Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

Part Six – Good Things Happen in 3s
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
(See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
(See Part Three, posted on August 11, 2013)
(See Part Four, posted on August 29, 2013)
(See Part Five, posted on October 1, 2013)

 
Peter Russell, in his book, The Global Brain, uses the image of an exponential curve to represent both movement toward change, as well as the stress that is the catalyst for such change. Stress is that which threatens the orgamism’s survival and change takes place when things reach “critical mass” – very much an adapt-or-die scenario. Russell applies this curve to everything, from the simplest of one-celled organisms to humans, to social and political values. I am of the opinion that arts education is in dire need of change in order to survive, to command the respect it deserves, and to be incontrovertibly validated as necessary to both the academic lives and real-world lives of students.

 
The proverbial “collective consciousness” is always at work, it seems. Just as with inventors at the turn of the last century who were working in different countries on the same inventions at the same time (radio, television, the phonograph, moving images, etc.) innovative educators and artists appear to be moving toward a new, if hazily defined, paradigm. American journalist, editor, and author, Joanne Lipman’s observations are remakably aligned with those of Horowitz (see Parts 4 and 5). In her recent New York Times article, “Is Music the Key to Success?” Ms. Lipman pushes past the older, more accepted views of transfer of learning to much broader principles:
 

“The phenomenon extends beyond the math-music association. Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously…many of them apply music’s lessons of focus and discipline into new ways of thinking and communicating — even problem solving.”

 
While there is plenty to suggest “sure, we’ve known this for years,” the questions are: 1) were those “new ways of thinking” actually part of what was being taught in the classroom? and 2) what is being done in the classroom? How is this knowledge being put to use, here and now, and imparted to students? In my opinion that subject matter is offered, but then, in most cases, it’s assumed that higher principles (if even considered at all) will probably take hold of their own accord.

 
What I am suggesting is that, in order to put a paradigm shift into practice at its most basic level, those of us who teach need to rethink our approaches, retool our lessons and methodology in order to present material that bridges the gap between the classroom and the larger world outside. None of us should accept the age-old cliché of a student asking either aloud or in her head, “When am I ever going to need this in real life?” We need to honestly provide her with the answer to that question before it gets asked. We should both impart a lesson and then draw the parallel for the student. This means multi-layered answers, answers that show myriad real-world parallels across many disciplines.

 
While it is far beyond the scope of these essays to present entire lessons plans for all arts disciplines, a basic approach can be outlined for three grade groupings (good things happen in 3s): grades K through 3, grades 4 through 8, and high school.

 
For grades K – 3, the arts are introduced by educators and the students are guided into them through a) free-form and experimentation; b) by gradually introducing traditional principles and methods; c) demonstration; and d) storytelling.

 
Young children in grades K – 3, when dealing with the arts, should always be allowed to discover the art and themselves in relation to it without dictates or constraints of any kind. Children are naturally creative, inquisitive, and self-validating (if educators can avoid critical comment or trying to regiment the child). This means providing the materials necessary, then watching what each child creates. It truly is as simple as that. One example will have to suffice; let’s use dance. Rather than having kids knuckle under – in the name of developing large motor skills – to the conformity of the age-old Hokey Pokey – (something I was required to do over fifty years ago and was still being used for first graders last week!) the teacher puts on music, possibly 60 seconds maximum. Everyone, including the teacher, then moves to the music. Allow each child to do anything and everything. The teacher changes the music to something that conveys another mood. Without any verbal instruction, the teacher would then move in a way he or she feels is conducive to the new mood. Many children will pick up on this and move differently as well. Never is the type of movement dictated or restricted. The teacher observes each child. The music is changed again, and, again the children are allowed to move in any way they see fit. The teacher observes at this point, offering only encouragement and praise, never criticizing or directing. Every child should be made to feel good about the dance he or she is doing. That is the extent of one early class. Only very gradually are parameters set, and then, put in place toward the end. Free form is always the beginning. Then at some point in the proceedings the teacher might say, “There are so many different kinds of music. Some music sounds really happy. Some can sound sad. Some can sound very mysterious.” The teacher plays different short selections and asks the children how the music sounds (its emotional content). The children will almost always universally agree how it sounds. “Happy!” “Spooky!” etc. “So,” the teacher asks, “if we have spooky music, how does that make us dance? Let’s see…”

