When we left New York City, I worried that culture might be hard to come by. Oh the luxury of having film festivals and museums, concerts and exhibitions on your door step! Not that we took full advantage at the time. Still, as Woody Allen says about ordering chinese food in the middle of the night in New York City, it was nice to know it was there.
We do have access to many of those things in the Finger Lakes but further away and on a smaller scale. Not impossible but more difficult, just the realities of small town life. That’s why the vibrancy of the music culture here came as such a shock.
The musicality of Geneva does not announce itself on billboards in the manner of the Lake Trout, who have chosen our town as their “World Capital.” At first glance, the music scene, the concerts and the musicals at the Smith Opera House, the Summer Arts Festival, Musical Moments at the public library and recitals at Hobart and William Smith seem much the same as in any other college town. I am not sure that Genevan’s themselves regard it as anything remarkable. And yet, the more time I spend here, the more I am convinced it is.
My first personal experience of this came in the form of a pale green folder sent home in my son’s backpack. At first I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I flipped through page after page of childish hieroglyphics: primitive”n”s and “l”s carefully printed inside apple or heart shapes arranged in rows. It was only at the last sheet, the progress chart, that I realized they were not letters but symbols marking out a rhythm. Apparently my son is “working hard at developing the skills needed to be a musician.” A musician! O brave new world!
Now I realize this may seem like poignantly basic stuff to Very Musical People. But from the perspective those of us who experienced music in the public schools of the 70’s, it is nothing short of a miracle. Even in the days before fiscal vampires fell upon the music programs, sucked them dry, propped up their desiccated corpses and labeled them “enrichment”, the quality of music education has been patchy.
In many parts of the country it mainly consisted of singing songs like “Bingo” and The (dreaded) Happy Wanderer” while a teacher played upright piano or autoharp. Music class was a break from the real work, pleasant enough but not all that important.
Imagine then receiving a note home about the musical instrument “petting zoo” where third graders will have the opportunity to try all the instruments in the band to decide “which one they will play.” Not if they will play an instrument but which one.
My son’s music teacher, Sarah Humphrey laughed a little when I pointed out the wording. “I think there’s a place on the form where you can opt out” she said, (I couldn’t see it) “but most students do play something.”
Now I know there are many kids who learn to play instruments outside of school, and I haven’t exactly been channeling Amy Chua when it comes to facilitating this for my own children, but I am so very pleased to see the audacity of music education in our schools.
I’m not suggesting that the Geneva City School District is hothousing tomorrow’s musical talent, (though given the success of bands like a Gym Class Heroes and Ra Ra Riot it is tempting to make the case). It’s more that there is a certain ease and normality to music education here, as if it was an absolutely central part of the human experience, not something reserved for the talented or the driven. As if music was as fundamental as reading or writing. As if it was worth doing for its own sake, not to wire the children’s brains, to improve math scores or to make them better people.
Elementary school students attend classes twice a week and making music is a part of every school event. Each grade learns its own set of songs which they perform for the rest of the students. There’s a hand bell choir and most kids start playing an instrument in the 4th grade. The school also offers after hours piano lessons to children who wouldn’t be able to afford to take them otherwise.
Finally, they have the opportunity to listen to great music. Geneva Concerts, the organization responsible for booking most of the artists at the Smith Opera House makes sure all students see the performances for free.
Of course, as in most places, music education in Geneva has faced the chop now and then, but as Humphrey explains “We’ve been lucky to have so much support.” People wrote letters to the newspaper and fought to keep the music program intact.” So far they’ve been successful.
It’s quite an achievement. Here is a town of less than 20 thousand people who support a great concert series and a small music academy. Here is a school system where every kid learns the skills to be a musician and where they are trying hard to make sure that every child who wants to make music can.
The music in the schools reflects the deep regard for it in the city. It’s a culture that reaches far back into the past. It is as old as the Smith Opera House which has been hosting musical performances since 1894. It is as old as the grand homes on South Main street where residents staged Delightful Musicales for friends on warm summer evenings and as long lived as the Tuesday Piano Quartette (eight hands on two pianos) which has been going strong for more than 100 years.
Perhaps that’s why people here seem to take the importance of music for granted though not, the music itself. Perhaps that’s why when I asked a veteran father of four for his best piece of parenting advice a few years back he replied in all seriousness “It’s okay to start Suzuki at three.” Ah the realities of small town life!