I am currently composer-in-residence with the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, from 2009-12, through a Meet the Composer/League of American Orchestra Music Alive residency grant. One of the main components of the grant is that I work with the Vermont Youth Orchestra and associated ensembles and they perform my music and commission me for a new work—in this case, a twenty-minute work for orchestra and chorus—but I also travel around the state as a virtual ambassador for VYOA, and visit schools and other organizations in the process. One of the more interesting schools in Vermont is the Wheeler Integrated Arts Academy—a new, innovative grade school that uses the arts to teach traditional topics such as math and science. At least twice a year, I visit a third and fifth grade class at this school and help teach them a little about how to compose music, and I also answer questions at the end of each class.
Sometimes the questions are a little odd, like the one student who asked me, if, as a composer, I have ever been tased. On the surface, this is somewhat funny (why would I be tased as a composer? For writing a truly bad piece? Did he think I was a conductor?), but when you dig deeper, why is a fifth grader even talking about tasing? Why does he even know what tasing is? Maybe I am more sensitive to these things now that I have a four-year-old child, but there definitely seems to be a loss of innocence with some of today's children. Certainly, in the age of the internet, it will be more difficult to shield children from topics they really should not be exposed to or thinking about, but I really do think it also falls on parents to keep an eye on their children—and their ears open—so if something like this comes up, they can explain what that is, and how bad it is, and that tasing is very serious—like guns—and is something you really should not joke about.
Perhaps what was a little more disconcerting was that I was asked, multiple times, how much money I make. Not just by these students at this school, but from a few high school students who interviewed me from a different school. Not that I am afraid to answer the question—I basically did, more or less, and gave them a range, from hundreds of dollars to many thousands, depending on the project—but why are they concerned with that, at such a young age? At the Wheeler Arts Academy, these are third and fifth graders. The high school students, I can understand, but even so—would this question have been asked fifty years ago?
I think it is sad that we live in a world where young children are thinking about money—or more accurately, concerned with making a lot of money—when what they should really be doing is having fun, learning, exploring and imaging what they can grow up to be, without serious regard to financial matters. Of course, I would expect this from high school students who are about to enter college or the real world, but not from such young kids. Yes, even young children should learn how to value what they have, and learn the basics, that we use money to buy things and so on, that everything has value, but is making money really what is most important? Of course, when children hear their parents talk about money, they absorb that, and we are in a recession, so maybe that has something to do with it.
This issue really trickles up to adults. Many people are too concerned with materials objects and making money—keeping up with the Joneses—and not concerned enough with happiness, giving, and being good citizens. I just think it is important, and our responsibility, to make sure kids grow up being kids, and are loved, as much as possible. Otherwise, many of these soon-to-be adults will just feel the urge to re-live their childhoods as adults, because they did not have true childhoods.
The job of raising children, not just our own, but all children, falls on all of us—parents, teachers and the community alike. It really does take a village.