 
The music is played and the children dance in whatever way they choose. There is never any right or wrong way. Later in the sessions, the teacher introduces the idea of simple movements or sequences of movement, such as stomping the right foot, turning around and clapping hands once. “Let’s see if we can do that to the music.” And yet another session, later still, might introduce the idea of students holding hands and performing a simple sequence together, or, dividing in to pairs, threes, etc. We, as teachers, need to remember how very young these children are; freed from our needless judgement or criticism and subjected only to encouragement, think of how motivated, how happy they will feel, and how the foundations of their self-esteem are being reinforced. With carefully planned class sessions, the children can be led gradually, day-by-day, week-by-week and so on, through grade 3, into traditional/classical movements and steps, the principals of choreography, etc.

 
As for demonstrations, videos of dancers of all types can be shown to children throughout these years.

 
Storytelling would take the form of age-appropriate stories of famous dancers from the past, as well as the wealth of children’s literature.

 
The Middle School Years

 
This is the time to reveal the “necessary” arts to students. The children themselves are exposed constantly to shows, music, and artwork of all types, but rarely is a connection made between them, the work they’re doing in the classroom, and how that work translates to the outside world.

 
Grades 4 through 8 – Continue free form arts endeavors, allow for maximum expression, without restraint or real world associations, the art for the arts’ sake. Introduce more techniques, history, traditions and principles with exercises and practice that conform to established forms/parameters. Free form and self-expression are encouraged in tandem so students can always apply and “marry” the regimentation with their own creative lives.

 
Simultaneously, expose students to as many prominent artists in the field through video and reading, bios of the artists’ lives and times that are grade-appropriate. Then relate them to the present day.

 
As the student matures, the teachers show students how a particular art form is used in many fields, all of which can help them earn a living while dedicating time to the purer form of their artistic goals. There are detractors of this method who would claim that the only way for an artist to gain prominence is total devotion to the art form to the exclusion of all else. But the truth is that talent in and of itself is often a cheap commodity – there are tens of thousands of extremely talented people. What is it that enables one to achieve far more than others? It is almost never the talent itself, but an unquantifiable combination of talent, luck, opportunity, “who you know,” networking and more that enables an artist (in any field) to prosper.

 
Students at this age must gradually be encouraged to “wake up” by adding a healthy dose of reality into the curriculum. Of all the thousands of talented and brilliant artists out there, only a comparative handful actually rise to prominence in their chosen field. Rather than this being a fatalistic and discouraging outlook, it is neither negative nor positive. It is just fact. However, if equipped with the right skill set, people can pursue their art and find satisfying ways to use their talents in “real life,” to support themselves. The clichéd and even romanticized image of a “starving artist” is a fallacy. There’s nothing at all attractive or satisfying about living in abject poverty. Surviving in today’s world requires being able to make a living.

 
For our examples, let’s look at the arts of painting and sculpture. The teacher introduces real-world professions that employ hundreds and hundreds of people. All of the professions can be looked at as “cousins.” Students will naturally gravitate toward one or a few, but should be exposed to all: graphic design, architecture, illustration, commercial arts, interior design, theater set design, institutional design (museum displays and gallery installations), trade show installation designs, signage, textile design, packaging, advertising design, furniture and product design and more. The overriding message is that “once you are out of school, you can pursue your art in its purest form. And you also have the option of transforming and using your skill to make a living.”

 
Finally, there are student contests in painting and sculpture, plus, grants and festivals in these and related fields sponsored by many foundations and companies that the teacher should research and implement in the classroom. Part of the curriculum then entails having all members of the class apply and enter according to their specific strengths and skills. The lesson is that you, as an artist, can receive other kinds of support but you’ll need to learn to express your goals on paper, go through exacting application processes, sometimes in many stages. By involving students in such real-world endeavors, they will soon see that there is always more to their art than just making the art. They will have to learn to focus, communicate, and justify their visions; they will learn endurance, patience, and how to handle ongoing rejection. They will learn that they are not the only ones struggling, but that there are thousands of others just as dedicated, just as passionate, and like them, hoping to succeed.

