20 March 2010
To the Ithaca City School Board:
As a participant in Ithaca’s world-class music scene and a graduate of the School of Music at Ithaca College, I would like to respond to the proposal to cut funding for crucial elements of the music program in Ithaca’s public schools. Some personal reflections are followed by questions I hope you will take under consideration.
In early 1993, at age sixteen, I performed my first paid bar gig, as the drummer in a high school rock band, thus beginning my career as a professional musician. This would not have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from beginning at age 9.
Later in 1993, I conducted the high school orchestra in one of my first compositions, a ‘symphony’ I had written over a span of several months after school. This would not have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from.
In 1999 I was the first student of the School of Music at Ithaca College to become a Fulbright Scholar. This would not have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from.
My Fulbright Research Grant enabled me to travel to Krakow, Poland, where I continued my composition studies, participated in establishing a thriving improvised music scene, and still maintain meaningful connections with dear musical friends and colleagues. This would not have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from.
After two years in Krakow, I moved to The Netherlands, became a part of the music scene there, and soon represented that country at arts festivals as far away as South Africa, Turkey and Lithuania. This would not have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from.
During my time in Holland, I became a curator of my city’s premiere new music festival, helping to choose exciting musicians from all over the world and exposing them to the students and music loving public where I lived. This would not have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from.
In the past few years, I have given lectures and masterclasses on my work in Mexico City, Tel Aviv, Krakow, London, The Hague and right here in Ithaca. I have performed my work in Toronto, Manchester, Berlin, Warsaw, Ljubliana, Budapest, Prague, Boston and New York City. None of this would have been possible without the strong elementary school music program I benefited from.
Six months ago, a decade after my graduation from IC, I decided to make this progressive, dynamic and community-minded city, Ithaca, New York, my home. All of the new connections I have made and all of the old connections I have rekindled have been in large part thanks to the strong elementary school music program that I benefited from.
I think back to those first weeks in elementary school band. I remember how enormous my alto saxophone case seemed at the time. I remember learning how to set a reed on the mouthpiece, the mouthpiece on the instrument. I remember learning how to hold the saxophone, where to place my small fingers, how to care for it. I remember the feel and smell of the dog-eared beginning methods we learned scales and simple melodies from. I remember, as a nine year old, tears welling up when our school band performed “The Rainbow Connection”. Already at that age I was learning the vital transformative power of group music making.
From elementary school band, to middle and high school jazz band, to school musicals, I have benefited immeasurably from my participation in the public school music program I grew up with. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful for the opportunities I had to become the musician, and person, that I am. These opportunities should never be denied to any child.
I question how cutting the elementary instrumental program for all children in the school district will help to benefit underserved students. I question how taking away, from all children, the vital lessons that group music making teach will enrich the lives of any student. I question whether the members of the School Board believe that many of the district’s young people will be able to take on, as paid, extracurricular activities, what are now offered free of charge before, during, and after school in a safe and constructive environment.
Even if a very small minority of well-off children were to begin taking private lessons in band and orchestral instruments, these children would be denied the experiences of working in concert, playing in tune, producing harmony. These are not convenient puns: these are essential abstract values that music making teaches young people. Music education helps foster notions of creativity, discipline and teamwork. Insofar as a child practices her instrument in order to perform for the enjoyment of others, it instills a sense of community, a sense of pride, and a sense of selflessness. It teaches self-confidence. It increases communication. Music education may not be the sole setting where these values are learned, but in the discipline’s unique constitution as a time-based, community-oriented, abstract art, these values may well be learned deepest through group music making.
With this in mind, I urge the Ithaca City School District to leave the elementary music program and all extracurricular activities intact. It might summon all of the community’s creativity to find an alternative. And so we must.
composer / performer
Ithaca, New York