Outreach and the Musician, Part 1
In my first post, I mentioned a quote by Leonard Bernstein, where he described music as a reply to violence, a way to change negative attitudes and create mutual understanding and peace.
I wonder if Bernstein would have foreseen that even in 2010, his quote sadly would have been very much applicable today. Despite the wonderful advances in many fields, in matters of the way many people live, not much has changed from the time of West Side Story. This can especially be seen in the city: social inequality and oppression still abound despite the efforts of many to change this. People still emigrate from their home countries to the United States in hopes of a better life, and then are unable to find what they are searching for. They have to raise their children in the slums, realizing that there are no opportunities for them to advance. They grow bitter, knowing that because they are poor and of low social class, with little resources of quality available to them, they have virtually no chance of carving out a good life for themselves and their children. And crime rates go up with the hopelessness.
Meanwhile, both government-led and non-profit organizations have made strides in overcoming existing prejudices and in injecting impoverished people with hope, though there is still far to go. In the state of Rhode Island, where I currently reside and teach, the Providence Rescue Mission comes to mind as does Crossroads, also located in Providence. These are places led by ordinary people who take time and money and patience to help others, places which offer resources for people who might be so entrenched in bitterness and preoccupied with their situation that they have almost ceased to believe that there is any way up or out. Many of them are young, with many years living with negative attitudes (somewhat justified), and have come to a point where they believe that there is no possibility for change.
These places offer classes for these people to learn how to speak better English, classes where people can hone skills they can then use in the job search, classes where people can learn how to read and write, classes where people can learn skills they may have had no opportunity to learn before. For children, they can attend special after-school or summer programs and camps designed for raising literacy and enabling them to excel in their schoolwork.
However, though all of these things are extremely important, it is also easy to forget the importance of art in its capacity for change. And at the same time, there is a blatant but perhaps unsurprising lack of community that many of these programs might fail to fill. In any case, art and music is one segment that often does get overlooked in the search for means to communicate to our impoverished neighbors that there is hope, as well as serving as a means to strengthen communities.
Especially as it pertains to inner-city children. Music has been thought of as something to take pleasure and enjoyment of through the listening experience. It could be argued that it is not something that is necessary to survival. It has been asked, time and time again: who would think of teaching piano to an inner-city kid? Why would a kid, not to mention his/her parent(s), be interested in playing the violin? As a 2001 Providence Journal article states, these children have been “reared on rap and hip-hop, not Haydn and Beethoven.” To many people, the idea that an inner-city child would even have the capacity to enjoy classical music is ludicrous.
But there’s a danger that comes of stereotyping both classical music and inner city neighborhoods: the assumption that simply because these people, our neighbors, are living below poverty level, they have no interest or desire in knowing anything about music. There’s also the idea that classical music is for the privileged, those who actually have the time, rather than something universal.
We’re arguing that music is a lot more than that. As musicians, we can break down these ideas, changing people’s attitudes that music is far above them, rather than something attainable. We can make strides toward helping them believe that music is universal, something they can enjoy, just like anyone else. From this point on, this is a road towards taking steps to break down other, related barriers. Barriers like the belief that as inner-city children, they are destined to follow the same mold as their parents, without the chance to graduate from high school, much less go to college, or have a career and be successful at what they do.
Instead, they can start to believe that there are endless possibilities.
And as musicians, we can learn even further that these people, our neighbors, are in many ways similar to us, and that they are people who should not be overlooked.
Music is a thing that gives hope, and it is here that a classical musician could have a unique part to play.
To be continued. Next: Community MusicWorks