Monday, January 05, 2009

You can lead a horticulture . . .

. . . but you can't make her think.

It's an old joke that brings to mind the (horticulturally-inspired) saying that you should "bloom where you're planted." Some of us do not bloom where we are planted. We have to seek out places and cultural climates where we can thrive. In my case, I have had to create my own figurative soil in my own figurative hothouse.

Our American melting pot gives us a continually growing and changing culture, which gives us a continually growing and changing set of musical cultures. How so many musical cultures can survive (and even thrive) at the same time has a lot to do with the fact that most music is no longer connected specifically with place. Music (of all kinds) can jump around from location to location so quickly by way of the internet that it is hard to imagine that there are still audiences in actual earth-based places that attach themselves to styles of music, but there are.

We used to have places connected with styles of what was once popular music like Viennese Classical music (though none of its major composers actually came from the city), Neapolitan songs, New Orleans Jazz, Kansas City Jazz, and Motown music. It was music that came from a specific place, reflecting its cultural climate and its values.

We have "Country Music," which takes its themes and values from rural neighborhoods like the ones around me (and similar neighborhoods and farming towns that exist all over the country), and transmits them all over the world. We also have a whole slew of styles that reflect urban life. These musical styles seem to be geared towards audiences that live in certain places (dare I say "markets?"). I can't imagine that there are that many successful country music stars who (still) live in small rural towns (Nashville itself seems to be a series of recording studios), but their songs certainly "speak" to people who do.

I have been thinking about this because once again I will face a semester of community college students who have listened only to pop music and country music for their entire lives. I am going to ask them to observe the past (Europe from the 8th century through the 20th), and see if I can get them interested in a world of music that they would otherwise never even consider listening to. Every semester a handful of students drop the class because of a total lack of interest, and every semester a handful of students eventually find a way of connecting to what they hear.

The big problem, I now realize, is that the music that we cover in our community college survey of "Western Classical Music" has very little to do with the culture that surrounds the community college students in our rural area. It is not that our area is devoid of culture, it is that our area has a built in set of cultural (and musical) values that have everything to do with the local way of life, and very little to do with the culture I grew up with in Boston or experienced in New York, Vienna, or Hong Kong.

I was a stranger when I arrived here in East Central Illinois more than 20 years ago, and I remain a stranger today. I seek out other strangers. I have found some extremely interesting ones over the years--mostly transplants from other places who came here for the university, and many who have moved away or died.

I cannot tell my community college students that what I have to teach them will be meaningful. Learning how to listen to classical music is not the magical answer to the struggles and pressures that rural young adults face. There are only a few community college students who take a music course because they are passionately interested in the subject. Most of them take the class to fulfill a requirement, and some are eager to get a good grade. If they get any more than that out of the class, I can consider myself successful.

Here's to a new semester!

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