Law in Contemporary Society

JCPenney, the Saxophone, and Advocating for Music Education

-- By CoreyWhitt - 25 Apr 2022

Wishbooks and What They Offer

I was unacquainted with the saxophone before JCPenney introduced us. Nestled somewhere between the glossed pages of scalloped valences and seersucker suits, the horn enjoyed a two-page spread in the retail giant’s holiday lookbook. Department store chains are not known to be reputable distributors of musical instruments, but dressed in a wine-red lacquer, the saxophone I saw gave me no pause.

Poring over the advertisement offered a welcome distraction in the days after my mom, sister, and I fled the domestic violence in our home. Elbows resting on the catalog’s pages, I would stretch over a concrete floor in the unfinished house for our new family of three, and gaze at the saxophone’s silhouette for hours. Even in a home of exposed studs and dry wall, the simple thought of a future with the instrument was enough to shutter the biting winter winds of Wisconsin.

JCPenney’s branded saxophone would later arrive on a brisk morning, many years after my mom had started to save what little cash remained at the end of each month. The instrument shared more properties with aluminum foil than any reputable woodwind should and sputtered like an old Mercury Marquis, but it still managed to make a sound as I took to practicing it religiously.

Where my experiences created space for ignorance and hard-heartedness, music filled my understanding of the world with a kindness and warmth.

The Decay of Music Education in American Schools

The American educational landscape of today has diminished the reach of such musical experiences in students' lives, where legislatures, boards of education, and the public have deemed it “nice but not necessary.” Across all age groups, the decline of music education has been on a steady march for the better part of four decades. Today more than 1.3 million elementary school students lack any form of music education, less than one-fifth of students in eighth-grade perform in a school ensemble, and high school music opportunities are increasingly relegated to the school-day demands of high-stakes testing regimes and Advanced Placement coursework.

More, music education access is a yawning chasm on display when one moves beyond the district boundaries of majority-white suburbs. Large metropolitan districts are the least likely to supply robust music education programs, while music education advocacy is shallowest amongst rural administrators. Meanwhile, students of color are least likely to benefit from music education programming over the course of their compulsory education, because the offerings are simply not present where the students come to learn.

America has chartered a path where it seems that a music education is increasingly reserved for the few, and our society suffers for that choice.

Supporting a Better Society

The decay in music education access severs the strands that hold a healthy democracy together by hobbling the very foundations of the human experience: to feel deeply, recognize the dignity of others, and connect with those around us. It is because a democracy is more than a model of governance – it is an amalgam of individual and group experiences engaged in “cooperative intercourse” with one another. When we disconnect our brightest potential from significant exposure to musical experiences, we restrict their capacity to imagine meaningful and enduring relationships with those around them. The company of a music education, though, lays the foundation that begins the scaffold towards that lofty goal.

The idea is not a new one. Greek philosopher Plato imagined an education system intertwined with a music curriculum, “because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the innermost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace.” In the view of Plato, more so than any other subject, music imagines an idealized society during the fleeting moments of performance that shape student perspectives after the last pitch sounds – our musical experiences translate to the way we navigate the world.

We are able to empathize with others around us because we have already felt their same pain in the cascades of Julie Giroux’s One Life Beautiful.

We are able to savor the long road of patience because we have already experienced the slow build of triumph in the fourth movement of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

We are able to easily forgive because we have already closed our eyes and laid the day behind us in Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby.

And we can burden the darkest of times because we have already lived to see the unbridled joy that lies on the other side of the final molto ritardando in Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

A music education builds the footings for how we see one another and live out our lives alongside them, because we are forced to reckon with the common capacity of experiences that makeup the human condition. When we partake in such an endeavor, we recognize the beauty of our shared humanity, and “[i]n all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion.” A music education makes practice of the Kantian credo and extends its application far beyond the music classroom; to our family, strangers, sidewalks, and conversations.

In a country that has slowly allowed our youngest to forgo a music education, it is no wonder that our discourse has become so caustic and bitter. Music fastens us to each other, and a music education secures the earliest strings.

NAfME? and Music Education Advocacy

Today the national music education organization, the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), bangs the familiar doldrums that have permitted a music education to fade from our classroom:

Music is math.

Music is reading.

Music is science.

Music improves test scores, attendance, and grade point averages.

But, while true and perhaps important, the same ineffectual advocacy strategy misses the point all together and perpetuates the supporting role of music education to “core” academic work. Instead, a music education is best articulated on its own terms:

Music makes us a better people.

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r6 - 08 Jun 2022 - 00:36:33 - CoreyWhitt
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