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Don’t Be Silent

Josh Harris • Archives • April 27, 2007

In Texas, Sir Ken Robinson and I created a two-session double-header tag-team (I am running out of hyphenated metaphors) focusing on creativity and the change to our global economy and the connection to music and arts education every day in our classrooms. At the end of Sir Ken’s session we had the opportunity to hear the Texas Commissioner of Education, Dr. Shirley J. Neeley, speak about her vision for education in Texas as well as the challenges and opportunities for music and arts educators to advance the arts in our schools. She herself is an arts education advocate. She went on about the challenges of standardized testing but maintained a steadfast commitment to ensuring the state requirements would be enforced – requirements that include instruction in music and all of the arts.

She ended her remarks with this on emphatic, repeated statement:

Don’t Be Silent

Don’t Be Silent

Don’t Be Silent

She knows what sometimes many of us forget: Out of Sight – Out of Mind. Or to modify this appropriately: Out of Hearing – Out of Mind.

The second event I participated in had a profound impact on me. It was at this year’s Arts Advocacy Day events in Washington D.C. Arts Advocacy is hosted each year by Americans for the Arts and sponsored by Music for All – along with 92 other national groups! Each year hundreds of people converge on our nation’s capital to advocate for funding and policies impacting our cultural agencies and arts education.

To kick off Arts Advocacy Day a Congressional Arts Breakfast is organized to galvanize the “troops” gathered for the day’s activities tromping around Capital Hill for meetings with congressional leaders. This year’s breakfast featured a keynote address by none other than the great champion of music and arts education, Wynton Marsalis.

For 20 minutes, without a prepared text and no note cards, Wynton went on to deliver what I believe may become the most important speech in the last 100 years on the importance of music and art in our culture and the shaping of our democracy.

In a speech I have dubbed, “Here Comes Homer,” Wynton applied the virtuosity usually reserved for his music to his words.

After leading the audience back and forth through an arch of history invoking the great artists Homer, Michael Angelo, August Wilson, William Butler Yates, Louis Armstrong and the caveman, Wynton stated:

“Great art has the opportunity to speak across epics to the grandeur of a people. That is the value of the arts. Primarily as a tool of communication the arts are tools for survival.”

He then went on to say that, “We all are speaking in one language (the arts). And the value of knowing that language is that you gain the confidence that comes with understanding that you’re indeed a part of one long great progression. It is not about your race of people. It is not about your individual identity. It’s about the tremendous upward sweep in human consciousness that has been going steadily since we emerged on this planet.”

Wynton also discussed the arts’ role in shaping the civil rights movement, democracy, the Constitution as a cultural document, and made the case for the inclusion of the arts in the education of our young people. He then urged everyone to go forth to spread the word.

I have brought together these two seemingly unrelated moments to help enlighten the importance of our work in advancing a free and civil society, in advancing our democracy, and the importance of raising our voice.

Shaping Our World

Music and arts education plays an important role in shaping our culture, in shaping our country, in shaping our democracy and ultimately in shaping our world. Each interaction between a teacher and a student is an important part of what Wynton described as that “one long great progression” of humanity.

The work you do shapes the world we live in – making our efforts to ensure every child has the opportunity to be involved with music and the arts now more important than ever.

Advancing music and arts education at this moment in our history requires that everyone speak out. Everyone must be engaged. Everyone must add his or her voices to the chorus in every community, state and collectively across this nation.

I have repeated, in this space and elsewhere, that advocacy is not something that you do… it must be become a part of who you are. So, it is critical you look at your year-end activities and consider how advocacy may be imbedded in your work.

What Can You Do?

  • Look for “Teachable Moments” – Include a list of “Did You Know” facts in your concert programs. Things like SAT scores, famous quotes, research outcomes, little tidbits that subtly, yet effectively, reinforce the importance of the work you do.
  • Reach Out to Others – Ask a local business leader to be the Master of Ceremonies for your concert and provide him or her with talking points about the importance of music and any specific facts of interest regarding your own program. In Texas the compared the SAT scores of the all state honors groups with the averages for all Texas students and the nation. The All-state students were “off the charts.” What about your students? This could be a powerful fact to share with the community!
  • Empower Your Parents – Make sure you turn the passion of your parent support groups into effective action. This is only accomplished through organization, preparation, and consistency of message. Be sure they are fully aware of what is happening in your school with the schedule, budget, or any other item that may help, or hurt, your program. To help you get the Community Action Kit just released by NAMM to help (more about this at musicforall.org).
  • Do a Good Job, Then Tell Someone – Write a year-end press release for your local newspaper showcasing the achievements of your program. It is important that you share with everyone including your parents, administrators and the press the accomplishments of the program during the year.
  • Be Seen – Schedule a small ensemble to appear at the year-end board meeting. Be sure you have representatives attending EVERY board meeting. Sometimes being seen, consistently throughout the year, can have a great influence on a school boards support of your program.
  • Give Thanks! – Send a “Thank You” note to the school board and administrators. Have your parents do the same thing. Not only is this a nice gesture… but also it will help remind these key decision makers of the support your program has in a very positive, non-confrontational way.
  • In trouble? CALL US! – We will connect you to people and resources that may help you in the face of challenges!

Regardless of what you choose to do, just remember one thing: Don’t Be Silent.

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