Saturday, September 12, 2015

NAMM Marches Into Anaheim

With the sound of a pounding drum circle and the braggadocio of being the largest convention player in town NAMM announced on September 10th that it’s “moving into Anaheim.”

NAMM, for those who don’t know, is the National Association of Music Merchants, the trade association for the music industry. In primary partnership with the Anaheim City School District (ACSD) it has formed the Anaheim Creativity Council, a loose collaboration of parties committed to introducing elementary school children to music, not just as consumers but as players; young musicians in the making. ACC (not to be confused with AAC, the Anaheim Arts Council) says this collaboration should not issue in yet more meetings, preferring, according to Mary Leuhrsen, Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations, the softer route of digital information sharing through websites, databases and excellent electronic communications.

Music unlocks the key to children's souls
Those who have shared in the background to the roll-out event at the Honda Center, know that Dorothy Rose, Executive Director of the Orange County Symphony (OCS), was the prime mover of this initiative when she and Dr. Linda Wagner, Superintendent of the ACSD, set about a program to bring after-school instrumental music instruction to 13 (originally) schools, tutored by musicians from the OCS. Mayor Tom Tait pitched in on the initiative earlier this year with a public announcement at the school district’s art fair in May with his vision that within two years it should possible for every child in Anaheim to have access to a musical instrument and music instruction. Bob Gardner, President of the ACSD Board, declared at the same gathering that they would now completely reshape education in the district to address the WHOLE child by making the arts a core component of education.

NAMM was so impressed with this initiative that earlier in 2015 they made a huge donation to the ACSD to further the cause. Local teen singing celebrity, Sean Oliu, with his family, brought his enthusiasm to bear to get Mariachi bands up and running in two elementary schools.

What was not clear in Mayor Tait’s May announcement was whether every child in Anaheim meant exactly that, thereby impacting all the elementary school districts wholly or partly in the city, or just the ACSD, which, with 19,000 students, certainly accounts for a huge proportion of the children in Anaheim.

At the NAMM/ACSD rollout Mayor Tait repeated his vision for all children to have access to musical instruments. Even he was  encouraged to play the sax as  a child!

This is music to NAMM’s ears, because although they are a not for profit organization the prospect of providing and maintaining instruments for 19,000 children is a juicy prospect for the Music Merchants it represents.

The success of this venture will change the city’s culture. Families which have been disinterested in the arts will gradually become supporters and sponsors to the point where they become a part of a movement in which their kids, thousands of them, are now learning to play violins, flutes, clarinets and the like. Less time will be given to the synthetic, commercially overhyped, studio-engineered mush that passes for music as children tap into the rich seams of music that have characterized so much of American and European culture in the past. This is not to say they will all end up being classical musicians; but classical forms of music and instrumentation become the starting point for whatever modern music forms young artists will move into.

Prime movers in the Anaheim music initiative
And beyond question is the huge effect that the very act of learning to play music has on the development of the brain. Mary Luehrsen (left) says, “If you want statistics and science papers on this, we got them all. More than you could possibly read.” She is right. The impact of music is profound across a broad spectrum of child development, learning abilities, motivation, empathy and behavior. Implemented on a wide scale it is revolutionary.

Anyone who keeps abreast of the state of youth culture in many parts of Anaheim will know of baneful influences that rob kids of their innocence, inculcate a spirit of indifference to education, and coerce them into the gang-related activities. The police maintain maps of the gang distributions across  Anaheim! You would be amazed to see how gang territory has been carved out. Poverty, at-risk families, the prospect of finding personal identity through a gang, of quick kicks without the effort of work - all drag on our schools. For it only takes a few determined anti-social young people in a school to turn it into a disciplinary battle ground ...

Editorial note
The following paragraphs have been edited in the light of helpful discussion, September 14th, with the Superintendent of the AUHSD and Assistant Superintendent Manuel Colon.

... Watch these kids grow over the years and see what happens. Naturally, many will survive extraordinarily well, and dedicated teachers are frequently mentors and role models for success. But, we are always concerned about the drop-outs.  And not all who graduate are necessarily successful in college. Fortunately, with an emphasis on career, as well as college, readiness and the improved literacy stemming from Common Core, there are other pathways for young people to tread which are now making an impact. But looking back over the past generation we have still lost thousand of kids to poor education and the sense of helplessness. The reasons for this are manifold.

