You hear it year after year. Music programs in public schools seem to be perpetually under fire. Whenever things get tight, budgetwise, it seems that the arts in general and music programs in particular are the first placed on the chopping block. Sports? Yes, there are the occasional trims of a program, and diminishments of the budget. But those programs aren’t going anywhere. Suggesting as much might get you run right out of whatever town you happen to be paying school taxes in.

Of course, sports are important to the development of children and young adults on both the physical and mental levels.

I’d argue, however, that given the current state of our culture and the fact that the very future of that culture is in the hands of kids who are attending middle school and high school right now, music programs are more important than sports programs.

Why? Simple. Sports are a big part of our entertainment culture, and like pretty much every other living human being, I get great enjoyment from them. However, sports do little to elevate our culture on their own.

Music can actually elevate culture. And our culture is in dire need of elevation.

Earlier this week, I asked Steve Shewan – who, with Wayne Moose, shares directorship of the Williamsville East High School Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra – if he believed that engaging in the expressive discipline of music-making can provide sustenance to young people, and in some cases, even offer a bedrock of stability for them during the often trying years of adolescence and young adulthood.

“The answer is an unequivocal yes, in all capital letters,” Shewan said.

Shewan has had plenty of time to contemplate this notion over recent weeks, as he and Moose worked with their music students to prepare them for the biggest gig of their young lives – the arrival of world-renowned jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli, who will perform at Williamsville East as part of the Legends of Jazz series at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Pizzarelli isn’t just performing for the kids and the general public, he’s playing alongside them. For the first half of the show, Pizzarelli and his band will welcome Williamsville East Jazz Ensemble members who auditioned to play solos during each tune. During the concert’s second half, Pizzarelli will be joined by the entire Williamsville East Jazz Orchestra.

“In the bigger picture, this is about even more than music,” said Shewan. “These kids are aspiring to play on the highest level, with one of the true greats. These are not watered-down versions of the charts – these are the same charts that the professional musicians who normally play with John use. So the idea of facing a serious challenge and overcoming it in order to perform at this level – that certainly teaches self-confidence.”

I asked Shewan if he agreed that many young people are not being challenged by contemporary pop culture – that perhaps the idea of “everyone and anyone can do this” celebrated by the mainstream pop marketplace is merely honoring a lazy lowest common denominator.

“I think pop culture – not always, but sometimes – sets the bar pretty low. It can sometimes seem like a case of the worst and least meaningful avenues of expression being treated as the status quo to be most admired. Of course, all of this can be enjoyed, because it’s entertaining, fun and so forth. But when it becomes almost like a religion to the kids – well, then it gets very difficult to get beyond it.”

Entertainment, as Shewan points out, should certainly have its place. However, we can and should work to expand the definition of what is entertaining, whenever possible. For example, watching Rihanna gyrate around a concert stage could reasonably be described as entertaining. Hearing music of a high caliber played with a blend of discipline and passion by real musicians employing real instruments might also be described as entertaining, for those who have trained themselves to appreciate nuanced expression.

“I think in general, education is most valuable when the kids are given the chance to play, to read or to write on the level of the real thing,” Shewan said. “Challenging kids is essential if we are to help them discover their personal possibilities. This is the fifth year we’ve been bringing big-name artists to play with the kids, and every time, the kids react to the challenge in a positive way. Just this morning, they came in at 7 a.m., almost an hour before school starts, to do the extra work necessary to prepare for next week’s concert. All of this while they are preparing for Regents exams and what have you. We push the kids hard, and you know what? They can handle it.

“Life has more meaning if you challenge yourself rather than simply taking the easy way out. Music is a great way to impart that lesson to kids.”

My own experience backs up Shewan’s thoughts. I play music with kids and young adults in a variety of situations – from informal basement studio jams to fairly high-profile professional gigs – on a regular basis. Invariably, I’ve found that the young musicians are capable of much more than even they might imagine. This is partly because they haven’t yet learned – or been conditioned – to doubt themselves. Part of music’s gift to us is the fact that it ingrains such self-belief in a lasting way.

In a less general sense, teaching young people to form a meaningful relationship with challenging music will have the long-term effect of raising the bar on what we consider to be entertaining. It just might be the cure for our current cultural rot.


What: John Pizzarelli

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Williamsville East High School, 151 Paradise Road, East Amherst

Tickets: $15

Info: 626-8425