 
The High School Years

 
If a given student is inclined to pursue a professional career as an artist, be it a writer, painter, sculptor, singer, composer, etc., by the time he or she graduates from high school (or a specialized arts school), he or she needs far more than talent and desire. Of paramount importance is an understanding of the business side of the chosen art form. Too many aspiring artists fail or give up when confronted with the ferociously competitive and, quite frankly, uncaring world outside their little protected academic spheres. However, the intention is not to discourage the students by rudely awakening them, rather, it is to strengthen them, sharpen their resolve, give them the skills to navigate the world “arena” they are going to enter. The goal is to equip students with the many tools necessary for coping with the reality of their living a life dedicated to their chosen arts.*

 
Imagine the student who wants to pursue any of these arts being taught, before college, about the hundreds of ways to align their talent both with what they want to pursue and other professions that can sustain them. Imagine: without writers, composers, and fine artists, what would happen to the world? There would be no scripts for movies, TV shows, commercials, no writing for corporate brochures, no technical manuals, no “how-to” books, no advertising, packaging (remember, it took a writer to think up the name “Cheerios!”). Commercials and movies would have no background musical scores. Books would have no illustrations, magazines would be stark white pages – no articles,no photos. Without graphic design, everything from packaging to the entire internet, to the label in your underwear would be blank! Think of it — to sell even a simple can of Coke requires a team of designers, a copywriter, a composer, a script writer, musicians, a film director and full crew, a film editor, possibly actors and dancers, a computer artist, website designer and coders, and more. Multiply that by the hundreds of thousands of products, services, and businesses that can only thrive if there are artists to create for them. What students, today, are being taught this?

 
Imagine, as well, students learning about unions and other organizations they will need to join and how to do so. Imagine classroom guests, pulled from the students’ own communities, who are pursuing careers in the arts telling their own stories. Imagine teaching units on networking and self promotion. Imagine continuing, as part of the everyday class work throughout high school, helping students to enter poetry contests, essay contests, playwriting competitions, composing contests; submitting writing to agents and publications.

 
Imagine creating an entire project as a class, combining everyone’s talents and culminating in an assembly or exhibit.

 
Now that the Surface is Scratched…

 
The arts are the lifeblood of our entire global culture. They shape the way we see our world – whether in a beautiful ballet, a building, a birdhouse in our backyard, a sign in a museum installation, a TV commercial, the logo on a sneaker, a ringtone on a phone, a pair of sunglasses frames, the jingle for a used car dealership, the picture on a postage stamp, the lid on a jar of pickles, the ambient music in a mall, the written text on a box of nails, even the shapes in Lucky Charms cereal! It took artists to create them all.

 
While these essays have barely “scratched the surface,” the hope is that our eyes are at least open to the potential for seriously examining arts curricula, teaching methods, and the way we, as teachers and artists, approach the “powers that be” when making our case for comprehensive arts education reform and funding. The time for taking action to rethink, revamp and renew everything about arts education begins right now. Changing things, as we know, is going to take tremendous effort and, of course, time – time to create the courses, time to unify approaches, to form our new vocabulary for stronger arguments in favor of what we seek to do, and a lot of time to wake up administrators, gain their trust and demonstrate that the benefits of school arts programs are of inestimable value. The administrators are reachable; every single one of them was a child who used to love to color and draw, dance and sing and put on shows for their parents. We’ve got to help them remember the freedom and joy they all felt – genuinely inspire them. Some of them even had the same dreams as students today. We have to gently help them wake up so that we can all, through powerful new arts education programs, bring students’ dreams into the real world.

