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August 1960 The Music Men Live By, By Himie Voxman

Sweet are the uses of adversity. Well, hardly sweet, but out of this period of anxiety and frustration in public school music education, clearly positive results may emerge from a rather murky environment. It is with great interest that one reads the many thoughtful articles in the various music periodicals (state and national) defending the importance and value of music programs in the public schools. The authors, some from the music profession, but others from the ranks of school administrators sympathetic to the field, have addressed themselves primarily to the maintenance of the status quo.
 Numerous rebuttals have been offered to the implications of the Conant report and other apostolic dicta from lesser-known denigrators. Unfortunately, as is all too often the case in controversies of this kind, the remarks of these writers reach primarily their own colleagues and friends. Aside from providing encouragement (and in some cases even inspiration) for the dismayed, it is doubtful how effective these affirmations of faith are in reversing the trend of administrative and public opinion.

Criticisms of School Music

   The criticisms of the current programs in music are both overt and by implication. The former have been directed mainly against those facets that in the past have been regarded as most photogenic, such as the drum majorettes and the marching band – the entertainment and service aspects of the programs. Responsible members of our profession cannot readily overlook a state of affairs in which almost a third of the teaching year in instrumental music is devoted to activities that can scarcely merit the category of music education, despite the values that may accrue from such open-air activity.
   A much more serious and insidious attack has been the usurpation of curricular time that was acquired only-after decades of intensive effort. Without great ado or debate, the high school (and in many instances the junior high) curriculum has been enriched partly at the expense of music. Many teachers must feel that the musical carcass has been attacked by long-starving birds of prey. The implication of this unilateral action by administrators and school boards obviously implies that when the chips are down the music program cannot stand up with the other hard-core content areas such as science, mathematics, foreign language, and literature.
   Apparently, it is unnecessary to make specific charges against the music program, though this no doubt has been done in some cases. The prospective music student is simply confronted with the choice of more advanced work in certain currently desirable areas and continuing participation in large group activity. Frequently he is under no small pressure from counselors to make the first choice.
   It would be heartening to feel that administrators and school boards will sooner or later see the error of their ways and that business will soon be resumed at the old stands in the old ways. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous assumption. The mounting cost of public education plus an increasing competition for the student’s time militates against such an eventuality.

Literature Used Vulnerable to Criticism
   The unpleasant truth is that many of the sharp criticisms made are well deserved, and while there has been no great rush to the confessional, a great deal of self-examination is underway. Aside from the more obvious bases for complaint, we are particularly vulnerable in a spot, which our detractors have as yet not seen fit to attack per se, either from oversight or from the lack of background from which to prepare a case. I refer to the almost insulting indifference with which all-too-many teachers choose the musical literature studied and performed by their students. This applies not only to the music designed for public performance but also to that used in pedagogy.
   The most casual historian of the musical scene of the past 30 years is aware of the currently larger quantity of respectable literature in the pedagogical and concert fields. True, there are notable gaps. The most serious, perhaps, is in the band field. There are few numbers yet available that seem destined for more than a transient existence. The bulk of viable repertoire is still transcriptions. It is heartening to find an increasing interest on the part of the American composer in this dilemma. The merit of the program of the National Music Council and the Ford Foundation in attaching talented young composers to public schools for a year’s creative effort in various media cannot yet be assessed, but we must all hail it as a bold and imaginative attack on a major problem. At least it will serve to focus the attention of not only the composers selected but many others of equal or superior talent on a great challenge and an opportunity for important service to our musical culture.
   The solo repertoire for most brass instruments is seriously limited, but the inquisitive teacher can find more and better material than is commonly used, at least at a fairly advanced level.
   Yet, despite this significant advance in quantity and quality, it is still impossible to make the perennial round of the contest and festival circuit without coming home many times profoundly depressed. Even in the case of instruments such as the flute, with its great wealth of material from the Baroque era plus the many fine numbers of significant contemporaries, one is obliged to judge time after time the most clichéd outpourings of current faddists or unadorned mediocrities from the late 19th century. I have heard string orchestras (of all media!) play utterly trite commencement marches sans winds and percussion for their “number.” Even if these aberrations could be laid to the door of inexperience (which in the instances cited they cannot), it would be inexcusable.

