By Alex Ross
Not long ago, I went out to Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey, to meet Hassan Ralph Williams, the director of the marching band. Upon arriving, I found the corridors empty; the guard at the door pointed me toward the band room, and added that the students were “at the memorial.” The memorial, I learned, was for Dawud Roberts, a sixteen-year-old Shabazz football player who, a few days before, had suffered a fatal stab wound on Johnson Avenue, a few hundred feet from the school. Some students enjoy Williams’ class, which meets for three hours every afternoon, because they love playing music; others see it more pragmatically, as a way to get through the day unscathed.
A tall, suave, mellow-voiced man with a mustache and a gleaming shaved pate, Williams is a native of Ozark, Alabama. He served in the Army for twenty-one years, leading marching bands in the 82nd Airborne Division and in the 25th Infantry. He then played jazz in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere with musicians such as Walter Bishop, Jr., and Woody Shaw. He got into teaching almost by accident, looking for work that would keep him busy between gigs. According to Donald Gatling, a longtime teacher at Shabazz, the school had a lackluster band when Williams arrived, seventeen years ago. Now the Malcolm X Shabazz Marching Band is considered one of the best in the state, in demand for its pealing brass, explosive drum line, and manic energy.
The band room is decorated with the faces of jazz masters. Duke Ellington holds the place of honor, above the center of the blackboard. There are also placards stating the virtues of discipline, decorum, respect, and attention. One of them says, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it.” A corner of the blackboard is posted with some recent student essays on the topic of Mozart’s Requiem. “Mozart died while trying to complete this piece about Death,” one student wrote. “How ironic.” In front of the blackboard are five computers, each equipped with the Sibelius composing program and various tools for teaching notation. Williams encourages the students to learn musical notation at the computer, and to write their own music.
When I walked in, the Shabazz band was rehearsing “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The kids were making a happy noise, but details were getting lost in the rumble. “Listen downward,” Williams kept saying, trying to get the upper lines in sync with the lower ones. He wanted them to bring out the dance rhythms, such as the habanera, and the songful, Italianate shape of the melodies. “A long time ago, before electricity and TV and radio, people used to dance to this,” he said. Two clarinetists responded by jumping out of their seats and dancing around, half gleefully and half sardonically.
Members of the Shabazz band, who range in age from eight to eighteen, work hard. They not only practice from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. each school day but also play most weekends, either at football games or at public events. In the summer, they go on the road to band camp. Williams does more than beat time; he teaches music history, social history, and black history. (Ninety-five percent of Shabazz students are African-American.) Sometimes he interrupts his usual attitude of jazz cool with an infusion of military discipline. “This ain’t gonna roll,” he might roar when there is too much noise in the room. “This isn’t happening. You may look around and see a chair coming at your head!” But the drill-sergeant routines last only a few minutes, and the kids aren’t afraid to talk back. If Williams asks, “Who’s got the melody?,” a girl might answer, “You do!” If he drops the name Wynton Marsalis, a few might shout out, “Who date?” (They know.)
Later in the rehearsal, the piccolo players were struggling with the twirling solos that accompany Sousa’s most famous tune, the one to which the words “Three cheers for the red-white-and-blue” are sung, or, as Williams prefers to render it, “Be kind to our four-legged friends.” Jihad Moore, a tall junior with a crooked smile who wore a blue-and-white basketball jersey with the number 24, was amusing himself by making an imaginary pistol out of his piccolo, holding one end of it with his thumb and gesturing toward the floor, gangsta-style. Williams was trying to get him to concentrate. He’d been telling Jihad that if he got to a certain level with the flute, or mastered a more unusual instrument like the oboe, he might be able to get into college on a scholarship. He sat Jihad next to another player, Kahliah Jordan, and had both students type their parts into the computers, using the Sibelius software. He figured that it would help them grasp the parts and memorize them.
“Put a trill on that first A-flat,” he said, leaning over their shoulders.
Jihad frowned at his part and asked, “Do we have to write grandioso?”
“No, skip the grandioso.”
