says about the merits of studying music, especially classical music. We can look at what Octavio did in Venezuela & is doing now in LA to see the results.
    With my son, studying music was a treat and a privilege. The worst punishment I could give him was to forbid practice. He graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, and not as a music major.

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