In a New York Times blog post today, self-proclaimed “social innovation” writer David Bornstein writes about a spreading trend across the nation: injecting rock ‘n’ roll into the music classroom a la Jack Black. Bornstein argues that by putting guitars on kids and plugging into miniature half-stack Marshalls or watching “teachers” solo Hendrix-style and ditching crummy “classical and jazz” music education, our children will finally learn to love music class and not feign headaches to get out of choir.
Now, I play in an indie rock band. I fly a bumper sticker of a publically-funded indie rock music radio station on my car. I even spend a gross amount of money each year on gas driving around to stupid shows for no money in asinine places across the Midwest.
I am not someone who would—in theory—be opposed to rock ‘n’ roll in the classroom.
But here’s why it’s a stupid idea.
First, I’ve worked at a rock ‘n’ roll day camp, and “improvisation” at that level is super painful. Not just to listen to, but to flaunt as actual learning or structured creativity (read: shredding all six strings at the same time on the guitar benefits no one).
For those of you who love Deerhoof and say, hey what gives? There’s more. Improvisation, or songwriting even, has as its foundation the idea that you need to know the basic rules before you can break them. For example, before I could write songs (i.e. imitate what I’d heard), I had to be told in music theory class that a song generally needs to operate all within the same key signature. And the “Little Kids Rock” philosophy—while beneficial as supplement—does not take the place of music education which forms the basis for that initial learning (whether by Suzuki or written notation or simply listening to hundreds of KISS demos online).
Second, while I think it’s worth starting a conversation about what kind of music is played in school (maybe elementary kids should learn Katy Perry’s “Firework” instead of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”), don’t kid yourself about the end product.
A testimonial from my middle-school days:
We had a choir teacher who gave us “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Your Momma Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock n’ Roll.” Hey, hip stuff, huh?
No. It was hyper-lame. It’s not the “style of music” that turns kids off. We all got bored with it just the same. It’s the contrived environment that kills the vibe. I recently gave out Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City to a group of college students for a pop culture class. One girl’s response: “It put me to sleep!”
Lastly, who is this Bornstein guy? Other than briefly studying some trend, he doesn’t reveal any credibility for his complaints against music education. He does say he—along with countless other adults—wished they would’ve learned guitar or some other instrument in school. And because they didn’t, it’s the band directors’ fault for making lame jokes, wearing awkward ties, and generally making music boring, etc…
So he didn’t learn guitar when he was a kid? Are you kidding?! Guitar should be self-taught, anyway! Anyone in a rock band knows this. Rock n’ roll is a sacredly intimate act—at least initially. Teenage kid, bored, in his bedroom, listening to favorite band, trying to imitate the chords on his guitar, and style his hair like the Cure or whatever. Come on. Bringing it into the classroom is a recipe to only make generic that kid’s experience.
Bornstein’s campaign to transform music education overlooks how sterile you make rock n’ roll by imbedding it in the curriculum.
Anyone who has ever tried teaching a “cool movie” or read a “cool book” has the exact same experience. Massive underwhelming normality. Kids don’t care. School is school. Let’s introduce them to stuff they won’t get the other 18 hours in a day on KDWB. It’s the same argument for maybe not teaching Harry Potter in a high school literature seminar.
The kids can try on their little Rivers Cuomo or Janis Joplin on their own time. Sure, we can have the middle school band run through a rendition of “Honky Tonk Woman.” No problem. Let it rip, kiddies. But this curriculum innovation is not some magic wand that is going to “boost” the arts in our schools. That will only come from effective instructors—regardless of whether the music was “hot” in the 21st or 19th Century.
Inevitably, talk about rock ‘n’ roll in the classroom feels condescending to kids and reduces their capacity for real, honest creativity. And it’s slightly scary. Like the pink bunny suit in A Christmas Story, I can’t help but feel these rock n’ roll classes are just another example of us dressing up our kids in our own image of what they should like. Oh, the horror.