SEPTEMBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 21

SEPTEMBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 21
September 21, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Each of us has a misgiving or two about social networking. Although as a society our daily lives have included this form of communication, very rarely are thoughts expressed that offer potential solutions to the dilemmas facing our world. Once in a while, however, a social media post can trigger a set of ideas that might lead to something concrete.

While idly scrolling through the stream of criticism, advertisements, and messages, one post jumped out at me. A writer asked a question that went something like this: “If you had $100K to spend on programing during the pandemic, what would you do?” Since we are at the start of what will be at least a four-month delay in regular concert presentation as well as the commencement of the school year, I found myself pondering how the two might come together.

In Lyon, one educational institution has a remarkable program in which a fourth-grade class in a public school devotes an entire week to music. All other curriculum is suspended for that time. The children learn some of the history of classical music as well as contemporary aspects of the culture. A composer spends the week with the kids, and this is where it gets really interesting.

Over the course of six days—they have school on Saturday—the entire group creates a new piece of music, which is performed as the culmination of the week’s effort. Often, they utilize found objects. These might be discovered at home, on the street, or even in the classroom itself. The piece is usually an organized improvisation, with the children divided into several small sets. Each section has its own role to play in the new creation.

The first time I saw this in action was well before I became music director of the ONL. During a guest conducting stint about fifteen years ago, the management of the orchestra told me about the program, and I expressed interest in observing. Fortunately, it occurred during my week with the orchestra, so I was able to experience it myself. What an inspiration! And what a difference from what we see, or more precisely, do not see, in our American schools: young people totally engaged in presenting something that they themselves have made, not as individuals, but as a collective force. Music is one of only a few areas in which cooperation, listening, and creating come together. Some might call it the greater good. I prefer to leave out the qualifier.

Remembering this program, I responded to the query on Facebook with a post about how I would like to see the $100K go toward starting an initiative like this in our school system. Here is how it could work:

We know that orchestras across the country have had to cancel, postpone, or reorganize their programming until at least January. No one is doing full-ensemble repertoire and, in many cases, we are seeing small ensembles with either a limited number of audience members or none at all. We also know that even with drastic salary reductions, there are a number of players who are getting paid but are not able to practice their art.

Why not get those musicians involved in a school project? Each orchestra selects, let’s say, five different public schools. The program does not necessarily need to be for fourth graders, as it is in Lyon. Perhaps slightly older children or even younger students will do. Getting into schools where there are no music programs should be a priority.

The orchestral musician and a local composer, in conjunction with a teacher at the school, devise a week of creative activities for the class. They teach a bit about history, listen to and watch recordings of different genres of music, and work on the building blocks that will become the basis of the finished compositional product. At the conclusion of the week, the work is performed, perhaps even more than once, for other students at the school as well as the parents and relatives of the kids in the class.

Based on what I observed in Lyon, this is an opportunity for students that they will not soon forget. By the time I concluded my tenure with the French orchestra, some people were coming backstage and saying that they played for me when they were in the fourth grade. It does not matter whether or not they decided to have a career in music. What they learned was the value of participation as a group in an activity that was creative and all-inclusive.

We do not even need the $100,000 proposed in the social media post to get this going. Our musicians are being employed by the orchestras in which they play, the teachers—although extremely underpaid—are at least drawing a salary, and the composer could be hired for a reasonable sum. Organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, and the American Composers Forum, as well as publishers that specialize in repertoire for young people, could assist in suggesting composers that would be appropriate for such a project.

For schools that are engaged in remote learning, we know that technology offers us the possibility of doing this project in Zoom-like fashion. Of course, this goes against what is a vital part of the musical experience: physical communication. But we must take the hand that is dealt and make the best of the cards we have.

After I posted a couple sentences on Facebook, there were several responses, all more than favorable. At this point in my life and career, I am mostly past the point of being able to implement something along this line. Therefore, I gladly turn over the idea to anyone who wants to run with it. We need to use this time wisely and creatively. Let’s do something special for the next generation.

This is a golden opportunity to reach into a treasure trove of young hearts and minds. Unlocking the spirit of imagination opens the world to possibilities that otherwise might go untapped.