From the President (Jan. 31, 2010)

Dear Colleagues,

The signs are appearing and the word is spreading. I am seeing indications that the arts are in trouble and we all need to heed the signs and make some personal decisions about how we might be able to live through a period when we as musicians and music programs may not be on the top of priority lists. I know of at least two high school music educators whose jobs are slated to be cut by 50% next year; this in itself is alarming, but even more so when we consider that these programs (one in the Northeast Kingdom and one just 30 minutes south of Burlington) have had long standing histories of supported and successful music programs! There is another program (also with a long history of community support and a high success level) that is considering cutting by 50% one of their two full time music positions in the high school.

I know of at least two church positions (organist and choir director) whose either position or salary has been reduced by 50%! In addition to these kinds of signals, there are more signs that rough times are ahead; teachers salaries are again under scrutiny, budgets are being reduced, level funded and frozen. Some school districts are talking about pay decreases, increased health care contributions and frozen salary schedule movement. In our own district we just received the latest board proposal, and I feel it might be instructive to share that proposal with you.
1.) Eliminate limits on teaching assignments and duties
2.) Restrict rights to representation in evaluation or discipline meetings
3.) Deny rights to challenge job or duty assignments
4.) Mandate medical exams of any teacher
5.) Lengthen the school day and school year without additional compensation
6.) Increase mandatory after-school meetings and Open House evenings
7.) Drastically reduce sick and personal leave and how they can be used
8.) Increase employee health insurance contribution to 20%
9.) Cut salary by 5% with no step or lateral movement
10.) Eliminate senior step and the Golden Handshake (payment for unused sick days when you retire).

Ok, so maybe some of the above are just things that need to happen as our school district moves through the negotiation process and arrives at an equitable compromise. What concerns me is that these proposals come up in the first place! It is indicative of a society that still does not value educators, their places in the community and the invaluable work that we perform every day of every year. As part of the above proposal the Board is suggesting that more time be given to “student contact time” during the school day. As a music department in Burlington we have been begging for years to give us “student contact time” so that we can engage in some sort of skill development time with all of our music students to improve reading and rhythmic skills, and to also pass on some basic fundamental theory development that is sadly lacking. Needless to say this is not what they are talking about when they use the phrase “student contact time.”

I see young musicians like my son and many of his friends from Crane School and Cincinnati College Conservatory that are scraping together a living, trying to make it into the music world while working as cashiers, waiters, waitresses and other occupations; the jobs that might utilize their considerable talents do not presently exist, and if they do, the competition is fierce. Just last week the Cleveland Orchestra went on strike for reasons that also concern other orchestral ensembles throughout the world; reductions in salaries and compensation are the most obvious but not the entire picture.

Well, I guess that is enough gloom and doom. But where does this leave us in the arts, and how much sacrifice are we willing to make to keep music alive in our schools, our communities and state? I wrote a few weeks ago about my elementary, middle school and high school music teacher and how much she gave in her life to serve the community that I lived in, and for much less than we receive in salary and with little budget money to work with. Her sacrifice was great, and I implored us to think about that at the end of the article that I wrote. I believe the time is coming when we are going to have a lot asked of us as professional musicians and educators, and I wonder how far we are prepared to go, and even if we should?

In my chorus room at school I have a framed poster of something that John Kennedy once said to this nation; the exact wording escapes me at the moment, but it implied that the worth of any nation is directly linked to the artistic output and attention that is given to the arts. If much attention is being given to our plight, I am not hearing it right now. Indeed, our state and national agendas do not presently include anything of significance that might lead us to believe that music and the arts are figuring prominently in any meaningful discussions at any level. I have not felt that any national figure has given significant attention to the artistic climate in this country since John Kennedy; Bill Clinton did bring some attention to music in the schools through his own positive experiences, but other than that, I have not heard much. State government has done little to directly address music and the arts in the schools, and I am not sensing anything that is going to immediately happen that will aid us in our cause. If anything is going to happen, it must be by us, and it will not happen except through personal commitment and sacrifice.

There is much at risk as we go forward, and I hope that we are prepared for the future and the burdens we might be asked to bear. Other indicators include students that have little time for the commitment and dedication that it takes to become proficient on an instrument (including voice), and less and less interest in the kind of artistic endeavors that we have thought were important over the last 30 years. Our culture is changing rapidly and technology is changing the world we live in (and that includes the music world) to such a degree that I am feeling suspect that we will be able to draw a line of fire and counteract what is being fronted by the media as artistry. Entertainment is the name of the game, and those of us that do not hop on the wagon might very well be considered anachronisms. It is only in our specialized worlds, where we can still pursue some kind of artistic bent and feel that there is a glimmer of hope somewhere in the future. Our Eastern ACDA Convention will expose us to wonderful choral performances that should be the model that we aspire to, and our local and staid ensembles still offer us what we (or should I say I?) wish to hear. But I do not see lots of young people at these performances, and I do not know if we are able, in our public school music programs, to groom our young population for a life long love affair with music of great worth and import. It all adds up to a shaky future for us all in the music world. We all must be vigilant and do what we can to stem the tide, if possible, through our work in our schools, our churches and our adult choirs. Our influence and impact can be profound and far reaching if we use that influence to support and proselytize the artistic side of our work. Train real musicians that can read and count; musicians that are curious about new music and older music and are willing to support our more classically positioned performing organizations and those in other music venues that still hold artistic endeavors more dear to their hearts than the popularity and dollars that come with the entertainment industry and mainstream media attention.

I know I am in the minority here, and I am feeling very much like I am not needed; I should retire and indulge my artistic inclinations and let this ole world spin and find its own way. We live in a very exciting time, but those times are changing, and I do not have faith that things are going to change for the better any time soon. I suggest we all watch the Grammy’s tonight and take note of what is happening in our music culture today. And next Sunday you can take in the Super Bowl as well; I guarantee you that in both venues all seats will be taken, regardless of the price, and millions will be watching.

Most Sincerely,

Frank Whitcomb

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