 
*The only art form that has limited applications is dance. Dancers definitely are used in all forms of artistic endeavor, but the possibilities are limited for lateral application. Dance instructors, movement instructors, physical trainers, yoga instructors are about just about the extent of it. Moving into areas such as physical therapy, while certainly workable, is a radically different discipline requiring even more specialized schooling.

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Video: Making the Case for Classical Music

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Video: Diggin’ on Disney, Part One

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Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

Part Five – Real Life and the Necessary Arts
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
(See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
(See Part Three, posted on August 11, 2013)
(See Part Four, posted on August 29, 2013)


The eight cognitive outcomes resulting from arts learning and the four personal learning indicators identified
by Horowitz bear repeating:

  • the expression of ideas and feelings
  • focused perception
  • the ability to make connections
  • the ability to layer relationships
  • improved construction and organization of meaning
  • the ability to take multiple or alternative viewpoints
  • the ability to imagine new possibilities
  • improved sensory learning

  • The personal learning indicators resulting from arts learning:

  • risk taking
  • a sense of competence
  • a sense of ownership of learning
  • task persistence

  • I’ve stated that the seeds of a paradigm shift are extant in all of the items above because they transcend the
    classroom and academic subjects; they are attributes that can have profound impact on the developmental “real
    life” of every student. If arts learning is capable of engendering character attributes this deep, then arts
    teaching – everything from basic subject matter to the teachers’ approaches, to the presentation of material
    needs to catch up. That is, having identified these attributes, it is incumbent upon teaching artists and teachers
    of the arts in general to make a conscious effort to ensure that what they teach has relevance and importance
    in the students’ lives outside the classroom. This means moving away from a purely subject-centered approach
    which, in my experience, is the norm.

    Since it is probably safe to say that the arts, in any form, will never be included in standardized testing,
    arts educators are not, theoretically speaking, bound by the same constraints (either aesthetic or administrative)
    as their standardized counterparts. However, more often than not we see classroom regimentation (“today, class,
    everyone is going to sketch a sneaker”). Students are often subjected to a lacklustre and unoriginal approach.
    My own son’s fifth grade art teacher simply “taught” by rote, using Betty Edwards’s wonderful book, Drawing on
    the Right Side of the Brain
    . I witnessed first-hand how the exercises were rendered dry and boring when
    filtered through this particular educator’s “academic” sensibilities.

    Arts education ought to be a bastion of expression, of passions, of emotional exploration through each
    individual medium with students given free reign to experiment. There is nothing whatsoever at risk by making
    it so, nothing threatening to bring controversy or shame down on the schools.

    The new paradigm of a life-centered approach to the arts will, by its very nature, demonstrate just how necessary
    they are. This means change.

    The title of this essay, Resolved: The Arts Are Unecessary, was conceived to be intentionally disturbing and,
    yes, even to provoke some healthy indignation. Arts educators are crying out for change, but innovative ideas
    are a) in short supply; or b) brought to light and subsequently quashed by an uncomprehending administration; or
    c) a rehash or compromised idea that yields a convoluted version of the status quo — which is then used to
    null-and-void the idea of change, declaring it untenable. Change is demanded, yet, our own human nature is to
    undermine it; in every arena I’ve worked in, from the corporate sector, to marketing (which included both
    graphic arts and copywriting), to not-for-profit arts. When even a small change is seen coming around the corner,
    everyone clings either to what worked in the past, or worse, they cling possessively to what didn’t work (the
    very things that prompted the urgent demand for change in the first place!) out of fear of the unknown.

    The wounded collective arts ego, weakened by years of cut-backs, continually defunded and demoralized, has
    adopted a defensive posture, with each discipline proclaiming its own specialness, each fighting over the same
    scraps. This results in a) setting the various disciplines at odds, (very effective, enabling the “powers that be” to
    divide and conquer); b)each discipline closing itself off to the point where productive communication becomes difficult;
    c) repetition of the same ineffective patterns; d) a very prevalent, condescending stance, i.e., that our administrators,
    our audiences, our public officials, the public in general “need to be educated about the arts” in order to appreciate
    their importance. For over forty years, since I was in high school, I have heard that phrase spoken countless times by
    teachers, artistic directors, and arts programmers in virtually every field.

