Presented by Ava Spece, Executive Director, DC Youth Orchestra Program
Plight of American Music Conference, February 27, 2006
© Ava Spece, 2006

Plight of American Music Conference
Washington, DC – February 27, 2006

"What is the Prognosis for the Future Survival of Traditional American Musical Genre
by the MTV-Hip Hop Generation"

Each Saturday, the DC Youth Orchestra Program sees approximately 600 students, ages 4
½ to 19, running through the hallways of Coolidge High School, for the purpose of
making and learning about music. What they study is classical instrumental music. As
we consider the topic of survival of musical arts through young people, it is of great value
to visit with a few of these young people and explore their perspective. I asked a few of
them why they study classical music - the responses varied: I heard everything from "I
think it's fun", or "I just like playing violin…" to "I don't know…" or the very honest,
"Because Auntie Shelia makes me…"

One of my favorite responses came from Robert, a 15-year old percussionist with the
program. As he was faithfully pulling percussion equipment out of the instrument room,
with his bright white I-pod wired to his head, I asked him what he was listening to:
"Go-go,” was the answer. Go-go music, that unique-to-DC, techno kinda-hip, kinda-hop,
music with very little musical content and even less melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic
development. I asked Robert why he studied classical music with us, if what he wanted
to listen to was Go-go.

Robert responded by pointing to his earphone and saying "this isn't going to last!"
Ah, from the mouths of babes. Those few words from our young Robert are highly
valuable in our discussion of the demise of traditional music in America.
First, the astute notion that popular music and pop culture are elements of the American
vista that have very little relative longevity, screams relief for our stress and
consternation about the current young generation's choice in music. In recent
generations, adults have frequently bemoaned the musical choices of young people. It is,
however, one of the gentlest expressions suffered by those in their teens - blasting of
music, sure to get a rise out of one's parents, or out of the establishment and expected
norms of society. In addition, adolescent exploration should be expected, and the ability
for young people to do that through their musical choices instead of through other more
rebellious and destructive behaviors is worth welcoming. Ultimately, it is important that
we not attempt to abolish these forms of expression, regardless of whether or not the
genre chosen merits critical acclaim in terms of musical value, musical intellect, or
musical skill. Especially considering that most young people are aware of the passing
nature of what they listen to.

Further, the idea that young people are aware of the half-life of a particular genre, shows
us remarkable insight into the fallacy behind the idea that the young Americans are duped
into thinking that music which grows out of popular culture has the same value and
staying power as traditional forms of musical study. When Robert was asked to expand
on his comment, he said that the reason that he wants to participate in music education at
the DC Youth Orchestra Program is because it gives him the freedom and ability to rise
to greater musical endeavors, and to be able to make or produce the musical expression
that he wants. Essentially, because of the traditional line of music study, he is gaining the
tools he needs to continue pursue his love of music, whether as a musician, composer, or
simply an audience participant. Most importantly, his acknowledgment of the longevity
of "classical" music as compared to the relative instant appearance and disappearance of a
genre such as Go-go music, shows the remarkable insight that all young people have, for
which we frequently neglect to give them credit.

When categorizing music, it is difficult to resist the urge to make distinction between
whether or not music is legitimate. This is a highly subjective and unnecessary exercise.
Current popular music is no less legitimate in its origin and intent, than is any other genre
of American music, such as rock and roll, jazz, folk, bluegrass, or county. It is best to
define what we consider to be traditional forms of music, or "art music" as those which
contain some level of musical intellect and musical development. That is to say that the
music itself, within the framework of the piece, contains development and intellectual
value, certainly beyond, but often including, an entertainment or commercial application.
It is best then to make a distinction between pop-cultural music (or popular music) and
art music which includes all forms of music, but holds a level of skill, intellect, and
development paramount to the distinction between the two. Over time, even popular
music can grow to be included in the category of art music.

On the popular-music end of the spectrum, we can put Go-go music; it has very little
musical development; it includes a significant amount of repetition; and it does not
usually include melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic development from one end of the piece to
the other. Any 2-4 bar section of a piece can be transported from one section of the work
to another with very little effect or consequence to the listener. The resulting shallowness
of the work does not de-legitimize the piece as artistic expression, it simply is a very
limited and brief expression of popular art to a limited audience.
On the art music end of the spectrum, classical works have significant melodic, rhythmic,
and harmonic development, generally require instrument mastery on the part of the
musician, and cannot be easily placed in the background of life at a club, coffee bar, or
television commercial. (That is not to say that there aren't a number of pieces we would
include in the classical genre, that would be less satisfying than others with regard to
these elements, but the art music genre as a whole, shows much more complexity and
intellectual value than current popular music.) A certain amount of understanding of the
complexities of music composition or a certain amount of general exposure to classical
music is required to fully understand and digest the value of a piece of art music. Music
education - an understanding and knowledge of music through either formal training or
through informal exposure.