So what does the ACSD/NAMM initiative have to do with all this? It sets a determined trend that says we can slowly turn this round, affecting the development of every child and family. Music, and I mean the very act of learning to play music,  can be one of the most powerful formative influences on young children.

Here we are at the start of the 2015-16 school year and the ACSD has rearranged its budget so that  it can hire four full time music teachers. By this time next year they plan to have music teachers in all of their schools. This means that music will move from being an after school activity to being an integral part of the school curriculum. The magnitude of this planning is hard to overstate. And this is only a beginning.

Maybe it’s too early to answer this question, but we want to know whether this same strategy will characterize all of Anaheim’s elementary school districts? Magnolia has certainly begun very seriously to address the need for the arts in the classroom. But this time last year there were some school districts where you could not find the word arts in their school budget plan. Mercifully, the tide is turning.

We have our concerns

The grandiose way in which NAMM set the tone at the Honda Center roll-out could have given the impression that they were the only game in town that could make a  difference. Or at least, that they were the leaders. It was soon pointed out that there  are many other Orange County arts agencies that have powerful roles in bringing the arts back into our schools. With an improving economy more money is becoming available, but the changes are taking place with less of the volume and crashing cymbals of a music convention. Any ongoing collaboration needs to give full credence to these potential partners.

There was concern articulated that other art forms (dance, theatre, visual arts) seemed only to be on the periphery of the envisioned change. Those concerns are well founded. It is not good enough to say that these would follow along in the wake of a musical resurgence. Drama, dance, and visual arts are also in need of huge injections of funds and strategic planning to put those subjects back in the classroom.

Whereas it has become obvious that music makes a huge difference to growing kids, it has NOT been adequately appreciated that not all kids are talented at music and that other art choices in schools are essential. There are school board members and administrators who do not understand this, though they might pay lip-service to it. Move to south county, or San Diego county, or look at our local private high schools, and you see the integration and value of the other performing arts. This, however, is substance for another discussion.

The Anaheim Union High School District, represented at the roll-out, will have to make major changes within the next two years to accommodate the number of children coming into middle school with the ability to read music and play non-band instruments. It's a big challenge that needs much discussion to find solutions. We are not sure that this dialog between the ACSD and the AUHSD has yet taken place. All the middle schools have excellent band programs, but it would be a defeat of the musical aspirations generated at elementary school to give trumpets and horns to the new string players and tell them to play these instead. There would, perhaps, need to be orchestral teachers hired in all middle schools; there might need to be structural curriculum changes to accommodate these arts disciplines. Chorus will make a comeback, eventually. Theatre and dance departments will need fresh talent recruited. (Happily, although very underfunded, visual arts departments are strong in most schools.)

It doesn’t stop at middle schools, for even though high school counselors are focussed on steering teens into courses that will prepare them for college this should never, ever mean a diminution of arts opportunities. If Oxford Academy can turn out high quality graduates year after year and sustain a string orchestra (which, of course, means more than stringed instruments) why can’t other high schools? They will need to tool up for this because the demand will come, welling up from the elementary schools. We do not relish the thought of a school board breaking faith with its musical students by not having the teaching competence at each site to progress the talents of its instrumentalists. To have a district GATE orchestra will not be enough. Each school will need its own GATE-style orchestra.

Lastly, the name is a little pretentious. Anaheim Creativity Council. Anaheim Music Initiative might be more accurate. Unless all the arts come into full focus, with equal determination to get dance and drama into all schools, the word Creativity lacks sufficient content for the purpose. Of course the nonprofit Anaheim Arts Council, which has been around since 1977, is a poor church mouse compared with the nonprofit NAMM, or even the ACSD. But did not anybody think to say that the semantic field of arts names is getting a bit too cluttered to have both an Anaheim Arts Council and an Anaheim Creativity Council. Creativity? Arts? Kind of similar? Oh well, people with lots of money have always been able to call themselves whatever they wanted. Anaheim is not short of exemplars of this!

We wish the new collaboration well. It seriously needs to succeed, to change the climate in the city; and maybe, finally, get Anaheim companies to realize that investment in the arts is an investment in their own future. What they sow, they will reap, even if it takes almost 12 years for the first crop to come to fruition.