A Jazzy Introduction to Concerts
In a videotaped series, a personable musician-composer reaches out to children who may be missing music in the schools
Wynton Marsalis has been hailed as a virtuoso since he won a Grammy for a recording of classical trumpet concertos. Now in his early 30s, the performer, composer, and band leader is taking on a new role - as an educator.
The New Orleans native conceived, wrote, and hosts "Marsalis on Music," a four-part series televised this month by the Public Broadcasting Service. Intended for children aged 9 to 15, it was taped before a young audience at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., and features Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The series marks the first attempt to present comprehensive music education on national television since PBS aired Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" three decades ago.
Educators say it comes at a time of acute need. Tight budgets and other trends are forcing many public schools to dismiss music instructors, increase music class sizes, and put off buying new instruments and books.
"No television show can take the place of ongoing classroom instruction," says Michael Blakeslee of the Music Educators National Conference (MENC). "But teachers need as many resources as they can get their hands on, and this series is one of the most useful ones around."
The first two segments focused on rhythm and song forms. The third, which airs tonight, looks at wind and jazz bands and traces America's musical legacy from John Philip Sousa to Louis Armstrong. Next week's finale gives tips on practicing. All four segments are available on video.
At a press conference earlier this year, Marsalis said his intention was to make music "as painless as possible." Learning a little about music, he said, adds to a listener's enjoyment.
A new set of voluntary teaching standards, commissioned by the Bush administration and compiled by MENC, seeks to help music instructors foster such understanding and appreciation. But without adequate resources, many teachers are struggling to follow through.
"The standards process affirmed that the arts are an essential part of the core curriculum," Mr. Blakeslee says. "But when push comes to shove, questions come up about how much time we're going to spend on arts education. Will teachers have money for instruments and books? More often than not, the answer is no."
Budget cuts in California have already led many elementary schools to eliminate music and art altogether. Some schools in Colorado and Wisconsin are dropping these subjects to make room for longer classes in math, science, social studies, and English. Even in districts that have skirted such problems, the new standards have raised the bar beyond the reach of some instructors.
To give them a boost, MENC has prepared a teaching guide that suggests ways to use "Marsalis on Music" in the classroom. These range from teaching children to recognize rhythms and melodies to pointing out the relationship between music, art, history, and culture.
One person with plans to incorporate "Marsalis on Music" into the curriculum is David Circle, who directs fine-arts education for 56 public schools in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.
"I was very impressed with the program," says Mr. Circle, who oversees the education of 32,000 students. "We intend to get the tapes for our library so teachers can use them in class."
Circle's sentiments are shared by Daisy Newman, a former music teacher and opera singer who directs educational programs for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "My impression after watching the first two shows was one of delight and amazement," Ms. Newman says. "I was thrilled to see Wynton and Seiji, two musical giants, collaborating in this way."
What Circle and Newman like best is the way Ozawa's symphony orchestra alternates with Marsalis's jazz orchestra.
After Ozawa conducts a march from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," for example, Marsalis follows with a jazz version by Duke Ellington. Same music. Different song.
"I like the way Wynton pointed out the similarity in structure between those two arrangements," Circle says. "It helps kids see how certain fundamental elements are present in all music, whether its jazz or symphonic, choral or instrumental, country or rock."
Though Marsalis's personal preference may lean toward jazz, he makes a strong case for learning about classical music.
"A long musical form can show you how to conduct a conversation," he says in the program, "because of the way that musical ideas converse with one another.... It also brings you into contact with how a composer's mind works, and introduces you to a larger world...."
Visual elements enliven the program by engaging another sense. They range from a basketball, which Marsalis uses to demonstrate a change in rhythm, to computer animation that accompanies orchestral passages.
"The best way to talk about music and bring it to those who are not musicians is to draw good analogies," Marsalis says. "You try to use as many senses as you can to make the points clearer."
To show how a composer can vary a theme, as Charles Ives did with "America," Marsalis directs the children's attention to a series of bulls by Picasso. "Picasso played with the form of the bull, stretching it, adding to it, cutting it down to its essentials," Marsalis tells the youngsters at Tanglewood. "The first bull sets the theme, and the rest of the images are variations on that theme."
Marsalis attributes his knack for teaching to his father, Ellis, who is a music instructor as well as a jazz pianist. He also acknowledges a debt to another predecessor. Before writing the scripts, he pored over Bernstein's notes for the "Young People's Concerts." By most accounts, his series is a worthy successor.
"Nobody can replace Bernstein," Newman says. "But maybe he'll move over and make room for Wynton."
*"Marsalis on Music" is available on home video for $19.98 per segment. To order, call Sony Classical Film and Video at (800) 548-4522. A companion book with CD is sold in bookstores for $29.95.