Ethos Rural Music Education Program

I came across this article about a rural music education program in Oregon. I have mixed feelings, of course. The author, James Bash, writes: ”If you ever grew up out in the middle of nowhere, you might have an understanding of how hard it is to acquire a music education. Some small towns might still have a church organist or someone who plays a little piano or guitar, but others have no one at all. That’s where the Ethos’ Rural Music Program and its coordinator Megan Moran come in. Ethos, a Portland-based non-profit music organization, has offered several ways to bring affordable music education to rural areas across Oregon, and Moran is the program’s coordinator. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington, played in the Portland Youth Philharmonic, and graduated from Lewis & Clark College. She balances her rural coordinator job with freelance work as a music librarian at the Oregon Symphony, freelance violin gigs with ensembles like the Bach Cantata Choir Chamber Orchestra and the Oregon East Symphony, and teaching at summer music camps.”

I am sure that these are all well-meaning people. However, as someone who grew up in a very rural area, I find some of the assumptions to be rather offensive. First, like so many other rural folk, I did call where I came from the “middle of nowhere.” But, think about the connotation–that some places are nowhere with nothing to see and nothing to do. In fact, friends from the city would often ask us, “What do you do out there? Don’t you get bored?” The thing is, we were never bored growing up. There is always something to do and much to see. Some people have started turning “middle of nowhere around” around and saying “halfway to everywhere”, but I’m not sure that’s much better–the implications are similar. Anyway, that’s my first critique.

Second, the idea that rural children don’t have access to music or have less access than suburban or urban children is an anti-rural cultural assumption; it’s biased. It is true that suburban children may have more access to a sequential music curriculum in schools and formal private music instruction. They may also be more likely to listen to classical music. However, school music and classical music do not constitute MUSIC. There is much music outside of school and many genres of great music other than classical music. You can even have access to music without a radio. Also, formal instruction is not the only way to learn to play a musical instrument. I grew up in an extremely rural area (see previous posts) in a musically rich environment. We played guitars, accordions, and piano. We had cassette tapes and records to listen to even though we lived well below the poverty level. And we weren’t “exceptions to the rule” because there is no rule–only biases about social class and place.

There are some things in the article that I like. I am glad that people are interested in rural places and I was encouraged by the interest in teaching rural children how to play the guitar. Hopefully it’s not a classical, notation based guitar curriculum. Also, it’s cool that the project involved partnerships with local music groups.

Overall, I hate to be “glass is half empty” when well-meaning people are interested in assisting rural children, but I would be less-than-honest if I only spoke out in the affirmative.  What can we do for rural children and their music education? Let’s embrace and help rural children deepen understandings of local musical cultures and even local preferences for popular music. How about experiences in Country or Tejano music, for example? Maybe a school could develop country music bands like this one in Australia (I can’t find any in the US !)


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