    This has brought arts education to the point where, in many ways, it has become woefully arts-centric. The
    teaching method is, to a great extent, teaching the discipline for the discipline’s sake. Many years ago, there
    I was in algebra class; I had the presence of mind to ask “when will I ever need this in real life?” So it is with
    students today. “Yeah, I heard Mozart in music class, but what’s he got to do with me? I’m into Sage the Gemini
    and I’m going to be a rap star!”

    The truth is, the arts are necessary. In fact, they are essential to just about every conceivable field of endeavor.
    Furthermore, without them, many businesses, industries and much of the global economy, would grind to a halt.

    In my opinion, students never learn this. Arts educators, at least in my experience, while ready at the drop
    of a hat to extoll the importance of the arts, seem barely aware of how to demonstrate, even at a basic level,
    how profoundly the arts permeate every facet our lives every day.

    So, the time for disturbing essay titles is over. Let’s lay out a basic framework for a paradigm shift.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Six – Good Things Happen in 3s

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    Resolved: The Arts are Unnecessary

    Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
    (See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)
    (See Part Three, posted on August 11, 20130)


    In exploring the objective of creating and bringing about a paradigm shift in the arts as they relate to
    educational programming, it is impossible to go back to “square one.” What would that square be? The
    current educational system’s methodologies for the way arts programming is perceived, handled, funded and
    treated are too deeply entrenched. The bureaucracy is fixed in place and only over time, repeatedly
    offered programming that utilizes a paradigm shift and delivers quantifiable results will the status quo
    be rendered obsolete.

    The seeds of such a paradigm shift are, I firmly believe, planted right under our noses. The shift begins
    with a radical rethink of a concept that’s been around a long time; this is the concept of “transfer,”
    or more accurately, “transfer of learning.” The term has two general applications: first, it refers to
    the ability to take what is learned or practiced in one lesson and then carry it over to subsequent
    lessons. Secondly, transfer of learning can mean the ability to draw parallels and useful connections
    from one discipline and utilize it in across other disciplines. An easy example is how studying music
    has been shown to enhance students’ abilities in mathematics. After all, reading music, at its core, is
    very mathematical. Note values are fractions: whole note, half note, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and so
    on. Each measure, conforming to a particular time signature, is divided up into such fractions and each
    must total the correct number of beats in the measure. Music, like math, is analytical, it conforms to
    specific rules, etc. As a result, there is potentially a significant amount of “transfer” from one
    subject to another. With my own instrument, the theremin, there is significant transfer between music,
    the science of sound, physics, electronics and even history. However, the idea of transfer is nothing new.
    It has been around for a long time and the problem is that it has never been taken far enough.

    In his study, Arts Learning and Its Research: Implications of Learning in and Through the Arts,
    Dr. Robert Horowitz of Teachers College, Columbia University pointed out an astonishing number of
    difficulties related to the subject of transfer, not the least of which is its very definition as well as
    stating that “there is not one definition of arts learning on which our field can agree.”

    After wading through a miasma of difficulties, Horowitz and his colleagues threw out their entire first
    approach – to consider “looking at the transfer of higher order thinking skills directly from various
    kinds of arts learning into other disciplines, such as math or social studies.” This is completely in
    line with the predominant definition of transfer, yet he rejected it as too “challenging to define the
    learning in each subject, the transfer process, and the appropriate methods of measurement.” Instead, the
    point of departure was to examine broader cognitive proficiencies that they believed to be both endemic
    to arts learning and the learning of other subjects.

    Working with twenty-eight schools grades K-8, and over 2,000 students, the findings were that students
    with more exposure to arts learning scored better in all areas than those with less exposure. Horowitz
    identifies eight “cognitive outcomes.”

