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Lessons in Arts Education from a Rock Star

Last night’s tribute concert to David Byrne was the 11th show in Michael Dorf’s “Music of” series that benefits a number of music education groups in New York City. Each of the concerts in the series has yielded about $100,000. With all proceeds going to the beneficiaries, that’s about $1,000,000 so far. The money is obviously a critical driver for these concerts, and the organizations that benefit from the funding contribute in diverse ways to music education in the city. They do the hard work in the schools and communities, providing instruments, lessons, and encouragement where none may exist otherwise.

Beyond that, though, last night’s performances reminded me of how the involvement of working musicians, master musicians and artists can positively impact young people as they navigate the challenges of pursuing an interest or career in the arts.

Who Benefits from “Music of”

The six groups receiving funds from these concerts provide a range support in the schools and local communities:

The Glittery Line-Up

No concert report would be complete without the line-up. Last night’s concert had so much power packed into it and so much joy, transforming the oftentimes staid Carnegie Hall venue into one big party. As the woman behind me said “Jones Beach at Carnegie Hall.”

The show opened with Little Kids Rock performing “Stay Up Late” and closed with Byrne and Brooklyn United, a community-based marching band, perhaps a precursor to the work he is doing in anticipation of this summer’s Contemporary Color. Those shows will feature the top color guard teams in the United States and Canada. The kids’ performances there will also be accompanied by well-known artists, such as Kellis, St. Vincent, Devonte Haynes and Nelly Furtado. Our exposure to previously unknown artists and less-known art forms is one other reason to celebrate someone like Byrne. The kids’ exposure to audiences at this level of performance is invaluable and not something most schools can provide.

But back to last night. The artists were backed up by house band for the evening, Antibalis, and tributes were offered, in their incredibly eclectic ways by:

  1. Cibo Matto

  2. Amanda Plummer

  3. Alexis Krauss of Sleighbells

  4. Forro in the Dark

  5. Steve Earle

  6. Pete Molinari

  7. Billy F Gibbons of ZZ Top

  8. A.R.

  9. Thievery Corporation

  10. Bebel Gilberto

  11. The Roots

  12. Glenn Hansard

  13. Todd Snider

  14. Ceelo Green

  15. Santigold

  16. Sharon Jones

  17. David Byrne

The line-up speaks for itself in terms of the caliber and range of musical talent. The education connection was not lost throughout the evening. Alexis Krauss engaged in a little bit of storytelling, letting the audience know about her beginnings as a teacher, and how she used to bring her dad into the school to have students perform for a professional musician as part of their educational experience. She brought him along as a back-up singer last night, a nice tribute to her own mentor.

Again, the bookending of the show with performances involving young artists lent the evening a special significance. The confidence and joy in their performances is testament to the value of these opportunities to showcase their talents alongside the best-in-breed artists in recognition of one man’s work.

The Teachable Moments

Last night’s concert may have had two purposes, but they were seriously and joyfully intertwined. The series of concerts serve to 1) honor selected musicians for their body of work and 2) help fund music programs in the city and encourage young artists to pursue their art. We all know how dedicated David Byrne has been to his art and to experimenting with different styles of music over the years. The performances last night validated that in the range of styles and the manner in which all the songs were performed.

For the students who performed, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to see and experience live the outcome of those years of dedication and experimentation of this particular artist. I don’t assume the kids in the beneficiary organizations know much about how they are able to continue their studies, but I’d like to leave you all with a couple of thoughts from David Byrne that are worth passing along:

Advice to the Young Often the artists who are very successful don’t have much flexibility. In achieving success, they can lose a lot of their creative freedom. They have to keep making the same thing over and over again.

Music and Technology: When to Resist Technology “The means of production have been handed to the creators. That means a lot is being created and not all of it is good. The software that allows us to record on laptops tends to encourage us to record in certain ways. It tends to make the songs very regular and repeatable. The tempos are very strict and steady, which at some times in the past was ideal. But absolutely steady tempo is not necessarily the best thing in the world. We have to know when to creatively dismiss that . . .

Sometimes starting without the computer allows me a certain kind of freedom. I’m not restricted to what the computer tries to get me to do.”

Again, the value of working with seasoned professional musicians is essential to successful arts education.

Final Takeaways

Obviously evenings like these have an additional goal: to raise awareness of whatever the cause may be. Clearly, we must continue funding arts education by all means. I’d say an hour of musical instruction is worth more than the thousands of dollars spent on one specific PAARC question. I’d also say that while music within the schools is vital, more opportunities to get the students out of the classroom and playing amongst working musicians (or even rock stars) will strike the right chord for a truly successful educational journey.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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