Williams offered a new incentive. “I’ll take y’all to the International Buffet if you get this solo. Just the piccolos, at the International Buffet. But only if you all get it. If you all get this, we can wipe out any band on the planet.”
“Ill wipe out any piccolo players,” Jihad answered enthusiastically.
The standout player in the band was a senior named Vernon Jones. A slender young man with bright eyes and wide cheekbones, Vernon was getting a brilliant singing sound out of his trumpet – which Williams had bought for him – and, whenever the others took breaks, he kept working away at tricky leaps and rapid runs. He was also a composer, and wrote music and made band arrangements on the computers. Like many bands, Shabazz spices up its repertory with Top Forty songs, and Williams often relied on Vernon to find suitable songs and make idiomatic arrangements. Vernon needed only thirty minutes to knock out an arrangement of “I Believe I Can Fly” – a pungent, slightly weird orchestration, amped up by drums and brass, dense with jazzy harmonies. Vernon had been in Williams’ band since he was seven; he had recently got into Rutgers, and his acceptance letter was pinned up on the blackboard.
Toward the end of the rehearsal, Williams stepped back and listened with his arms folded. He asked another of the trumpet players, a round-faced, wide-eyed eight-year-old named Keyshawn Mayo, to take over. Earlier in the day, Keyshawn had been offended that he had been demoted to a secondary part. “I can play first trumpet,” he said. “Im the best person my page.” Now his face lit up, and he ran to the front. His small voice filled the room as he snapped his fingers: “And a five! And a six! And a seven and an eight!”
When President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2002, he probably did not intend it to have a debilitating effect on arts education in the United States. The law rewards schools that meet certain testing standards in core subjects – reading, math, the sciences – and punishes those that fall short. Seventy-one per cent of school districts have narrowed their elementary-school curricula in order to make up the difference, and the arts have repeatedly been deemed expendable. In California, between 1999 and 2004, the number of students enrolled in music courses fell by nearly half, from 1.1 million to five hundred and eighty-nine thousand. Music education has been disappearing from schools for decades, but No Child Left Behind has transformed a slow decline into a precipitate fall.
In the past few years, advocates have issued studies, pamphlets, and talking points that marshal alarming statistics on the diminishment of music programs and argue passionately for their preservation. But there is something maddeningly vague at the heart of the literature. Why must music be taught? The answer seems obvious in the case of Vernon Jones: he’s a natural musician, and, for him, the Shabazz band is the first step in what may turn out to be a major classical or jazz career. But, for most students, the usefulness of music class is much less clear. Anyone who has loved music from an early age feels certain that it has a unique and irreplaceable value, but it is difficult to translate that conviction into hard sociological data. Whenever advocates try to build a case for music on utilitarian grounds, they run up against fundamental uncertainties about the ultimate purpose of an art whose appeal it is, as Plato anxiously observed, illogical and irrational.
The Mozart Effect has often been cited by proponents of music in schools. In 1993, two researchers claimed that a group of thirty-six undergraduates who had been subjected to ten minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448, performed better than average on the abstract-and-spatial-reasoning section of the I.Q. test. Subsequent studies failed to reproduce this result. Nonetheless, the Mozart Effect inspired several books, a ream of newspaper articles, a line of Baby Mozart videos, and a shadowy-sounding organization called the Music Intelligence Neural Development Institute. People love the idea that they might be able to make their kids smarter by switching on Mozart once a day; its seen as a shortcut to Parents Weekend at Harvard. But kids aren’t likely to fall in love with music that is administered to them like vitamins.
Other studies suggest that music students score higher on proficiency tests, or that their math grades go up with each year of study, or that they are less likely to get in trouble with the law. But none of this pro-music science has stemmed the cuts in music programs. To the contrary, music invariably presents itself as the most tempting target. In California, the decline in visual-arts courses is minimal compared with that of music classes, and enrollments in theatre and dance have gone up. According to the advocacy group Music for All, which in 2004 issued a dire report on the California crisis called “The Sound of Silence,” music programs “represented single, relatively significant, politically expedient targets for cuts.” So there is something about classical music, or about the prevailing culture of classical music, which is actively inviting elimination.