  • the expression of ideas and feelings
  • focused perception
  • the ability to make connections
  • the ability to layer relationships
  • improved construction and organization of meaning
  • the ability to take multiple or alternative viewpoints
  • the ability to imagine new possibilities
  • improved sensory learning

  • In addition, Horowitz identified personal learning indicators resulting from arts learning:

  • risk taking
  • a sense of competence
  • a sense of ownership of learning
  • task persistence

  • Such findings reveal the true value of “transfer of learning.” The seeds of a paradigm shift are extant
    in all of the cognitive outcomes and learning indicators cited above because they go far beyond a
    single academic subject and beyond subject-to-subject transfer. Their value extends beyond the school
    and reaches into the daily life of every student. Such extended reach is what all teaching artists and
    every program they offer should strive to demonstrate; that the skills, information, and values of their
    arts programs have meaningful applications in the “real life” of each child.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Five – Real Life and the Necessary Arts

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)
    (See Part Two, posted on July 18, 2013)


    In our current predicament, we make the same arguments ad infinitum; solutions, viable and lasting solutions, are
    unlikely. We’re far too caught up in decrying the status quo – a status that’s been abominably quo for a long time.

    Two days ago, I inadvertently tuned in to the middle of an interview on NPR about arts programs and funding (or
    the lack thereof) in the New York school systems. There, condensed into the twenty minutes of driving, I heard
    the same litany of reasons why the arts are so important, the same sound bytes of politicians proclaiming
    that more money must be earmarked for the arts in our schools (and, of course, their actual record of taking any
    kind of action is usually revealed to be nil). As if it were planned to stuff every cliché into the program,
    one of the guests spoke of a new study that has just come out that shows once again that the arts are important
    in the development of well-rounded students. When the guests were asked point blank, based on the study and the
    sound bytes of politicians if any substantive measures would be forthcoming, both said it was unlikely. So,
    everything is stuck in same the rut it’s been for years.

    As I researched more and more, perusing arguments, reading essays by teaching artists, I believe I finally hit on
    something. Regardless of what side we’re on, we’re incapable of devising solutions and potential new avenues of
    approach because the view beyond the status quo is obstructed by a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs
    some serious shoveling up after. I have absolutely no doubt that all factions would abjectly declare: “Hey, that
    elephant’s not mine.”

    The elephant is attitude – unproductive and adversarial attitude. In her essay, Opinion Matters: The
    Handmaiden’s Tale
    , arts educator and Harvard graduate, Lauren Jacobs asserts, “the unhappy truth is that the
    TAs [teaching artists] may never be fully respected by the educational system and the system will likely never be
    fully respected by the TAs.” There it is, stated definitively: neither faction will ever respect the other.
    According to Jacobs, that’s just the way it is; what else can we do but accept it? Trouble is, being resigned to
    the certainty that “neither faction will ever respect the other” is a lousy point of departure for any sort of
    productive dialogue or action. Buying into this notion as immutable, casting ourselves in the roles of arts
    adversaries with a lack of respect for one another, each forever complaining about the other is patently
    unacceptable. Jacobs goes on to offer a solution: “Give the arts the full respect they deserve by hiring scores
    more teachers of all the arts (Theatre, Dance, Music, Visual Art, Crafts, Poetry, Film, Multimedia Technology,
    Culinary Arts) with full roles in the educational system.”

    The author’s heart is in the right place, but her solution – to demand the respect that’s lacking – is like the
    old joke: “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor replies, “Then, don’t do that.” The idea that the arts
    deserve respect is one that most people would probably agree with. So is the even more universal idea that people
    deserve respect. However, just saying that respect is deserved rarely makes it so. Saying, “give the arts the
    respect they deserve” and hire “scores more teachers” is a result, a final goal; it is not a course of
    action that can be implemented to bring about that result.

    The first real step toward a viable and realistic solution is to bring about a genuine paradigm shift. We also
    have to admit that nothing will ever be brought about by the mere act of saying “the real solution is to bring
    about a genuine paradigm shift.” Such a shift must be conceived of, planned, put into practice and then tested
    under real-world conditions.

    The good news is that the seeds of this shift are already planted – right under our noses.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Four – Paradigm Seeds and “The Big T”

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    Notes From the Street

    Part One: Sounds of the City – Musicians, Watch Out!

