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Don't Blame It on Sputnik

Since Sputnik, hardly a year goes by without the federal government, some nonprofit foundation, or a large corporation launching schemes to entice people into research careers. These initiatives, meant to improve the quality of our science and bring about technological, medical, and other advances, offer educational opportunities and financial incentives. Sensible as these programs often are, they do not consider some of the most important motives that draw people to science and the personal

By | April 21, 2003

Since Sputnik, hardly a year goes by without the federal government, some nonprofit foundation, or a large corporation launching schemes to entice people into research careers. These initiatives, meant to improve the quality of our science and bring about technological, medical, and other advances, offer educational opportunities and financial incentives. Sensible as these programs often are, they do not consider some of the most important motives that draw people to science and the personal qualities that determine scientific success. Not surprisingly, the impact of these initiatives, and the scores of university-sponsored programs intended to lure students, is unclear.

Regardless, we shouldn't limit these initiatives to just the sciences. Similar principles could be applied to improve other features of the landscape, scientific or otherwise. Like music.

I envisage the following:

It started last winter when US Rep. Thaddeus "Ted" P. Barrel (R-Neb.) and his Aunt Mildred attended an Omaha Symphony concert featuring contemporary music. "Aunt Mildred was very upset," Ted tells his colleagues on the appropriations committee. "She doesn't like this newfangled atonal stuff; says it doesn't sound right. And I agree. She thinks the problem is that we don't have enough composers. Aunt Mildred figures that if more Americans wrote music, soon as a cat spits we'd have our own Eroicas and Brandenburgs. We wouldn't have to listen to stuff that sounds like a truck load of hogs."

William E. Coyote, the wily chairman, looks at Ted over his bifocals. "You got the farm subsidy just a few months ago, Ted. We can't turn around now and put a national music institute in Omaha."

Undaunted, Ted continues, "I staffed this out, Bill. For just 30 big ones we could launch a program that would get primary school kids writing music."

"Sounds interesting," says Abbie Normal (D-Conn.). "How would the money be spent?"

"Two main parts to the program: First, every primary school in the country gets a music composition teacher. This makes it possible for each kid to spend an hour a day learning how to write music."

"Sounds reasonable, so far," says Abbie.

"But the second part is the real kicker, and I have to give my brother-in-law, Craig--he runs a feed store over in Burwell--the credit for this. He thought it up. Every primary school would be linked to a living American composer. That composer visits the school once a month so the kids can watch and learn to compose music. Inspire them."

"Like from behind a one-way mirror?" asks Bill.

"That, or on the assembly room stage. We need to work out some of the details."

"This is beginning to take shape for me," says E.Z. Bye (R-Texas). "Just one question: Aren't primary school kids too young to write music. Shouldn't we be targeting middle or high school kids?"

"As I told you, I staffed this out," says Ted. "Called up Sally Saunders, my little Kathy's piano teacher. Asked her who the best composer was. 'Mozart,' she says. Asked her when he started writing music. 'Around six years old,' she says."

"I'm convinced," says E.Z., "but we're going to have to deal with the so-called experts; the academics, the music teachers. They're all going to want their say."

"I've started down that road. Last week I met with Wayne Simmons, head of the music department at the university. Told him about the program. He didn't seem to get it. Talked about musical genius. Beethoven's imagination. Kept asking me to explain the part about the kids watching the composer. But then I stopped by to see Sam Watson, the university president. We go way back. He listened to every word. When I finished he said, 'Ted. Don't worry about Wayne. You get me the money, I'll get you the music. And it'll be the kind of music you want to listen to.'"

"You've always got naysayers," says Bill, scowling. "Some folks will say that this may not work. That it may not produce better music. Well, hell, how are you going to know if you don't try it?"

"And there's something else to consider," says Ted. "What might happen if we don't do this? There's already an East-West music gap. It grows wider every day ..."

Walter A. Brown, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine.

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