One problem is that music education lacks a powerful lobby. When politicians speak up for it, striking things happen. In Arkansas, Republican Governor Mike Huckabee has not only professed a love for music, as Bill Clinton often did, but has devised legislation to bolster it. Last year, Huckabee signed a law requiring every child in grades one through six to receive at least forty minutes a week of instruction in music and other arts. “In the true spirit of No Child Left Behind,” Huckabee explained, “leaving the arts out is beyond neglect and is virtual abuse of a child.”
Although Arnold Schwarzenegger, apparently inspired by Huckabee’s unlikely right-wing arts crusade, recently announced a plan to rescue music education in California, the national outlook remains grim. Public funding for anything related to the arts has been contentious since the 1880s, when the progressive patron Jeannette Thurber failed to persuade Congress to fund a national conservatory. For practitioners of classical music, jazz, folk music, and other tradition-minded disciplines that lack mainstream commercial allure, the situation looks particularly bleak. How can they engage listeners who have heard almost nothing about the history and practice of the art in school? One alternative has increasingly become the norm: they can do the teaching themselves.
Not long ago, I met up in Brooklyn with a 27-year-old pianist named Soheil Nasseri, who regularly goes out to morning school assemblies around the city and tries to incite interest in classical music. Nasseri’s trick is to start the session by talking about hip-hop. At Fort Hamilton School in Bay Ridge, he caught the attention of the crowd by mentioning that he was a friend of the impresario Damon Dash, whose name drew respectful nods. Nasseri then invited a student named Jovan Parish onstage, gave him a hip-hop handshake, and had him rap over some moody minor piano chords. (There was a line about “my vocabulary skills are ill.”) It was up to the children to decide what this had to do with Beethoven’s Sonata in F-Sharp. Afterward, students offered a string of questions about Beethoven and the piano: “What do you do when you make mistakes?” “What’s the name of the piece that goes buh-buh-buh-BUH?” “Why dont you compose yourself?” “When you play someone else’s music, aren’t you stealing?”
These days, virtually every orchestra, opera house, chamber-music series, and jazz organization has an education department. Musicians are sent into schools to teach the basics and, in theory, to encourage an enthusiasm that will survive the rigors of adolescence, in the course of which any kid with a liking for classical music discovers that its considered stuffy, sissified, and terminally uncool. The effectiveness of “outreach” depends on the charisma of the person reaching out. Nasseri certainly has a knack for talking to kids. So, too, does David Robertson, the conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, whose quirky, guileless manner recalls the style of the late, great Fred Rogers. Michael Tilson Thomas, at the San Francisco Symphony, is a natural teacher, stirring memories of his longtime mentor, Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts, with their combination of mandarin intelligence and pop-culture savvy (his 1964 lecture “What Is Sonata Form?” cited the Beatles “And I Love Her”), still set the standard for entertaining pedagogy.
In jazz, the master teacher is Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who talks about music in a sophisticated yet unaffected way. Recently, I watched Marsalis take command of an unruly crowd of school kids at the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem. He launched into a lecture on connections between jazz and modern art, the thesis of which was that jazz was a form of modernism, and he backed it up with pictures, performances, and a never-ending stream of talk. He dropped the names Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrain, gave a shout-out to Frank Gehry, and supplied a lovely definition of the word “cosmopolitan” (“It means you fit in wherever you go”). He administered discipline (“Im old school – no talking”), explained the blues as a kind of emotional vaccination (“The blues gives you a little to keep it away”), and interrupted an explication of the African practice of call-and-response to acknowledge a sneeze (“Bless you – call-and-response!”). One of the teachers in the audience said to a colleague, “They ain’t getting it. I couldn’t appreciate this when I was their age.” But, on the subway afterward, there was a positive buzz among the kids. One quoted a Marsalis aphorism to his friend: “You gotta have heat in everything you do.”