    New York City is catching up with Philadelphia in its quest to severely limit (if not eliminate) street
    performing in the subways and parks. Rather, I should say, New York City seems to be on a track that
    will take it back to the days of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s total ban on street performing. Luckily, as
    a member of MUNY (Music Under New York) I’m still able to go through official channels and play music
    underground – at least for now.

    The momentum being gained by those who’d ban such activities altogether is worrisome. The logic behind
    the reasoning is absurd at a level that’s laughable. It started with amplified instruments being banned
    from all parks. The thinking is that there’s a tendency to play far too loudly, impinging upon those who
    prefer quiet and tranquility. I’m all for a peaceful park experience and I understand completely. Music
    never discriminates; it reaches the ears of everyone whether they want to hear it or not. In that sense,
    it’s admittedly invasive. Considerate musicians will always choose a somewhat isolated spot and play
    quietly; it tends to be a sort of invitation for anyone interested enough to come and listen.

    Oddly, musicians are still permitted to play acoustic instruments in the parks. It may bring to mind
    images of quiet guitar players, maybe a lone violinist. But I’ve witnessed first-hand, people playing
    “drums” made out of 5-gallon plastic buckets, bashing away as loudly or louder than instruments
    connnected to amplifiers. I’ve seen (and definitely heard) a duo comprised of a sax player and full
    kit-equipped drummer playing fantastic jazz that could be heard throughout Washington Square Park and a
    full five blocks away from the park itself.

    On one occasion I performed above ground on a sidewalk two blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of
    Art. I played at a volume level just loud enough for me to hear above the buses but soft enough that it
    was virtually inaudible from just half a block away. I played for three hours and people had a great time.
    A week later, during a crackdown, I was playing in the same spot and was confronted by an officer who
    claimed that I was standing on museum property and that amplified music was not allowed. I was kicked off
    the spot. Strangely, taking place at the same time two blocks down, right at the bottom of the front
    steps of the museum, there was a huge crowd of cheering spectators enjoying troupe of break-dancers
    (extremely talented, by the way) who were performing to ear-shattering plastic container drumming.

    The double standard of the loudness argument is ridiculous, even moreso when you move below ground into
    the incredibly noisy environment of the subway trains, with their screeching wheels, blasting horns and
    all-around thunderous presence. And the additional argument that loud music potentially obscures announcements
    that come over the PA system? As anyone who’s been within earshot of such announcements can tell you,
    they’re almost always unintelligible (for a perfect depiction of this, watch the train platform scene from
    the 1951 Jacques Tati film, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday). The truth is that underground, no one’s
    expecting peace and quiet; we put up with the noise and a lot more.

    When an actual melody reaches my ears from amidst the horrendous cacophony , it makes standing down there
    on the platform a little more bearable as I wince at the huge rat I’ve just spotted scampering along the
    filthy tracks.

    Coming Soon:
    Notes from the Street
    Part Two: It’s Music to Whose Ears?

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class
    (See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)


    All the lip service devoted to how the arts are important is clichéd. Michelle Obama’s words on the last Oscars
    notwithstanding, the arts are continually “branded” as if they’re something outside the norm. Why? It’s due in
    large part to the fact that during students’ formative years, educators look at art as something exclusive to
    those who are talented. Art classes (the basic painting/drawing classes and music/band classes) do involve
    everyone but teachers gravitate toward those they perceive to have talent. It’s just a perceived “given” that
    most are average, and therefore either passed over or routinely accepted, but only those with promise are
    encouraged. What other fields foster that kind of attitude? In classes like Science, Math, History and language
    skills, yes, it’s understood that some possess more skill or greater potential than others, but all students are
    expected to measure up, regardless. At the core of such expectation is standardized testing. Our perception
    that these other subjects absolutely demand a certain level of comprehension and ability simply do not apply to the
    arts. This mentality relegates the arts to something for those that are interested in them or who demonstrate, if not
    an above-average ability, a strong desire on the part of the student.

