Over the years at KCRW, I’ve interviewed many incredible musicians who could barely string a decent sentence together. Thank goodness they’d been given or chosen a musical instrument with which to express themselves in school, otherwise their artistic genius would never have been realized. Heaven only knows what might have happened to them, and what lives they would have lead. Even the great musical genius Charlie Parker didn’t sound very eloquent or even that bright when speaking.
When I’ve asked musicians why they’d chosen their profession, I’ve gotten some funny responses like: “I got the upright bass because I was tall”; “I got the trombone because nobody else wanted it, and I was last” (ditto for the tuba); or “I switched from clarinet to tenor sax because the girls were into it.” And on and on. The point is that we have seen less funding and overall dwindling support over the past decades for music and the arts in public schools. Every time the NEA budget comes up for approval in Congress, someone like Jesse Helms brings up controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano, arguing that Congress shouldn’t fund such arts. Then the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater—such a shame.
I played in a casual jazz band in January at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) that I dubbed The Axiss Audio All-Stars because we played in the Axiss Audio room. (Axiss is a distributor of high-end home audio gear such as Soulution, Air Tight, Sonus Faber, Transrotor, etc.)
One of the tenor players in our band was an American-Italian guy from New Jersey named Charlie Maranzano. Despite his soft-spoken, casual demeanor, the guy has advanced music degrees and a Ph.D. in music education: B.A. in performance, M.A in conducting, an EDS in Educational Administration, and a doctorate from College of William & Mary in Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership. A former school superintendent, he now enjoys his semi-retirement as a part-time New York City actor and jazz musician. I had no idea about any of this while Charlie was blowing his tenor sax at CES.
Recently, however, he sent me one of the most eloquent defenses of arts education funding that I feel compelled to share. Dr. Charles Maranzano authored this specifically when budget cuts were in motion for Pequannock, back when he was superintendent of the New Jersey and Virginia schools.
A Plea to Preserve Music and the Performing Arts in Public Education
“The arts are an integral part of human history: from the earliest primitive paintings on cavern walls, to music rituals of early tribes, through centuries of stories and tales of the seemingly unexplainable, the arts have been present to comfort and inform man. Fast forward to the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry of contemporary times that today engages a global audience: The arts have connected humankind and served as a river of continuity since the beginning of time, and the profound influence of music and art on the social and emotional aspect of human nature is undeniable. The arts therefore are an essential part of public education, completing and complimenting the totality of our human experience.
As a former school superintendent in both New Jersey and Virginia, I fought many battles to preserve and protect the fine and performing arts in public schools. During the difficult budget debates, many of the unenlightened and uninformed would acquiesce to simply remove arts from the curriculum in order to achieve a desired reduction in expenses. Unfortunately, the price to be paid for denying the arts experience to generations of our youth would be both intolerable and unconscionable.
Music and the performing arts are as essential to the curriculum as English, Math, Science, and Social Studies. The students in our charge are in need of the rich experiences that only can be acquired through the multi-dimensional sensory experience of the arts.
It is the duty of an elected school board to ensure that each child in the community be exposed to a comprehensive educational continuum over the course of kindergarten through high school graduation. The gatekeepers of the curriculum (school administrators) must also ensure that children have the opportunity for arts immersion from the earliest grades, as these basic experiences set the foundation for the rich arts experiences in high school and beyond. By limiting curricular experiences to exclusive core subjects, children are deprived of the opportunity to grow and mature in their experiences of music and the arts. Children of special needs are especially enriched through experiences in the fine and performing arts, and that equates to those students identified as gifted and talented. Every student enrolled in public school education across the spectrum has a basic human need to explore the fine and performing arts. The foundational experiences in the arts during the formative developmental years in life set the stage for a life-long journey into the world of color, design, sound, joy and wonder.
The quantification of public education, the current fad to find accountability through standardized testing, has the unintended long-term consequence of limiting the curriculum to core subject matter in public schools obsessed with making adequate yearly progress targets. In some states, newly conceived funding formulas are contingent on advances in standardized test scores. Teacher and administrative evaluation depend on measurable academic progress. The narrowing of curricula is therefore robbing our youth of the quality of the overall educational experience. The drive by state and federal politicians to push students to excel on standardized tests has taken a visible negative toil on our schools and curriculum. Here’s why: A standardized test is merely a snapshot: What’s needed is a motion picture. Multiple points of measurement are the key to student assessment, and multiple points of data are needed.
In the words of Robert Frost, ‘I shall be telling this with a sigh, Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.’
The road is divided. Leadership in education is needed. Take a path forward devoid of the arts and deprive generations of the rich experiences that they deserve. There may be no returning to this place and time. Make a bold decision to stand up for the arts and choose the path that will lead our children to a time and place we will never see, one rich in creative thought, light, color, sound, and a basic understanding and appreciation for all that is art and music.”
Thank you for listening. Thank you for acting. Thank you for preserving arts education.
Charles Maranzano, Jr., Ed.D.