Sunday, February 15, 2009

Prescribed

The power of the Texas Board of Education over the content in school textbooks is well-known.  Given the large size of the Texan schoolbook market, publishers go out of their way to modify their books in order to satisfy the criteria of the censors there, which maked the Texan standards effective in much of the rest of the country.  Periodically, this errupts into controversies over Texan Board of Ed. members cutting something out of, or getting something else stuck into, textbooks, sometimes leading to serious reductions in the quality of those books.

Now, I'm a bit shocked to learn that the University Insterscholastic League in Texas — which, although "voluntary" in membership, effectively controls athletic, academic, and musical competitions among public schools throughout the state — maintains a list of "Prescribed Music" for in-state competitions by bands, orchestras, solo vocalists and choirs.  Sheet music publishers take listing by the UIL seriously as without it, sheet music sales to schools in Texas, one of the largest markets in the US, will be limited.  

Above and beyond the issue of whether musical competition organized along the lines of sporting events is a good idea,  a list like this is really problematic.  It's one thing to provide the service to school music teachers of grading pieces according to difficulty or of assessing the physical qualities of the performance materials or even for an organization of music teachers to share recommendations, but to make a "Prescribed" list for competitions, with exceptions allowed only under strict limitations (the work must be approved in advance, can only be a single item on the program, and cannot be the first in a school's program) , is controlling students' access to information, which is nothing other than censorship.  Yes, I think it's a problem if a choir director has to apply for exceptional permission to have his choir sing the Machaut Messe, (Texas-born) Pauline Oliveros's Sound Patterns, or any Monteverdi madrigal other than the four which publishers happened to have submitted to the list.

Musical works composed for school ensembles are not likely to be libelous, obscene, incite to violence, treat currently controversial topics in education (like maybe I should write an Evolution March or a Fantasy on Intelligent Design?) , or otherwise corrupt the nation's youth. So one has to wonder what the rationale for censorship here must be.  One appears to be to keep the competition repertoire well-within the "classical" or "serious" music domain, particularly against the great pressure to perform more popular, "entertainment" repertoire.   I understand this problem and I recognize the difficulty of precisely defining the aesthetic, technical, and stylistic qualities one wants to hear, but the difficulty of making that definition is not an excuse for making a list like this, for there is really no educationally or musically valid reason to exclude (or contribute to the exclusion) of work which would meet those qualities, so one should be obliged to do the heavy lifting and try to make definitions rather than simply point at works (in the Potter Stewart manner of identifying pornography).  Otherwise, one has to suppose that the basic function of the list is the preservation of market position for those in the know about UIL, a trade secret held tightly by publishers and a handful composers more tightly connected to school music networks.  Indeed, the criteria listed in the application for the substitution of an unlisted work for band (read it here) is strongly biases towards composers and publishers with established relationships to the UIL system.

3 comments:

Aaron Hynds said...

A glance through the tuba list, (the one I would know the most,) tells me that this and some other lists probably aren't written by people who actually play the instruments being regulated. A couple of standards, followed by an avalanche of the cream of the crap. I also note some glaring omissions in the band rep., especially the exclusion of all but Alfred Reed's "Greatest Hits". Some other random omissions: most of Gesualdo's output, all but the tamest of Strauss' orchestral lit., most of Charles Ives' output, everything by Varese.

Paul H. Muller said...

Well I don't have firsthand knowledge of what the thinking behind this list is, but I will speculate on some of the possibly less sinister motives, having had a daughter in the local high school marching band.

Band here (SoCal) is more of a physical sort of activity than a musical one. The show rehearsals begin in summer band camp and continue through the competitions. The music for these shows isn't really the critical thing: it is more about the physical presentation - marching, flag waving, formations, etc. The same music is used from August until November, so it's not about learning music - it's about doing the show.

Maybe in Texas they want to make a more level playing field, where technical mastery of music isn't the focus. Why would they do that? Probably to make it easy to participate in a marching band so that even small schools won't feel overmatched by a larger talent base.

And if this makes more kids enjoy the experience, maybe that's not so bad. There is plenty of time later to concentrate on music...

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