Come for the Swing, Stay for the Classical

I was reading my Time Magazine today while my computer booted up, hoping that my cable modem would behave today (that was why there was no entry yesterday. No problem yet today, perhaps the Time-Warner cable approves of me reading Time Magazine) In the magazine there was a small inset on Artie Shaw, a big band leader who died last month. (More info, the NY Times and Ken Burns’ PBS Jazz website have interesting synopses of his life.)

I found the article somewhat amusing because it discussed how he was trying to expose his swing audiences to classical music, similiar to how arts organizations try to grab new audiences by offering popular pieces and hoping people will experiment with unfamiliar territory.

Shaw’s experience went something like this:

“Bandleader Artie Shaw had tried feeding long-hair music to short hair audiences, [but] he had discovered that ‘It is necessary to give an audience some familiar points of reference before you can expect it to go along on new things’…He thought…playing old Shaw specials…might lure strayed followers back into the tent. Once they were in, perhaps he could give them [classical works] in small doses. Last week…on the opening night of a nationwide tour, the first part of Artie’s experiment worked. A record breaking crowd, including a good many of the jammy jitterbug type..was lured into Boston’s huge Symphony Ballroom. The Shaw faithful, plus a few horn rimmed jazz intellectuals, clustered around the bandstand…Right there, any semblance of success stopped. When Artie’s boys began unraveling Ravel’s Piece en Forme de Habanera, the crowd around the bandstand applauded politely, but even the most ardent jitterers had to stop dancing. Cried one in petulant exasperation: ‘Artie you suck'”

I don’t know if arts managers will take heart in the fact that hurdles they face in widening the perspective of their audiences are nothing new. Or if they will see this article from 1949 as validation that their efforts are hopeless.

If I Can Only Keep Connected…

Okay, I have been having the dangest time with my cable modem keeping a connection so I am gonna make this quick and hope I can squeeze it in before things break down again.

Courtesy of I found a great article on arts education in the spirit of the one I found locally a month or so ago. This one is in Minneapolis/St.Paul where the program is using the arts to teach critical thinking skills. The article points out that in an age when schools need to meet standardized testing, the skills gained are hard to quantify, though certainly valuable in the job market if they are cultivated.

As I am trying to be brief, all I will say is please, read it. And maybe drop a line to the paper praising them for spending so much space in the Sunday paper to discuss this topic.

In a related story, a study by the University of York has found that teaching students grammar actually has very little beneficial effect on the quality of the students’ writing. What does improve writing skills–getting the students to do a lot of writing.

Just like the first story–it is hard to objectively measure the benefits on a standardized test, though good writing skills are definitely marketable.

I talk about marketable skills because that seems to be the big gripe of job seekers and employers–college doesn’t seem to be providing students with marketable skills (I can do a whole series of blogs expressing my thoughts on that topic). As much as I am leery about the whole No Child Left Behind thing, I have to admit, whatever the schools were doing before wasn’t working too well. Students’ abilities and habits were so ill suited to college, the only benefit I could see was that my own skills would be in higher demand as time progressed.

At this point, if I can convince students to cultivate their critical thinking and expressive powers by using money as an incentive, I will toss the phrase “marketable skills” around until it goes passe and comes back into vogue again.

Listening is Hard

I came across a very interesting article on today. In “Hearing Voices”, J. Mark Scearce essentially says that not only aren’t students being exposed to enough music these days, the ones that are aren’t being taught how to listen to it correctly. Now that may sound strange, but if you read the article, it makes sense. My favorite part of the article is his suggestion that a bumper sticker be created says “Listening: It’s Not As Easy As It Sounds.”

I could see what he meant a little from my own experience. As I have grown older, I have actually come to realize that when I was a teen and adults asked why I was listening to the “crap” I was, they were pretty much right. I go back and listen to the music and while I do feel a sense of nostalgia for those good old days, I have to admit the music is junk.

In fact, I have to admit, I may be responsible for the current state of popular music. I remember hearing an interview at one time about the group Depeche Mode’s heavy use of synthesizers and I recall thinking that it would be great if people could become rich and famous musicians without having to spend the time learning to play an instrument or have much musical talent.

Be careful what you wish for indeed!

Now that I am older and wiser or whatever, I really have grown to appreciate the skill with which musicians create their work. I suddenly become aware of the subtle use of instruments beneath the other instruments to support them with a clever little bit of phrasing. I am not talking about classical music either. Some of the people I refer to are singer-songwriter types. Certainly some of their works are more complexly crafted than others.

I can’t quite name of the quality, but there is something about some music that makes you aware of the investment of time in the song and possession of talent. In some cases, the difference between musicians is obvious in the extreme. But other times, there is just some intangible quality that is a result of the sum of 1000 elements from the length of pauses to personal charisma that determines the difference between good and great.

It isn’t just in music of course. Dance, Drama and the Visual Arts are the same. In fact, if anything should have a bumper sticker, it should be “Acting is harder than it looks”. If someone is a novice with a violin, everyone recognizes that fact pretty quickly. However, everyone thinks they can act because you simply do what you would do in real life.

Just as Scearce says composers have to learn to listen, so too do actors have to learn to listen and watch as a first step. Reality goes on all around us, but it is tricky to recreate it convincingly for an audience.

Certainly it is the same for dance and visual arts. Only through constant observation and exposure does one recognize how movement, texture, color, shape, etc all work together to a desired end.

To some extent, the arts community has become so fixiated on simply trying to get butts in the seats/through the door and perhaps into an outreach program, the fact that long term exposure is really necessary for comprehension to occur. A person may have been coming to performances for two years and that seems like sufficient time to acquire comprehension and appreciation. However, the person may have had only 12 exposures total in those 2 years.

Twelve consecutive days of class is hardly enough to make someone comfortable with art. Stretch that over two years and that is one day every 2 months which hardly affords any sense of continuity at all.

Great Idea!

Today the person with whom I had been discussing the state of arts education a week or so ago, sent me a great article about how some local schools were exposing kids to art while meeting the “No Child Left Behind” requirements for science. (For those of you wondering what Yu Gi Oh is, go here)

At Nanaikapono, Peralta’s class is focusing on two-dimensional art, drawing and painting fanciful creatures in various habitats where they face threats from man or nature. Each student researched the science of three different animals, studying their physical characteristics and habitats, before melding those traits to come up with a new animal.

Last week, they wrestled with how their creatures would overcome threats.

“This is when you guys can tell the story, instead of having the television tell them to you,” Enos told them, with his irrepressible smile. “This is when you can use your ideas. Who needs TV anyway?”

Ultimately, the class will create a game together, featuring the 28 creatures they have designed on cards.

“How many of you have played Yu-Go-Ih?” asked Enos, prompting peals of laughter.

“Yu-Gi-Oh!” the students corrected him in chorus.

“Usually you have a winner and a loser,” he went on, with a wink. “We’re going to change that whole dynamic. Everyone who sits down to play this game needs to work together to stop the threat.”

The goal of the game, Ali explained, is to create a balanced ecosystem. The rules will be up to the kids.

….Halfway through the six-week program, the class has learned how both artists and scientists rely on observation, prediction and trial-and-error, and how they must have a deep knowledge of their materials and their settings.

The program is a pilot project that will be expanded to other schools in the spring and mostly incorporate the efforts of visual artists who might work in anything from bronze to clay or fibre arts. I have to say, this really sounds like a great program. I am always at a loss to think of ways to integrate arts and subjects like science and math, so I really applaud the creativity of whomever came up with this.