Taking a Stand: Interview with Jeffrey Solow Part 3

In part 2 we met Jeffrey Solow the editor and arranger. In this third and final part to our interview series we meet Jeffrey Solow the advocate.

String Visions: You are past president of ASTA, and now you have an important role in music advocacy.

Jeffrey Solow: One of the surprising things about ASTA—and I use this as an argument for people when they ask, “Why should I join ASTA?”—is that it’s the only large organization in the world that’s devoted to string playing. If you’re interested in the art of string playing, if you want to have audiences for yourself as a performer, or if you teach and you want to have audiences for your students, then you had better be able to make a good case for having a population that’s interested in classical music.

String Visions: That’s right.

Jeffrey Solow: Advocacy is one of the most important functions of ASTA, which is helped by its being headquartered near Washington DC. ASTA is also making alliances with other music organizations that lobby for supporting the arts and music and for string and orchestral music in schools. As you know, when schools have funding problems and need to make cut-backs, one of the first things to be cut are music programs and orchestra programs so it’s really important for musicians, teachers and music lovers to develop the advocacy skills to be able to talk to boards of education and to the people that control the money.

I have a similar advocacy-related feeling about music education programs in universities. I never want to steer talented students away from music education. Often when music education students are very talented players teachers say: “Why don’t you go into performance?” I never do that. I’m very happy to have someone who really plays beautifully go into the field of music education.

String Visions: Oh, that’s so important. A music education degree is a really a wonderful degree. In addition to all the important skills you learn in that program, having that degree can really get you a job. A performance degree does not automatically give you a job. Getting a job in an orchestra is wonderful, but you don’t really have as strong an influence on students as you do when you are teaching in a public high school.

Jeffrey Solow: And this is especially true because you’re not just teaching students who are going to be professional musicians, you are teaching people who are going to be music lovers—and if you don’t have music lovers, you’re not going to have music.

String Visions: Yes, playing an instrument and knowing a lot about music and the arts is just as important as math, science and reading skills. The Mozart effect stories are not really true but it is very popular idea now, with all the research on the brain and the effect playing an instrument has on the development of the brain.

Jeffrey Solow: Yes, and studying an instrument also helps with organization skills. These are important arguments, especially because politicians want numbers and proof and they want to hear about outcomes, so it’s important to know those things. But I also think that it’s important to stress to decision makers and other people that classical music and orchestral music is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and, if only for that reason, is worthy of support, not just because it improves other skills.

String Visions: …to know and understand philosophy and literature and science is a must, but music is equally as important, so it absolutely makes no sense when schools want to cut music programs. So what you do through ASTA is very important.

Jeffrey Solow: And not only that. One of the great things about the arts is that often there are kids in school who can’t stand math, science and history and don’t want to learn about those things even though everyone tells them they are good. But,k when they get into an arts program where they are actually creating something themselves, they can really become engaged. And once you are engaged in something then that energy and interest spreads out to other things. Eric Booth, a fabulous arts advocacy and Teaching Artist trainer (in which you learn to do outreach) often says that any entry point to an art form is valid. That is so true, and when you can get kids really engaged in art they can get engaged in learning, and then that carries over to lots of other things in addition to the arts.

Just recently when I was playing a music festival in Juneau, Alaska, I did a radio interview before our upcoming program of Shostakovich and the interviewer asked, “If you were trying to convince a teenager to come to this concert, what would you say?” I answered that the music is exciting, etc… you know, the usual comments… and after the interview, I was talking to my friend Paul Rosenthal, who is a fantastic violinist…

String Visions: Yes, he was the founder of the Sitka Festival in Alaska.

Jeffrey Solow: … yes. So, I asked Paul: “What would you say?  How would you answer that?” and he came up with what I thought was absolutely the best answer for that question. First, he said the same thing that I did earlier in our conversation, that music is one of the great achievements of humanity. But, then he suggested something to this effect: “Even if you’ve tried it before and haven’t liked it, it’s worth trying again because if so many people in the world say that this is really great, maybe it’s worth considering that perhaps there is something worthwhile in it.” The analogy occurred to me that when you are very young there are certain foods that you try and can’t stand, but then a few years later you try the same food and you discover that your taste has changed and now you love it.

String Visions: Yes, I can relate to that.

Jeffrey Solow: I think that the same thing is true with music. When there is something that you have never much liked but that others who you respect consider really great, it’s worthwhile revisiting it every so often because you might find that your taste has changed and you now like it. I know that I’ve done that. For example, the first time I heard a Bartok quartet, the music didn’t speak to me or interest me, But, periodically I would make myself listen to them because I knew that so many people said the Bartok quartets were the 20-century equivalent of the Beethoven quartets and I thought: “You know, really important musicians that I respect have said this, so there’s got to be something that I’m not finding, and I better keep pushing myself to listen.” Then the right time in your life comes and you realize, “I get it now.”

String Visions: Many famous artists were not accepted at first, and many authors and composers were first really understood long after they were gone. So we all have to really stick to what we believe in.

To get back to ASTA, how is music advocacy being promoted?

Jeffrey Solow: ASTA does this in a number of ways. One is that we have training tools, resources, and effective methodologies that can be very helpful if a community needs to mount a campaign with a school board to save an orchestra program. We also offer effective advice about what you should do—and not do. For instance, you have to get the parents of students to talk to the school board because if teachers talk to them, the school board isn’t going to care. They’ll think, “Well, these are people who are just trying to protect their jobs.”

String Visions: That’s true, so the parents have a very important role.

Jeffrey Solow: Yes. When parents say: “This program is important to us,” school boards listen. And that’s not something that you would necessarily think of if someone that wasn’t an expert in advocacy didn’t tell you that this is the way to do it. ASTA also does advocacy on a national scale through lobbying efforts and making sure that we participate in meetings with senators and representatives when they have arts days or other events. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re establishing alliances with organizations such as NAfME—the National Association for Music Education—what used to be MENC.


String Visions: I saw on your website all those beautiful underwater pictures. You scuba dive as a hobby?

Jeffrey Solow: Yes. Unfortunately I don’t get to do too much—once or twice a year—but I have a cello sitting on my piano all set to take underwater!

String Visions: Are you kidding me?

Jeffrey Solow: No.

String Visions: How and why would you do that? You want to try to play it underwater?

Jeffrey Solow: Luthier David Mitchie gave me an old cello that looks pretty good but that’s not worth anything. I want to take some pictures with it underwater and also to see what happens to a cello underwater. Little by little the glue will dissolve, you know, and it will come apart. [Laughs]

String Visions: But you have to bring a lot of air with you to see that.

Jeffrey Solow: That’s true. I don’t know how long it’ll take.

String Visions: [Laughs] That’s fascinating.

Jeffrey Solow: It can be an art piece all in itself, you know, conceptual Art. [Laughs]

String Visions: You should bring a famous photographer with you down there to take the pictures.  That will be very fascinating.

Jeffrey Solow: That’s my plan!

String Visions: I can’t wait to see that.  Thank you so much for your time and your wonderful knowledge.

If you missed the beginning of this interview series, check out part 1 where Mr. Solow discusses his ideas on teaching. Also, to see a complete listing of his music with Ovation Press visit Jeffrey Solow’s editor rofile

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