    It’s obvious, regardless of subject, that there are some students who possess abilities that surpass their peers.
    Some love and excel at the sciences. Others at math. For some, these disciplines will engender lifelong career
    pursuits. This understanding, that some students gravitate toward specific subjects is, for the most part, nurtured
    in every area of endeavor except the arts. The prevailing parental attitude toward students who decide to pursue a
    career in the arts is that it’s more a flight of fancy than a valid career goal; the hope is that they’ll grow out of
    it. And most do.

    While the predominant perception of the arts in general, we’ve seen, is that they’re something extra, something
    outside the norm, the predominant media message is that the arts (and our school boards, public figures, politicians
    and celebrities say it with conviction) are still very important, “vital,” in fact. They’re so important that the
    minute a school district’s budget is shrinking – poof – like magic, the art class or music class disappears. As a
    teaching artist, I have been brought to schools in which my brief workshop, for a single class, was the only music
    program that existed in the entire school.

    One solution has been to make the arts an extracurricular activity, an after-school program. Students are neither
    required to participate, neither are they graded. Another solution is to bring in teaching artists occasionally and
    expose students to all the arts periodically throughout the year.

    But there’s a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs some shoveling up after.

    Coming Soon:
    RESOLVED: THE ARTS ARE UNNECESSARY
    Part Three – The Elephant in the Room

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    Video: Vinegar Mother Live at Cornelia Street

    Lesson 9 of “Lessons from Vinegar Mother.” This version features new original video as intended for the
    performance piece. The spoken material is also clearer than the Asheville footage. The Cornelia Street
    Café is a much more intimate setting (with a much smaller stage) and it certainly captures the immediacy
    of the experience. Thanks to friend and owner, Robin, as well as curator Angelo for a fantastic evening.

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    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

    Part One – How to Upset Anyone Involved in the Arts

    Just say, “the arts are unnecessary.” We’re loath to say it. We’re defensive if the notion surfaces. However,
    somewhere along the line, despite the hype, despite the political-speak, the educator-speak and the
    arts-organization-speak, it’s staring us in the face. The arts have been rendered irrelevant. Unnecessary.
    (Are you getting upset yet?) Excluding movies and huge rock concerts, from a statistical standpoint, only
    about 5% of the population of a given region attend any live arts events. Of that 5%, only a fraction will
    attend a dance event, a classical music concert or go to see a play.

    Ask your neighbors; do they or their kids think about or use the arts in their daily lives? Do the people
    on your street come together for singing or dancing? It shows everywhere – people now believe the arts are
    for schools. They believe that artists are a special (and weird) breed, not everyday people. Ask your
    neighbors: what’s more important for a student – learn about math and science or learn how to play the piano?

    Ask any parent what type of profession they’d like to see their children go into. It’s a good bet that not
    a single art form will be mentioned.

    Virtually every major art form was originally central to the cultural life of the community, from a small
    tribe in the amazon jungle, to Native Americans, to the all early civilizations like the Chinese, Greeks and
    Romans. The arts were inseparable from the culture – dancing and singing were part of ritual and celebration,
    paintings and carvings adorned utilitarian objects (clothing, pottery, tools, etc.), and cave paintings were
    arguably the earliest form of documentary. In America, every artisanal craft from clothing to bowls to toys to
    religious objects is now factory-mass-produced. In China. True craftspeople are out there, but predominantly
    relegated to specialty shops and small venues, seen or experienced by a relative few.

    And the arts? Now? They are “electives” in schools; but they have absolutely no part in the all-important
    standardized testing. They’re the last programs to be considered and the first to go when budgets are cut. The
    litany of outraged complaints about how the arts are viewed and treated is too long to go into, and besides,
    arts educators and teaching artists already know.

    Even though those of us who care speak out, we’ve actually bought into it. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be in such
    trouble. Years of struggle have made us buy into the bleak reality as much as those we look to for support –
    support that goes far beyond the financial type. And all those funders, everyone from endowments to the big
    corporations looking to keep up their images as supporters of the arts, everyone is tired of hearing the same
    endless evidence that the arts matter and they’re weary of the same old pleas for help.

    Coming Soon:
    Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary
    Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class

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