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The Problem with Music Advocacy
By Jordan Wagner
12/7/2010 11:55:00 AM

by Sharon Burch, author/creator of Freddie the Frog books ( http://sharonburch.wordpress.com/ )

Have we, as an interested group in music education, damaged our own efforts simply by labeling it as "music advocacy?"

I, along with many music educators, am very thankful for "VH1 Save the Music," and other music advocacy efforts. But only those who are already passionate about the value of music education truly champion those efforts. Although the term, "music advocacy," has its place within the circle of music supporters, it is a misrepresentation in general society.

The word, "advocacy," indicates helping an underdog. It places it in a category of sympathetic efforts toward something worthwhile in need of saving. Contemplate the term, "child advocate." What pictures come to mind? Visual images of children in need pulling on your heart-strings of giving, right? We love them and want to do more for them, but invoking emotions of sympathy only reaches a few. Think of all the phrases that include the word, "advocate," or "advocacy." What is your instant emotion? pity? charity? sympathy? empathy? left-wing? righteous? desire to fight for the cause?

Why do we feel that way? It indicates a need to fight for the defenseless, vulnerable, needy. Who puts on the gloves and does the defending? The one's closest to the underdog. Those with a deep compassion and emotion connected to the victim. How do they fight for the victim? They work to bring the world's attention to the problem. They paint graphic pictures through word and images that guilt people into giving. Those most passionate for the defenseless work tirelessly, attempting multiple methods to reach the masses, but only winning a few.

Music is not the underdog in reality, just in the education system, and in lack of funding. In our efforts to improve the perception and financial support, we sabotage the greater mission to revere and admire. Music is not something to sympathize, but to admire and seek to aspire to greatness.

What if we turned sympathy into admiration? People love winners. People love champions. People want to be part of the winning team. It inspires them to go after their dream and admire those who did and succeeded. For example, I'm not much of a sports fan, but when the local high school team begins advancing to the state playoffs, I'm there with the rest of the town. Everyone loves a winner. Sound familiar?

Now contemplate a contrasting picture--Shawn Johnson. Have you heard of her? A young girl from Iowa had a dream. With only the support of her family and coach, Shawn focused on the gold and passionately dedicated her time, energy and talent toward achieving excellence, and she did. Shawn obtained a gold and silver in the 2008 Olympics held in China--and hasn't stopped yet. Before the Olympic season, only those within the gymnastics' circle knew of Shawn Johnson. Similar to only those within the music circle are aware of the benefits of music instruction in a person's life.

Shawn Johnson is not a sympathetic picture. No one is a martyr for Shawn Johnson. No one needs to be or even wants to be. Shawn Johnson is one girl who had a dream with an action plan. She had a small support team of her family and a coach. Shawn did not recruit "advocacy" groups to help pull her along and represent her case. She did not see herself as an underdog. She was going for the gold--the Olympic gold. Did she dedicate a percentage of her time reaching for sympathy votes and support groups? No. As she poured her heart into her work, she began to excel and as she began to win, the world clamored to see her, learn about this incredible success story, take pride in her as one of our own in the U.S. Everyone admired Shawn's dedication and proudly claimed her as a representative of what is possible when you aspire for excellence in your craft. For Shawn Johnson that is gymnastics. For us, it is music.

Millions of kids take gymnastics, but it's only the excellent ones that the world wants to watch. Many people are involved in music, but it's only incredible musicians that draws the world's attention.

The large majority of U.S. citizens never attend, or watch, or participate in gymnastic events, but in the summer of 2008, all U.S. eyes were watching Shawn, willing her to win and celebrating her victories. Google "Shawn Johnson" and you will find articles and video clips from around the globe. Fan clubs and web pages came into being. All of this from one girl with a dream that took the necessary action to make it happen. People love a winner. People want to be apart of the winning team. People gravitate and seek out winners. They want to be part of that dream. Music is a winner.

We, musicians and music educators, know that. Anyone who sits in an audience and is moved to tears from the sheer beauty of the perfectly sung notes in a musical or opera, or the exquisite sounds of the instruments in an orchestra or band that cause people to rise to their feet in impulsive applause, understands. Music experienced at that level does not evoke sympathy, but awe. Everyone that experienced the incredible music shares it with enthusiasm to anyone who will listen. Like a virus, everyone clamors to experience the magical moment created through music. All eyes turn toward the source of the inspiration and want to experience it again. We know that, but does society?

We need to stop portraying music education as an underdog needing rescued and start exclaiming the opportunities for incredible experiences unlike any other. If our music programs inspire and excel as winners, all eyes will turn to us and want to be part of what we are doing. They'll experience what we already know and music will be viewed as the hero it already is.

"Music advocacy?" I don't think so. Within our music circle? Maybe, but only within our circle.

We need to view it as something with wondrous awe that we are excited to share, not defend. Does music education need more support and help to keep it in existence? Absolutely. No question. But we are going about it the wrong way.

Outside of the music world, the phrase, "music advocacy," hurts the mission before it even starts. The term indicates a solicitation for sympathy votes before you even understand what they are about. They only really effect those who are already passionate about music and already see the problem. Music education will NEVER be elevated and perceived with respect with labels that indicate defenseless losers and illicit pity.

Pursue excellence in music with a single-focused passion and people will follow. Pursue excellence in music education with passion and people will rally and clamor to be part of the success of their kids--your students.

We treat music education like a needy child trying to compete in an olympic games out of sympathy votes. Only eyes of pity on that child--and then they are fleeting. Music education needs to be Shawn Johnson, and in many schools it is perceived with admiration and respect. Music performed with excellence already is admired and respected with wonder and awe by those who have the privilege to witness it.

There are many examples from Paul Potts and Susan Boyle to Kristen Chenoweth, Bobby McFerrin, Yoyo Ma, etc. Pursue excellence in music education and the world will notice and be inspired. How do we achieve this? Teach kids with passion. Practice with passion. Conduct with passion.

Educate parents with the beneficial facts of music education and instruction, but not as a plea, but as an exciting opportunity to involve their kids in the best. We have something that is in desperate need--smarter, brighter and more creative citizens. Music education instills, develops and exercises those qualities. We have wonderful tools available for today's children.

Teach with passion and the term, "music advocacy," will become obsolete.


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Tags: music advocacy, music education, passion, Shawn Johnson, gymnastics, Olympics
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