In the midst of bitter feelings among those directly affected by the dissolution of music programs in Buffalo Public Schools, I’ve been reflecting on the significance of music in the lives of young people. Why is music so important in their development? What does it really teach them? What life skills are they gaining from the experience?
More pointedly, what will it mean if half of the Buffalo Public Schools that currently have band, orchestra and instrumental programs – 14 of the 28 – drop those programs next year?
First off, as reported by Sandra Tan in a July 9 piece in The News, it will mean the removal of funding by music foundations that currently make donations to Buffalo schools.
“Buffalo Public Schools’ decision to cut these programs roadblocks the progress made by your students over the past decade, and will result in withholding further financial and in-kind support for your district,” a letter sent to School Superintendent Pamela Brown signed by the officers and directors of seven music organizations and foundations states.
So the kids lose, big time. They lose the rewards for their efforts. They lose the feeling of accomplishment that comes from hard work in service of a greater good – that greater good being the creation of music, a decidedly positive force in the world. They lose their access to the instruments they’ve been studying.
Last week, I volunteered as a counselor at the Artpark Rock Band Camp, the annual two-week program that offers young musicians of various skill levels the opportunity to experience the magic of ensemble interplay in a rock music setting. This is the second year I’ve been involved, and the third year overall for the program run by Niagara Falls-based music educator Randy Andropolis. The two-week program is divided into beginner and advanced camps, with each week culminating in a grand finale concert that takes place on the Artpark Outdoor Amphitheater stage.
It was about halfway through the kids’ performance on that stage on Saturday – a performance that took place in a “race against the clock” fashion, as an ominous storm loomed and finally arrived in full force during the final number – that I realized what music gives these kids. It’s really the same thing that it gives adult musicians: a feeling of connectedness, of a fulfillment that can sometimes border on the murky, impossible-to-define atmosphere of the “spiritual” event.
Losing yourself in the music can be a transformative experience. And because playing in a band is the ultimate team sport – one where, when the gig goes well, there are no losing teams, only winners – repeated exposure to ensemble performance can teach compassion in dealings with others, and a willingness to understand and accommodate a wide variety of personality types, lifestyles and differences in race, class, religion or whatever.
Seem like a tall order for a dumb rock song? It is, but I’ve seen it happen, over and over and over again. Music acknowledges none of these perceived differences among people. It cares only that you come to it with an open mind and an eager heart and a certain level of ability.
The kids at the Artpark camp – my son, Declan, among them – worked daily between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to first learn, and then come as close to mastering as possible, a variety of material that included songs by the Beatles, Green Day, Warren Zevon, Pink Floyd, Weezer, Eric Clapton and The Who. By Saturday, they were able to put on a strong concert. That’s a lot of pressure. But these kids responded well to the challenge, and they were clearly proud of themselves at the concert’s end. It’s amazing to observe these kids, tackling tunes that often are complex in arrangement. The varying skill levels meant that everyone was assigned a part in the ensemble based on their abilities. Everyone had a significant part to play, and no one player’s contributions were valued over another’s. It was, in a sense, the ultimate example of democratic cooperation.
I found the experience to be inspirational. I firmly believe that all of the kids involved in the camp could become lifelong musicians if they continue to work at it. I also believe that having the opportunity to take instrumental instruction in school would make this an even greater possibility. But as the sort of cuts the Buffalo Public Schools are facing become more and more commonplace, the responsibility for musical mentorship is likely to become something that falls outside of the world of traditional academia. We are all going to have to pitch in.