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John Zielinski

composer - saxophone - flute - synth - voice

On Music Education


This piece appeared in the music trade paper Billboard back in September of 1991 under the headline Labels Should Raise Their Sights; MUSIC EDUCATION NEEDS NEW ATTITUDE. That was their title, not mine. I wrote it as a response to a piece by the guy who was the president of NARAS (the Grammy people) back then.

I read with interest the commentary of NARAS president Michael Greene on the state of music education (Billboard, July 6). While I wholeheartedly agree with his position on the need for continuing music education in the U.S., I believe that, to solve the problem, one must first understand the cause.

In this country, music has lost its position as an art and has become, instead, nothing more than another form of disposable entertainment. This distinction between art and entertainment is a question of purpose. Even though its creation may result in financial reward and it may entertain, art is always done for some other purpose—to communicate a message, to address an issue, to foster reflection, etc. Entertainment, on the other hand, exists primarily to provide temporary distraction from the other concerns of daily life even though it may, secondarily, fulfill the same purposes as art. I believe that this is at the heart of the problem.

Take a look around you. Of the four in 10 Americans who have been to a live music performance in the past year, what percentage of those attended a performance by performers who can be said to fall into the category of “entertainment” (e.g., rock and pop)? Now calculate the percentage of Americans who have attended performances of art music, and I think that you will see the true genesis of the problem. Art requires people to become actively involved with the work. This, in turn, requires the ability to understand the nature of the work (an ability often acquired via education).

The creators must also be schooled in their art. In contrast, the creators of entertainment, while they may be educated, are more often than not the product of nothing more than a chance opportunity. If one requires proof of this, one need look no further than the top of the music trade charts.

Looking at the evidence, one is compelled to conclude that there is no need for music education in the U.S. To begin with, those individuals that the majority of the population hold up as musical role models are not musically educated. To overgeneralize, they are often musically illiterate—they can neither read nor write musical symbology and they have only a limited knowledge of the vast universe of music that came before them. The music that they are creating is geared to people who are similarly devoid of a musical education. Given these facts, why in the world would anyone want their tax money spent on something as useless as music education programs?

Greene suggests that, if music and art education are not considered to be “a universal entitlement,” this would be the beginning of a “cultural caste system in this country.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that caste system already exists, and it is not necessarily related to the economic class of an individual. Take a look at the attendees of performances by individuals and ensembles that are generally considered to come under the umbrella of “art music.” There may be a diversity of economic and social backgrounds in the audience, but this same audience is rarely representative of the background of the general population.

If all of this is the root of cutbacks in music and art education, then the only way to ensure that this education endures is to change the way that the population perceives music. Musical entertainment has always existed and will undoubtedly continue to exist as long as humanity survives on the planet. Our task is to convince the general public that musical art deserves the same kind of life expectancy. What can be done?

To begin with, music education needs to become more alive for the students. Instead of dealing only with music by “a bunch of guys who are dead” (a comment attributable to a colleague of mine), educators need to present the music of people who are alive today or who at least spoke with a voice of this century. This fights the battle on two fronts. First, because the names may be unfamiliar to the students, there is less likelihood of a prejudicial response. Second, because the music is of this century, there is a greater likelihood that the music will speak to the students emotionally and intellectually.

Second, presenters and performers need to make sure that performances of art music are exciting. While this has happened to some extent (viz. the Kronos Quartet, the Philip Glass Ensemble's alternative appearances of a decade ago, the “downtown” New York scene), it needs to be embraced universally. How can anyone expect a population that has grown up with the contrived energy of the electronic media to be satisfied with sitting in a museum?

Finally, the most powerful groups in music today, the record and video companies, must be willing to give art music the same commitment that they give to music for entertainment. This does not mean support only for the traditional “classical” artists and repertoire, but support for art music of all types. Take more chances on writers and performers who may not give you an immediate return on investment, but who may do so, given the time to build an audience. Promote the artists the same way that you promote Guns N' Roses or Paula Abdul. Yes, the recording and video businesses are businesses and not philanthropic organizations, but surely, some of the profits generated from the megastar entertainers can become seed money for musical art.

The fundamental problem in getting support for music education is that the art of music just isn't very important to the majority of Americans. They don't see the same payback that is perceived to come from education dedicated to science and technology. We can't expect the public to embrace the use of their tax dollars for something that they see as useless. Our job will be to convince them that not only is music as art worthwhile, but that it is vital to the health of our country.

This task will not be accomplished through rhetoric alone. We must use the weapon that possesses the greatest power of anything in our arsenal—the art of music itself.


This article © 1991 by John Zielinski

all rights reserved


© 2021 by John Zielinski

 all rights reserved