Many orchestra administrators cling to the idea that a smattering of Young Peoples Concerts will indoctrinate children into the wonders of classical music. Sarah Johnson, who runs education programs at the Philadelphia Orchestra, is skeptical of that approach. “Many people say, Wow, we can bring twenty-six hundred students into the hall, and feel like it’s a great thing,” Johnson told me. “This may have worked in the age of Bernstein, when classical musicians were celebrities on radio and early television. Today, those kids need to meet the musicians, find out how they got into music, what else they do when they’re not playing. It has to be more up close and one-on-one. People have this picture of musicians as not quite human. We need to humanize them. We want to get to the point where we are cultural partners at certain schools, practically giving them a new music-faculty member.”
The writer and consultant Joseph Horowitz has long urged orchestras to reinvent themselves as miniature conservatories and cultural centers. His formidable book “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall” shows how American classical music became a “performance culture,” an ersatz-European showplace for celebrity virtuosos, rather than a native-born genre. With orchestras such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the New Jersey Symphony, and, most recently, the Pacific Symphony, Horowitz has devised cross-disciplinary music festivals that can be translated into curricula for area schools. This fall, the Pacific will trace connections between Hungarian composition and Gypsy music, exposing the folk roots of classical style.
“The orchestra should be, first and foremost, an educational institution,” Horowitz told me. “It should know how to explain to an audience what the art means and where it came from. Orchestras can feed the humanities programs at high schools. You can do Mozart and have the drama department put on Amadeus. You can do Dvořák and get American-history classes and African-American studies involved. Dvořák is the greatest gift because there is no better way to link American and European musical traditions.”
Horowitz and the musicologist Robert Winter have created a set of teaching tools, including a book and a DVD, focusing on Dvořák’s American residency. The great Czech composer who grew up in abject poverty, heard African-American spirituals in 1892 and predicted, in a controversial newspaper interview, that African-Americans would shape the future of American music. Jeannette Thurber brought Dvořák to America, and invited African-Americans to study with him free of charge. One student was the composer Will Marion Cook, who later helped invent the African-American musical, became an early jazz bandleader, and served as a mentor to Duke Ellington. Because one woman in the Gilded Age decided that music should be taught differently, a new tributary opened in American culture. More people should learn this story in school.
On Westminster Street, in the West End section of Providence, Rhode Island, there are diners, corner markets, auto-repair stores, and, at No. 1392, the Providence String Quartet. People often do a double-take at the surreal sight of a chamber group playing Beethoven behind a storefront in a lower-income neighborhood. Although the quartet performs at colleges and museums, its main mission is to teach. It is the heart of a nonprofit organization, Community MusicWorks, which does more than bring music to young people; it is a revolutionary organization in which the distinction between performing and teaching disappears.
The core members of Community MusicWorks, which was founded in 1997, are Jesse Holstein and Jessie Montgomery, violinists; Sebastian Ruth, violist; and Sara Stalnaker, cellist. They were trained for conventional performance careers at Julliard, Oberlin, and Brown, but they chose a different definition of success. Ruth, a 31-year-old violist with an elegant face and a mellifluous voice, is their ringleader. He grew up in Ithaca, the son of two ex-hippie parents, who sent him to the Alternative Community School. Instead of going to a conservatory, he went to Brown and studied the philosophy of education. He read the work of Paulo Freire, the author of “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and Maxine Greene, the author of “Releasing the Imagination.” Greene has argued that arts education can be not only a leisure pursuit or a subculture for gifted children but an instigator of social change. Ruth decided to put these ideas into practice, by playing in a group that was part of the street life of a city.
“We want people to see the quartet where they wouldn’t expect to,” Ruth said. “Were here on the street, were in the community center, were in the soup kitchen, were in the nursing home, or the assisted-living center, I should say. Were over at the Rhode Island School of Design, or an indie-rock club, or City Hall. We kind of feel like there should be an office with a string quartet in City Hall. They’ve got a lot of offices there for things you might not think are strictly necessary.”
Ruth dislikes the word “outreach,” which makes it sound as if he and the other musicians were extending their hands to unlucky souls drowning at sea. “We are already living in the place that other people reach out to,” he said, with a mildly pugnacious look. He also resists the idea that his programs primary purpose is to scout out and nourish exceptional talent. “Were not searching for genius, for diamonds in the rough,” he said. “Were relating music-making to the community.”
