Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cultural Conversation

I was up early this morning and talking with my daughter and feeling surprised by the power of spontaneous observation a 2 1/2 year old can have! In smiling about it afterward, I started to think about how so much of our world has become less about talking/listening and more about talking points, whether in politics or in our work life.

In that light I began to reflect on how little serious conversation I hear about music these days, whether it be students or people I meet. Between a lack of time in our highly technology-inspired world, which creates so much for work for everyone, and also just a lack of experience, it's not something families seem to be discussing from conversations I've had with people from all walks of life over the past few weeks.

Even in my own world as an advocate for music, I tend to lean toward set talking points when I speak with community groups, although truth be told, whether at my pre-concert talks with the Colonial Symphony, or with presentations like I just made to the Mountain Lakes 55+ Club, my favorite part is always the question and answer portion. People have such interesting observations and questions and I find this dialogue so energizing. I walk away sad that it has to end, because simply put, I have a great time. The dialogue is where it's at.

I remember my days as a student at Florida State University sitting with friends listening to music into the early hours of the morning over a jug of bad wine and talking about why what we heard was great - or not! I particularly remember listening for several days to John Coltrane's Love Supreme and being both mystified and fascinated by the depth of his musical expression, his technical freedom, his spontaneous expression that went beyond sound alone. Something was happening, and I wanted to figure it out. In fact, 3 other friends and I set up a large room full of all kinds of instruments and started performing free music late at night in candlelight. I'm so thankful in retrospect that no one got this on film, but it's something my friends and I will always remember!

This was formative for me in the sense that talking about music was fun, deep, moving, and made me feel a bond with my friends that was different than when we just talked politics, health, economy, or pedagogy. It even led to action. We were speaking about things and doing things that were not economically viable, not directly career enhancing, but soul enriching (We certainly didn't become classical or jazz musicians to become rich!). This wasn't about making a point - it was about process and thought.

When I do hear students talking about music, it has more to do these days with the visual than the aural effect. Just watch MTV for a few minutes as it makes a point about how important it is to be in good physical more than musical shape! The visual element has tended to dominate, sometimes even in the Classical world, where marketing decisions are based on how folks look when they play, rather than on their musical merit. I would love to hear conversations about what an artist actually says and sounds like - why their groove is timeless, their expression deep, their sound unique, their voice powerful, in any musical genre.

I wonder what would happen if arts education was given the importance that research has shown it should have in the classroom? If families, friends, and students started talking about music and art on daily basis? With all the struggles that we collectively face these days, and the pressures so many feel, regardless of your political stripes, it seems to me that cultural discourse needs to become a larger part of our conversational diet. Beyond being simply fun, it goes to the heart of what makes life worth living, giving us a break from the daily grind, truly broadening our perspective, and getting us out of a rut of fear - especially these days.

Today I plan to talk about music with my daughter and fully expect to be amazed by her natural response to sound - one that is full of joy, depth, and laughter - she will teach me. I can't think of a better way to start my day! Later I'll talk with my wife about a new recording of Falla's Three Cornered Hat I just listened to, and hopefully we'll check it out together. Then I go to do a recruiting speech at Montclair State University for prospective students and am going to really try to stay away from talking points as much as I can and instead, create room for more dialogue.

In other words, beyond my political/economic/health/education concerns and my desire to talk and engage, I hope to have a great day surrounded by culture and art. This is what makes me happy. I mean, there's always time for political discourse and this is indeed important with an election looming, but I also feel we need to do things to keep perspective afloat about life's inherent pleasures, and culture does this as well as anything!

I hope you have a wonderful day full of music and art as well.


Jeff Little said...

Have you heard of David Bohm? He has a book called On Dialogue that's very similar to what you're talking about (it's also one of my favorite books ever.) If you're not already familiar with him he's definitely right up your alley.

I really don't care if I seem like I'm sucking up by saying this because I'm just being honest: I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog so far and I'm very glad you decided to start doing one.

Brian McGowan said...

As a public school music teacher, I'd like to comment on your point:

"I wonder what would happen if arts education was given the importance that research has shown it should have in the classroom?"

Teaching music in the public school is often the opposite of what we'd hope for in teaching our youth about the arts and their existence in our society. I am scheduled to see the students so little in the week, and thats when I don't miss the students because of picture day or some assembly. This forces me and other music teachers to strictly go over concert music and nothing else. We never have the time to discuss the aspects of music that make it great, or discuss it's place in history. If a math or english teacher did this, they would call it "teaching to the test". Nobody would accept that from math or science teacher but we accept it everyday from our music teachers. Any 'extra' discussion or lesson about the music I must sneak it in or find other ways of doing via the internet. And becuase it generally sounds good at the concert, I'm considered successful in my task of teaching these students music, even though I know if I don't do the 'extra' stuff online, I really just created little middle school robots that know how to play music, but never WHY we make music.


"If families, friends, and students started talking about music and art on daily basis? "
"Today I plan to talk about music with my daughter"

I wish more families would do what you do.

Brian McGowan