Sunday, December 14, 2008

Slatkin and Music Research

A recent article in the Detroit Free Press celebrates renowned American conductor Leonard Slatkin’s premier as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on December 11, 2008:

In the article, Slatkin, who is acknowledged as “one of the leading American conductors of his generation,” is quoted as saying, “I don’t want to hear about the impact of music education on SAT scores.” Why would Slatkin make such a statement regarding music and standardized tests? Searches through international music research databases reveal only one notable publication that discusses the impact of music education on SAT scores:

Music makes the difference: Music, brain development, and learning. Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference (MENC) 2000.

Slatkin’s remarks may be interpreted as a subtle rebuke of those who disseminate dubious and irrelevant research claims as part of their “advocacy” efforts on behalf of American school music programs. But why should the unique problems of American school music advocacy be of concern to leading musicians? It is important to recognize here that some music educators consider budget cuts to school music programs to constitute an emergency situation for which an “anything goes” approach to advocacy is acceptable. If research can be found that suggests, for example, that students will die of scurvy if they do not receive a daily dose of music education and cod liver oil, some would probably use it as a basis for their advocacy efforts to “save” music.

Slatkin seems to understand the fundamental reasons why this regrettable kind of “advocacy” is only encountered in a very specific and localized field. Most teachers of history and mathematics have never had to consider the idea of using research to justify their existence, and many music teachers in the vast majority of nations outside the United States have never heard of “music advocacy” and would probably have difficulty comprehending what it actually means in practice.

Rather than placing so much effort on advocating outdated traditional school music programs on the basis of unconvincing claims, surely efforts are better spent on transforming music programs into centers of relevant, lifelong musical activity valued by the local community.This is where researchers and music organizations should be focusing their attention.

Slatkin understands that music education is much too important to be justified on the basis of its potential to instill patriotism, to enhance test scores in mathematics or reading, or to improve the brain development of students. Slatkin also seems to recognize that some forms of music advocacy are misguided, useless and even destructive. While music research sometimes only serves to increase the division between theory and practice, it is best conducted with an awareness of the “bigger picture,” informed by the broader insights of social critics and historians, as well as expert artists and practitioners. In this way research may lead to insights that empower positive transformations, so music education is valued naturally without the need for aggressive advocacy campaigns.

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