One additional element which separates current popular music from art music, is the
prevalence of acoustic instruments in the latter. Although the absence of acoustic
instruments is alarming at times to those of us who received classical training, and those
teaching traditional forms of music, it does not single-handedly contribute to the lack of
development and skill of the musical expression itself. Instruments and musical
expression through instrumental performance have changed throughout history. Human
desire to find new instruments with which to produce sound and music is not new, and it
is only natural that exploration of new methods of sound production would progress
through the development of electronic devices. Following the history of musical
instruments from simple recorders, to basset horns with very few keys, to the clarinets of
today with many keys and mechanisms is an expected progression only because it has
already occurred. Or, we can follow the brass family from simple hunting horns, to
natural horns, to the complex modern-day French Horn. Just think about the parallel
between what our current audacious younger generation is doing with high-tech sound
production and what public opinion of the first generation of saxophone players might
have been. This is also true with other forms of art, such as the progression of visual arts
through drawing, painting, then photography, and digital imagery. The mere fact that an
instrument is producing sound through electronic means, does not eliminate the musical
value of the genre (and does not prevent its eventual addition to the canon of art music);
really, it is the lack of skill required to produce marketable sound or the lack of
knowledge required of the listener, that diminishes the music's value as an art form. By
the same token, music without substance, can be found acoustically and non-acoustically

So then, what we are exploring and trying to find answers to, is why young people are not
attracted to art music with all of its challenge and intrigue. From my vantage point,
encountering students every week who strive to master their traditional instruments,
working hard to learn scales, arpeggios, etudes, and beautiful sound production, it is clear
that music as an art form, although perhaps not in full bloom, is not at all dead. It is
important of course to note that interest is waning, significantly. Despite the fact that
music is more accessible and more prevalent now in history than it ever has been,
students and young people are not as interested in the musical arts as they once were,
when music was an anticipated element of education at all levels. Young people, and
adults, at the click of a mouse, can access thousands, even millions of song titles, yet they
gravitate with a vengeance towards techno, hip-hop, rock, and other current popular
forms of commercial sound.

For young people and adults to appreciate and maintain interest in art music, there must
be a certain level music education, formal or informal, obtained by them as listeners.
Without a basic understanding of music, the desire for any individual to attend a concert
or performance will likely never materialize. Just as with visual arts, the person who
understands some of art history, the evolution of painting, artists throughout history, or
the skill required to produce a painting, will undoubtedly take longer walks through an art
museum than the person with no knowledge. Those without art education will not likely
go out of their way to see a painting by Chagall, (Egon) Scheile, or (Jackson) Pollack, but
will still find interest and entertainment in print ads selling perfume or credit cards. In
the same way, those without music education will not go out of their way to see a
symphony concert, but will still find interest and entertainment in listening to a driving
beat from their car radio.

Also playing into this education is accessibility. If music education is available for all
young people in schools, they are more likely to gain the knowledge they need to
appreciate art music. Without the presence of music in the schools, and more importantly
without the presence of fundamental music education through the study of traditional
classical music, students will not likely happen upon music education elsewhere by

Current popular music will always be a component of American culture, always calling to
young people as they explore their own identity and reach for adulthood. It is not valid,
nor wise, to combat the presence of this form of self-expression and self-actualization.
The propensity of these art forms to be overwhelmingly successful is best viewed as a
symptom of the absence of music education and in the lives of young people, not as a
problem in and of itself. The importance of music education and arts education in
schools is strongly supported in most political rhetoric and campaigns, but as process and
policy unfold, it is financial priorities that shove music out of the curriculum and out of
the priorities of the ivory tower. Arts organizations are forced to appeal to the financial
sensibilities of including arts in education, rather than the social and cultural value of the
endeavor itself - unfortunately relying on supporting statistics that impact only long-term
and future benefit to local and global communities, rather than immediate financial gain.
Very few argue the value of music education, however the financial feasibility of keeping
music in the curriculum is up for grabs.

So, what is the prognosis for the future survival of art music? The prognosis is less than
optimistic - not because of what the newest generation listens to, but because of what
they don't listen to. And, more importantly because of what their parents don't listen to.
To change this direction, it is vital that political leaders, educators, and funders set music
education as a priority, encouraging music learning and performance at all ages. The
community must demand music education for young people. In addition, the music
industry and community must focus tremendous amounts of energy into producing
concerts and performances, whether it be for their local city-community, an educational
environment, or an online community - traditional music forms must be accessible to be
heard and learned.

Presented by Ava Spece, Executive Director, DC Youth Orchestra Program
Plight of American Music Conference, February 27, 2006
© Ava Spece, 2006