I sat in the back of the Westminster office to see how the idea of Community MusicWorks played out. The students, who are between seven and eighteen years old and come from Dominican, Haitian, Liberian, and Cambodian backgrounds, walked in one by one., their parents hovering at the door for a minute or two with broad smiles on their faces. The Providence players bantered with them for a while. Then Holstein shouted, “Let’s do it!,” and the children sat down to play. The Providence musicians corrected mistakes and suggested improvements in technique, but accuracy wasn’t their primary concern. “You’re worrying too much,” Jessie Montgomery told Taé Ortiz, a violinist. “Even if you make mistakes, you’ll find people dont care.” Afterward, about five boys and ten girls sat down for a spaghetti dinner. There was an extended discussion of a young man who appeared on a motorcycle in a Britney Spears video; hip-hop selections played on the Community MusicWorks computer. Everyone stopped eating to sing along to Ciaras “1, 2 Step.”
At one point, Carolina Jimenez, a young cellist, turned to me and happily announced, “I got into Classical!” I told her that I also got into classical when I was her age, but it turned out that she was talking about Providence Classical High School, a local public school. Ruth suggested that perhaps getting into one kind of “classical” helped Carolina get into the other Classical, and she rolled her eyes.
Ruth and his colleagues regularly go with the kids and their families to concerts by local orchestras, where they are faced with such questions as “Why are we the only black people in the audience?” Some of the older students meet up on Friday nights or on weekend retreats in a program called “Phase 2, where they discuss deeper emotional and social issues. For this smaller group of students, the musicians of the Providence Quartet become, in effect, full-time counselors, even part-time foster parents. There are now 132 people on the waiting list for Community MusicWorks, and news of the program has spread around the country. A 2-year fellowship program has been established for two young professional musicians, who will sit in with the group and learn its unusual methods, in order to apply them elsewhere.
One evening, the Providence players gave a concert at the West End Community Center, a mile or so from their studio. They use this space at least once or twice a week to teach larger groups. The concert took place on the centers basketball court: a piano was wheeled out, a rug was placed in the middle of the floor, and strings of Christmas lights provided a bit of atmosphere. About 200 people showed up – parents, older and younger siblings, friends, and supporters of the quartet. Sitting in with them was the brilliant young pianist Jonathan Biss, who knew Heath Marlow, Community MusicWorks director of development, from music camp.
This being a classical-music concert, there was a certain amount of concern about decorum. “Sit like a lady,” one parent said to her preteen daughter. “Ladies dont sit like that.” Before the first piece, Ruth got up to encourage the crowd to stay silent during the performance, but he avoided taking a hallway-monitor tone. “Sometimes we get excited by this kind of music, but mostly we stay quiet,” he said. “If it makes you want to get up and dance, well, just think about getting up and dancing.” There was some giggling, a shout of “Cut it out!,” and much changing of seats, but I have witnessed considerably noisier and more disrespectful audiences on Sunday afternoons at Carnegie Hall. There was no dancing.
The Providence opened the concert with the first movement of Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet. Taé Ortiz, now less nervous, played Boccherinis Minuet, lavishly accompanied by Biss. Jovanne Jean-Franï¿½ois and Carolina Jimenez played the Adagio from Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor for two cellos. Vanessa Centeno and Ruth Desrosiers, violinists, performed “The Two Grenadiers,” by Schumann. The main event was Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, a craggy monument of the chamber repertory, which Biss and the Providence delivered at a level that would have satisfied any chamber-music audience. A couple of lanky teen-age boys tapped their feet to the driving rhythms of the Scherzo. “That was bangin’’,” one of them said afterward. “I wanna play on the piano someday,” an 8-year-old behind me told his mother.
After the concert, as people stood around and talked and the younger children resumed running around the room, Ruth Desrosiers’s brother David – a stout young man in a Shady University t-shirt – gravitated toward the piano on which Biss had just hammered out the coda of the Brahms. David is one of Sebastian Ruth’s viola students, but he has also taught himself some piano. He approached the instrument somewhat stealthily, but Biss noticed him, and watched with curiosity as the boy launched into a bluesy melody apparently of his own invention, with a strong bass line and a snaking melody. It turned out to be a West End variation on Beethoven’s “Fï¿½r Elise.”
