Defending arts education funding: we’re doing it wrong

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Oh, there’s good reasons for that. We’ve fallen into a trap, you see. The justification for funding education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is “it prepares our children to get a job in tomorrow’s economy.” And we don’t need justification for training doctors, lawyers, or financial gurus. Everybody nods their heads and says “oh yeah, we need those.”

This trap has two snares in it. Ones is the idea that people are typed by their profession. But consider humans about 10k-30k years ago: there was no such thing as “science” as a separate activity from just “being human.” There must have been some division of labor roles, sure, based in part on physiology and age. Men probably didn’t nurse babies, and the very old probably didn’t hunt. You ask the big person to carry the heavy thing. But apart from the tribal leader and maybe also a shaman-type, when it came to architecture or clothing, hunting or gathering—you did it, or you died. The professions weren’t siloed. To simplify, and adopt a bit of an idyllic view: people were just people.

The other snare is the idea that the sole (or primary) role of education is to prepare children to perform a job in the economy for about 50 years. We no longer make an investment in developing people to be fully human; that’s an extra-vocational activity, done by few and on a purely voluntary basis, largely on their own dime—a dime they earn from participating in the economy.

Should that be what school is for? Just to prepare tiny humans to be a part of our economy once they’re big enough?

Come with me again back to 10k-30k years ago. Humans—all of them—did more than gather, hunt, make clothes, and build shelters. We made fires, we cooked. We raised our young; we buried our dead ceremoniously, in honor. We told stories, we told jokes, we painted, we sang, we danced. All of us, not just the “dancers.” To do so was to express part of what it meant to be human.

“The Arts” isn’t some separate discipline. They are a central feature of the human experience.

And today, most of the people I know are cut off from most of these experiences, by personal choice and/or by the circumstances of their upbringing. We live these experiences by proxy. We let the television tell us stories, the pop stars sing our songs, the restaurants cook, and the photographers adorn our walls.

Is it any wonder so many of us feel so off-balance?

These things are so lacking—we crave them so much—that they have turned into entertainments, ones that we will pay for. Most of us only have the chance to participate in mere shadows of the kinds of activities that make us fully human, and only in the time not taken up by our role in the economic engine, and only (to reiterate) using money we ourselves earn fulfilling that role.

Defending arts education funding by pointing to the well-documented benefits it gives students—increased retention in schools, increased performance in STEM classes—plays into this assumption that it is only okay to spend money if it will better prepare students participate in the economy. It’s complicit—usually unknowingly so—in the argument that the arts ought to be an add-on entertainment, another way to extract money from people.

So, no, that’s not what school should be for. School should be for preparing people for life, not just for a place in the economy.

Society should prepare people for the complexities of falling in love, the joy (and challenges) of raising children, and the grief of losing loved ones. We should at least be teaching people where carrots and eggs come from, and how to make those things into a meal. We should be teaching people to make images that express the worlds they see in their minds; to sing together in harmony and to dance together with abandon; to tell their stories eloquently and meaningfully. These things are life, and a society that fails to prepare its people for these things, fails its people.

And by that measure, we’ve been failing miserably for decades.

When we fund arts education in schools, we take just one of the many—desperately needed—steps toward restoring to education its rightful role of preparing people to live full, happy lives.

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Vocal Harmonies and the Piano

Quick post today, just to record hypotheses I’d like to test. I’m back onto the “math of musical pitches” thing, but I’m promising myself I won’t get too lost down this rabbit hole. Not this time.

Pianos and digital keyboard instruments are tuned to 12-Tone Equal Temperament (12ET), where each half-step is exactly the same interval as the others. It’s a tuning system that confers certain advantages, such as flexibility in the use of tonal languages to exploit enharmonic ambiguity to pivot to other tonal centers. Such advantages come at the cost of the “sweetness” or “purity” (terms to be defined) of harmonic intervals. It’s a halfway-decent trade-off.

Ensemble vocalists and similar groups (such as a string quartet) tune their performances “by ear,” using subjective aural experience to shift notes microtonally to achieve harmonies that are deemed optimal, somehow. Hypothesis: the subjective judgement of what’s optimal for an individual performer has a physiological/biological component and an acculturated component; probably the biological component is weighted somewhat more strongly. Another hypothesis: what’s judged as optimal is usually some kind of just intonation; probably 5-limit tuning as (opposed to Pythagorean (3-limit) tuning or 7-limit tuning). Read more ›

Posted in music theory

The State of my Method

without-following-the-recipeMy last post about my Daily Song Project was over a year ago. I’ve become one of those bloggers. The kind that doesn’t keep up, that promises that they’ll try to blog more regularly…

Wait, no I haven’t. Such statements smack if disingenuity, when I see them on other blogs.

I’ll simply say: I haven’t had much to say. Not much meta-commentary to make that hasn’t fit within the songs themselves, the ones I still make every day—or in the comments about them I leave on Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, and Patreon.

Plus, life has been full of changes, and waxing poetic online has not been a priority. Moving, my day-job, enrolling in a Master’s program in Music, planning a career change, doing my daily songs, travelling to DC/Baltimore every month to co-lead circlesinging—these things have taken priority.

But today I steal a few minutes to write. Today’s song has given me something to discuss, and events from this past month have given me a context for it. Plus, it’s been so long since I’ve given you an update; you may be wondering how things are going, or whether they’re still going at all. Read more ›

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The Dangers of Daily Practice

Yesterday was the first day that I’d repeated the previous day’s musical idea quite so closely.

I’ve repeated myself before. Sometimes intentionally, but just as often “by mistake” (let’s call it “without conscious intention” instead). Similar tempos, similar grooves, pretty close on the tone-center, same mode. Melodic motifs—now there’s a pitfall. I’m discovering that I’m going to my go-to melodic gestures quite a bit.

But two days in a row?

It gets worse. Read more ›

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Process Evolution of the Daily Song Project

My Daily Song Project turns 0.4167 today. It feels like far too long since an update. People have asked: “what’s your process? how’s it going?” It’s high time I answer.

It’s going fine, thanks.

Heh, no, I’m not going to leave it at that. Read on for the gritty details. Read more ›

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