When Greg, my trusty side-kick, (erstwhile Student Success Liaison) go out to recruit students, we always find ourselves having to come up with disheartening responses to the barrage of questions about music and the arts. “Will there be band?” “What about art?” “Will you offer chorus?”

As someone who has always had easy access to the arts, it breaks my heart to know that – most likely – these hopeful kids won’t have band or chorus unless they find a way to do it themselves hopefully under the guidance of an as-yet-to-be-hired teacher who might just happen to be interested in an after-school club. More disheartening for me, is that these kids don’t even know to ask about orchestra, choir, a recorder group, or individual music lessons taught by itinerant teachers who also played in a national orchestra – all that I had when I was in grade school in Northern Ireland. Nor do they ask about annual summer trips to Europe, where they stay with a nice family, learn about the culture. The trip culminates with a concert after a week of rehearsals. I remember staying with a family in the Black Forest region. They had a harpsichord in their living room, and the father owned a Stradavarius violin!
I played second violin in the North East Ulster Schools Symphony Orchestra, along with students who were brought by bus from all over Northern Ireland every Saturday morning to Antrim Grammar School. Catholics and protestants, rich and poor, each with full access to the very best of a musical education. I didn’t appreciate it until now when I can’t offer it to my own students.
I recall one trip in particular where we had the opportunity to visit East Berlin – long before President Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. I remember the Checkpoint Charlie stamp in my passport and how sad I felt when I realized that our tour guide wouldn’t be able to come to West Berlin to hear us play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. The soloist was Sheila Brown, a Belfast girl, and she was amazing. I remember our conductor, Mr. Fletcher – brilliant, bawdy, and given to embarrassing us when we were out of tune. He knew when we were playing quietly because we didn’t want him to hear our mistakes. He’d yell,”If you’re going to make a mistake, make it a good one! Otherwise, take that instrument outside and jump on it!”
Before I was born, my father had purchased a violin, so there was no question that I would play. Nonetheless, our music teacher, Miss Fletcher (no relation to the conductor) would have made sure that we all had instruments. When my grandfather died, part of the inheritance was used to purchase a piano, and my parents drove me to a neighboring town every week for lessons with Mrs. McKittrick. Between my parents and the school system, there was no question that music would be a big part of my life.
I wasn’t a gifted musician, but when I played in that orchestra next to Clifford Lowry, Brian McAteer, and Padraig and Anna O’Brien, (outstanding Irish traditional musicians) my heart soared.
Mr and Miss Fletcher would, I’m sure, be aghast at the very thought of a school without a full orchestra. I shake my head every time I attend a school concert where the choir is accompanied by a recording. It’s like karaoke for kids in school. Where is Miss Fletcher conducting from her piano? And why is ‘band’ the musical section that is clearly the favorite? Where are the string quartets?
Where is the music? In Phoenix, it’s at Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school. For the rest of us, it’s in private lessons. For families who can’t afford the instrument and the lessons?
There is no music.
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