The philosopher John Dewey, in his 1934 book, “Art as Experience,” lamented the American habit of putting art on a “remote pedestal.” He wrote, “When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.” Dewey’s book was widely read, but the argument never really sank in. To this day, the arts in America, when pressed, define themselves in opposition to society. Perhaps the deepest problem with contemporary music education is that so many of its practitioners have been raised in the monastic culture of the music conservatory, where mastery of technique is the dominant topic and where discussion of music’s social or political or spiritual meaning is often discouraged. The Canadian scholar Paul Woodford, in a book-length essay on the relationship between Dewey’s ideas and music education, writes, “In my own experience, few music education majors entering their senior year can distinguish Marxism from capitalism, capitalism from democracy, the political Left from Right, or the modern from the postmodern.” They are, in cultural terms, idiot savants.
“Releasing the Imagination,” the Maxine Greene book that so impressed Ruth, proposes that arts need to be incorporated into democratic culture not for its own sake but for the sake of democracy. She believes that children can gain deeper understanding of the surrounding world by looking at it from the peculiar vantage point of a work of art. She writes, “To tap into imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real.” Children learn to notice surprising details that undermine a popular stereotype; they grow tolerant of difference, attuned to idiosyncrasy. They also can experience a shock of perception that shows them alternative possibilities within their own lives, whether or not those possibilities or those lives have an obvious surface relationship with the art work in question. Thus, Greene argues, even the oldest art forms can become vehicles of democratic thinking. Because they have transcended time, they can become part of any time.
But why Brahms? Isn’t it simply a self-indulgent fantasy to think that German chamber music could change the world of a girl whose mother is living on food stamps?
Ruth paused, his rueful smile indicating that he had answered this question many times.
“I dont know how it works,” he said. “I guess, in the beginning, it is something I want to do for myself. Because there’s something so bleak about a performing career these days. I dont mean just in terms of the prospects of getting a job. I also mean what you feel once you get the job. You are in this tight, closed-off world. You are playing generally at very expensive concerts for people who can afford it, and who are already steeped in it. You fight the feeling that it’s not real. We get wonderful collaborators like Jonathan Biss because other people are fighting that feeling, too. They want to tap into a much more visceral sense of emotional connection.
“Here Im feeding off all this energy around me, this rebellious energy, and Im playing for people who usually dont know this music at all. We’re out here making it up as we go along, because we’re not teachers in the conventional sense and not performers in the conventional sense. Hopefully, were not just scattering experiences here and there, hopefully were creating continuity from one to the other. But I really dont know what effect were having. Certainly, were happy. It’s as if we’d never left college. Were posting signs, organizing things at the last minute, putting on performances in any space available.
“But what does it do? I dont know if it changes anything right in a single moment in anyone’s life. But it might change how someone thinks. Maxine Greene talks about the arts creating openings, this mysterious clearing in people’s lives, so they walk out of the forest and can breathe. Maybe, at that moment, music becomes a huge part of their lives. Or maybe they use the clearing to see themselves in a new light, and go on to do something different. It could be any kind of music, could be any other art form.”
Ruth looked out at Westminster Street which was empty of people.
“Of course, it’s all full of contradictions,” he went on. “Let me tell you a story about Vanessa Centeno, whose been with us for many years. Her mom works various jobs, day and night. She doesn’t want her daughter to have the same existence. There was an article about us in the paper, in which she was quoted as saying that she loves our program because classical music is for people who have class. It was funny that she said that, when my whole thing has been about trying to undo these stereotypes, deconstruct the idea that this music has class, and make the point that music can be made anywhere by anyone at any time.
“Vanessa’s mom and I had such different ideas in mind. I was trying to get out of the world that she was trying to get into. But, in the end, were going in the same direction.” He stretched out his arm toward the door and the street. “We are both moving toward Violin.”
Originally published in The New Yorker