In honour of MLK Day

Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary, a great leader, and a hard fighter for one of the greatest causes--equality for all people. His dream is worth fighting for, a dream worth sharing with all people.

When I look at America today, I still see the dream being fought over. Large swaths of Americans still feel disenfranchised, are disenfranchised. I see voting laws repealed, gerrymandering of congressional lines, and attacks against every minority there is, from citing that masculinity is the same thing as thuggish, misogynistic behaviour, and that feminists are destroying America. Young black men still have to fear for their lives based on racial stereotyping. And even within groups that fight for freedom, there is often division caused along racial, social, and political differences.

Several months ago, Phillip Kennicott wrote a scathing article attacking various initiatives in orchestras, in particular outreach. One of his points was that even with outreach, he didn't see any more minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos, in the St. Louis Youth Symphony. He cites this as an example of how it's not working.

I pose a different viewpoint.

In America today, African Americans and Latinos on average make less money. They work lower income jobs, and, by percentage, far fewer make it to management positions than Caucasians or people of Asian descent. Unemployment is also higher in these groups. Education is also a premium, with fewer African Americans and Latinos getting bachelor's degrees, and even fewer getting advanced degrees. (All information from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor).

What does this translate to in terms of my own field?

There are those pushing music as a hobby pursuit. With less funding for schools, "hobbies" are being cut, namely music programs. Schools struggle to afford instruments for underprivileged students, so they call for local donations. Initiatives like "Play it Forward" exist to try and fill the gap, as do instrument lending programs in youth symphonies. But they're plagued by bad names (it took me a while to find "play it forward" via Google search. There are companies and other initiatives with that name), lack of funds, lack of direction, or they fail because they come too late (a donation of a quality instrument from a youth symphony is great, but first they have to get there). There was even a report in the UK that roughly 1/3 of families in the country don't have children playing instruments just because they can't afford them. I imagine numbers are similar in the US, though I couldn't find a report.

Education funding is cut, especially in urban areas. Opportunities don't exist for instruction in music making or in appreciation. As I've wandered through conservatories and schools, gone to festivals and conferences, and attended conferences, I see the same demographic in composers--Caucasian male. I see a bit more spread in performers, with more females and performers of Asian descent.

To me, the reason is simple. Outreach exists to fill those gaps, to bring music and opportunities to families that don't normally have them. When you're an African American family, and you make far less a week than a Caucasian family, are you going to spend your extra money on an expensive instrument, lessons, or outside activities? People bring up sports, but the sports most often dominated by lower income students are those where they aren't buying their own equipment, such as football (beyond the cleats, and maybe a football for home), basketball (a pair of shoes and a basketball, though in some schools even those are provided), and sometimes baseball (a mitt and cleats, both of which can be found used and cheap). I haven't seen a study, but I could see cost of equipment being a major factor for hockey (even used skates aren't cheap, let alone the two sticks you'll need, extra blades for the sticks, and all the padding...it adds up to a lot of money).

In my own field, I see the inequality, from the treatment of musicians, to their inclusion in the entire process. If the opportunities aren't there at a young age, how can they be expected to "appear" at an older age? If they're never exposed to different types of music at a young age, how can they expect to appreciate them later? Buried in the middle of this NY Times op-ed is a tidbit stating that 14 is a "magical year for cultural tastes." I've only scratched the surface of this book (found online), but it starts out working through a sociological basis of building cultural taste, and the effects during youth (I apologize to the authors if this is not for public consumption. I will take it down immediately if that is so--it just popped up on the first page of my search for "youth and the development of musical taste" and I started reading. It's a doctoral dissertation, I believe, but those are published for real sometimes).

There's much and more than can be said on these topics. Most notably, I mention no specifics on how to fix any of these issues. They are, to me at least, symptoms of a larger problem. But we can start by starting initiatives to make sure music is taught in school, and not just as a performance medium, but as a part of arts and cultural appreciation. More ways need to be found to provide services to young students that want to learn the arts, from programs like Play it Forward, to expanding the opportunities and affordability of private lessons. There's much and more to be done, and is being done by many groups.

This is just a small part of MLK's dream, I know. It's more a symptom showing how inequality still affects our "post-everything" world. If opportunities were equal, wages the similar, social mobility the same, I do believe we'd see a completely different outlook for music. In my five years of teaching, I've had the chance to work with students in Brooklyn, college and high school aged, as well as community college students in Kansas City, state university students in KC, and students of all ages in rural Indiana. I've tried, at each stop and each level, to show every student a somewhat wider view of music, give opportunities to grow and expand, doing whatever I could to offer help and guidance regardless of any background, be it social, gender, sexual, racial, economic, or other disabilities. But there's so much more than can and should be done.

The fight for MLK's dream is not over. This is not a post-anything world, as there may never truly be a post-world. And so I ask each reader of this blog to think about your place in this society, and how you can make a difference. I'd like to think that my words, my music, and my actions together can help in some small way, at least on a personal level. It's not much, but it's within each of our powers to do that little thing.

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