My favorite childhood teacher was Mrs. Haines, a dear old granny who made fifth grade bearable for me. Every Friday afternoon, she dug out an ancient Victrola and gave us our first tantalizing tastes of the great composers. I’ll never forget a life-changing rainy-day recess, doing jumping-jacks in the classroom to the delicious strains of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The joyful chills I felt that morning ignited a fire in my belly for great music that’s never gone out.
But it seems each succeeding generation of teachers since then has been less in touch with the classics. We’re failing to find and nurture musical talent, and gifted kids are slipping through the cracks. Californian Eric Whitacre, perhaps America’s hottest young composer at the moment, didn’t hear a note of classical music until he was 19. College music appreciation courses are mostly elective, and many students bent on technical or commercial careers can’t be bothered. For many otherwise smart and successful young professionals, U2 remains the height of musical sophistication.
In most European nations, every child learns how to play an instrument, and is a seasoned concertgoer by the age of 12. As a result, over 15 percent of their citizens support musical culture — as opposed to a pathetic 3 percent here in the U.S. No wonder so much of the civilized world thinks Americans are cultural idiots.
Paradoxically, U.S. music conservatories are among the world’s finest, drawing hordes of foreign students. In fact, they’re churning out more crack musicians than our musical establishment can absorb: orchestral and full-time teaching gigs are limited by comparison.
On the secondary scene, there are some happy exceptions to report. The North Charleston School of the Arts has set new national and international standards for student test scores in music theory. I’ve met students whose families have moved here from as far away as the Midwest to send their kids to school there. And yet there are rumblings about cutting this model program’s funding.
There are similar success stories across the nation, but they’re mostly exceptions to the sad rule. Fiscal priorities are increasingly tipped in favor of math and science, not to mention basic literacy skills. Many schools have essentially no music faculty at all, making do with itinerant instructors who have to cover multiple schools.
Maybe it’s time we took matters into our own hands. How about volunteering to spend a couple of hours a week playing and talking about music at your local elementary school? Why not offer to teach music appreciation classes at your community rec center? Invite your hip-hop-addicted teenaged nephew to a CSO or Spoleto concert this spring. Unless those of us who give a damn about the classics can be persuaded to climb down from our ivory towers and soil our elevated pinkies in the trenches, great music will ring ever fainter in the ears and souls of future generations.
Mrs. Haines, where are you when we need you?