American Bel Canto

Without public school music programs far fewer singers would end up learning the art of bel canto. And if that sounds like an exaggeration, you might consider that most singers in America find their voices, that is, get the bug for singing, in high school when they sing beautiful choral music. It's where the foundation for a career begins, where one is often first noticed as having a voice, where one learns how to learn and decides that- yes- I want singing to be my life. Maybe even operatic singing. And all because of great music and music making. Heck. I was one of those kids. And if you talk to a lot of singers they will tell you the same thing. Music education matters! So it is very disturbing to read that states like Pennsylvania are poised on making severe cuts in arts education. 

Below is a setting of James Agee's poem Sure on this shining night. The composer is Morten Lauridsen, who, in the words of one musicologist is "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all questions have been answered." Be it serene and elusive, it is also - practically speaking- the kind of work that would have inspired me to sing had it been written when I was a teenager. Instead, I had great works like Randall Thompson's Alleluia, Faure's Requiem, and Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium. No one, however, is going to singing this music if there isn't adequate funding to music education. Beautiful music, beautiful melodies wedded to beautiful poetry, and beautiful singing can't flourish in a vacuum.

James Agee

Sure on this shining night
Of star-made shadows round
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground

The late year lies down the north,
All is healed, all is health
High summer holds the earth,
Hearts all whole

Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder
Wandr’ing far alone
Of shadows on the stars.

James Agee (1909-1955) - “Description of Elysium”, from Permit Me Voyage, stanzas 6-8, 1934

You can hear more of Morten Lauridsen's music here, and read an excellent interview with the composer here. In the latter, Lauridsen makes his own plea for music education.

When I was younger, music was part and parcel of the education in the public schools. I was educated in the public schools in Portland, Oregon, and they had a tremendous music program there — chorus, band, orchestra. As we know, there have been major league cutbacks, and so a lot of this education has fallen to the private teacher. I think for audiences, one thing that you can do is to go back to your school boards and demand that they reinstate music education at a lower level. I really think some of the heroes of our time are those music educators in our elementary and secondary schools that are underpaid and overworked and are doing everything they can to enrich the students that they have to the beauties of music, whether through teaching music appreciation courses or conducting various kinds of ensembles. It’s a tough business for them and I publicly salute what they do. So one thing that audiences can do is after you go to a concert and feel yourself elevated, do what you can through bond issues and through your local schools, to make sure that you have a strong music program in your school. My sons all had that in schools in Los Angeles and I'm very, very thankful for that. They’re all three fine pianists, all three fine string instrument players. But, it’s a fight. You can’t be complacent on this.

To lend your voice in stopping devastating cuts to Pennsylvania's budget for education funding please go here.

Need I say it's kinda personal? I grew up just south of Pittsburgh, in a steel town called Mckeesport. And my best friend who teaches elementary music in public schools near there could lose his job.