Technique Stressed
   In part the fault must lie with certain historical antecedents. The very genesis of the public school music movement was rooted in the need and desire for increased musical skills, and it may be fairly said of its entire history that it has been predominantly skill-centered rather than music-centered. By this I mean that the central problem in the minds of many (if not most) teachers has been to teach performance technique as opposed to a broad acquaintance with the great literature of music. This statement does not imply that the teacher worthy of the name is unaware of the quality of his obligation to the student. Rather, it asserts that there has been a serious imbalance of emphasis with a resultant orientation away from instruction in the theory and history of music with the necessary concomitant acquaintance with our significant musical heritage.
   The present state of music education with the frequent over-emphasis on entertainment and service elements is no doubt largely a sociological phenomenon, the blame for which cannot wholly be laid on the doorstep of the music teacher. But it has been abetted by many. If we were seriously concerned with good musical literature, we could not and would not tolerate the plight of the high school orchestra today. Nor could we wind instrumentalists afford to devote so much time to the extra-musical activities of the band. There would be no tenable position to take other than that music instruction must more or less parallel that in the field of literature, with its study of content, theory, and history.
   The English literature teacher who fed her charges a diet of pap, contemporary or otherwise, would – let us hope – be laughed out of her profession. But the music teacher who does so frequently goes unscathed. This same teacher of band, orchestra, or chorus who uses the latest bit of pseudo-dance band material for contest would be highly offended if his own son or daughter came home nightly with a literature assignment in the latest lurid paper back. Where such a musical situation exists, the intelligent student cannot honestly be importuned to forego additional science or foreign language study to spend weeks of intensive effort on material relatively devoid of content.
   Only an impossibly unique high school literature course would graduate a student unfamiliar with the name and work of Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens, Emerson, Twain, and Hemingway. How many of our music students are equally knowledgeable about the contributions of Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Bartók, and Copland? To be able to spell their names is scarcely sufficient.

Majority All Right

   Be it strongly emphasized that such conditions are not true in the majority of cases, but the minority to whom it applies is a sizeable one, as any widely traveled adjudicator will testify. Personally, the most frustrating experience is that of hearing a first-rate performance of third-rate material.
   In the long run it may be necessary to use some of the time now devoted to large group rehearsal for teaching more of the rudiments, history, and appreciation of music. This is by no means an easy task. But if we would use some of the same dynamic spirit and admirable ingenuity with which the great pioneers of music education in the late 20’s and early 30’s developed their outstanding organizations, the job could be done without too serious disruption of present patterns of instruction. The student who makes the acquaintance of the best of his musical heritage will not be content with the ephemeral. Ultimately it will be thru him, whether as future teacher, performer, or simply consumer, that music education will take its rightful place in the curricular sun.
   I do not wish to appear as a provocative Cassandra. I am aware of the outstanding work done in thousands of communities, small and large, and of the sincerity and devotion of countless teachers. But we cannot tolerate an indifferent minority. In the professions of medicine and law, for example, the dereliction of one practitioner is the concern of all. We are not ready to advocate the policing of our rank and file, but we should not condone mediocrity. Within a month or so our public schools will be opening their doors to some 8,000,000 students of music. Let us highly resolve

   Himie Voxman has been Head of the Department of Music of the State University of Iowa since 1954. Previously he taught woodwinds privately, in the public schools of Iowa City, and beginning in 1936, at the University. From the State University of Iowa he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Master of Arts in Psychology of Music, in which field he worked under the late Carl E. Seashore. He has held various posts in MENC, MTNA, and NASM. Currently he is Vice-President of the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors. He is widely known as the author and editor of numerous wind instrument methods and solo and ensemble material.