Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Touchdown for music education

Some of the best television right now is about high school.

Glee is the unexpected hit of the year. The show's misfit high school glee club has musical talent to spare, which is put to good use in each episode. Glee is also something of a musical education for the viewer. The Glee song catalog is wide-ranging and the Broadway muscle of series regulars and guest stars sets the bar high. Who knew this euphoric celebration of the arts would find a home on Fox of all places?

Glee has been embraced by arts ed folk and why not? It depicts kids singing their hearts out because there is no other or better way to express what is inside. The kids don't sing to improve math scores (they don't actually appear to take any other classes besides glee club but that is just a delicious part of the tv fantasy). They don't sing because it increases daily attendance or reduces truancy or improves SAT scores. They sing because they love it. And that seems to be a very fine reason for the show's creators.

The other television show about high school of which I am a big fan is Friday Night Lights. Written and directed with thought and nuance, FNL is ostensibly about high school football in Texas. But football is both reality and metaphor on FNL. It is as much about life's big questions as it is about life's mundane details. I am not a football fan but the luminous performances of Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler won me over (their work should be texts for acting students everywhere). The show tackles complex ideas with such an ear for dialogue that I can feel like a voyeur in this small town.

Sometimes I wish this show (or something just like it) was about a high school orchestra, if only that it would be revelatory to see the arts taken with the same seriousness as FNL gives to football. Glee is sometimes campy and loud and I have a great appreciation for both those qualities. But music can be as powerful a metaphor as football - maybe more so.

It is my fervent hope that the team behind Glee recognize how much we, their arts education brethren, have invested. Glee is something of an arts ed mascot. The creators have put together a commercially viable hit about arts in school - and it is not a reality show (How many of us saw that coming?). As the freshman show, I hope Glee can learn from the upperclassman Friday Night Lights. Football is a serious undertaking. Talent is a place to start but talent alone has never carried a FNL player far. Talented boys with speed or strong arms pop up frequently. But the teams are made up of boys of all skill levels and the players practice, practice, practice together. Rarely does a player make a Hail Mary pass out of nowhere. The audience has been along for the ride - and the drills and the workouts and the coaching and the focus and the sheer determination - that lead to that glorious throw that was nabbed by a teammate and carried across the goal line.

On Glee, music is effortless. Gorgeous songs seem to float out of those kids. My hope for Glee is that the hard work, collaboration and determination that ensemble music demands can find a place in the storytelling. If we continue our national narrative that sports require hard work, commitment and teamwork while the arts are for those individuals with a natural talent, we undermine the intrinsic value of the arts in schools. It is my hope we will get a chance to see the Glee kids sweat.


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