Fostering a String-Music Revolution

By Lusterman, David A. | Strings, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

Fostering a String-Music Revolution

Lusterman, David A., Strings

The band-instrument trade made school bands and instruction part of the national culture. Why can't we do the same for strings?

The upward curve is steady and unmistakable: The market for new student-level stringed instruments grew from 85,000 units with a retail value of $38.3 million in 1988 to 117,000 units with a value of $64.4 million a decade later, as reported by the International Music Products Association (formerly NAMM) in its annual report, Music USA: A Statistical Review of the U.S. Music Products Industry. This 72 percent increase in the retail value of the student stringed-instrument market is matched almost precisely by growth in the music-- products industry as a whole, from $3.7 billion in 1988 to $6.5 billion in 1998, a change of 73 percent.

Good news? Of course it is. Growth such as this means more American kids playing more violins, violas, cellos, and basses-an average of nearly four percent more students every year-and more jobs for music teachers. That means a new generation of adult string players is coming up to sustain the demand for professional-quality instruments made by the luthiers of today and tomorrow. Those same adults will also replace the nucleus of today's aging audience for classical music, taking their seats in symphony halls and chamber recital rooms around the country. What's not to like?

Well, maybe the news isn't quite so good. Seen from a slightly different point of view, this period of growth for the music industry, and for the economy as a whole, might also be considered a decade of stagnation and missed opportunities. If the entire music-products industry grew by 73 percent, why get enthusiastic over a modest segment of the market that grew at precisely the same rate? Yes, the demand for new student instruments grew 38 percent (that's instruments, by the way, not dollars spent on those instruments, where the growth was greater). But in that same decade, demand for guitars rose 104 percent, drum kits rose 79 percent, and brass winds 54 percent. Add one more element to the mix-namely, a shortfall in new string players entering the teaching profession-- and the rosy picture takes on some alarmingly dark shades.

Simply put, things may have improved for the U.S. string community in recent years, but not nearly so much as they might have. As publisher of this magazine and an observer of the string scene, I've become increasingly curious about what our community-and the string trade especially-wants for itself. Are we content with the current rates of growth? Are we happy with the overall place of string music in the arts and in society? Do we want more opportunities for people to learn to play stringed instruments, more chances to hear string music, a more visible and audible position in the musical culture of our time? If so, what are we doing to foster such opportuneties? How, and where, do we think we can be effective? And can we begin to agree on the effects we desire?

Sandra Dackow, in her recent "Letter from America" (August/September 2000), wrote passionately and persuasively on the need to develop a public-education culture of tax-funded, curriculum-based string and orchestral instruction that would pervade our nation's schools as broadly and deeply as wind and band instruction has for many decades. She declared, "Over the past century we have evolved a unique and powerful model of public-school instrumental music in America. There is access to instrumental music study (band instruments) in more than 98 percent of our nation's school districts. But according to recent surveys by Judith Delzell and Paul Doerksen and by Camille Smith, as cited in the May 2000 issue of American String Teacher, the rub seems to be that fewer than 20 percent of these same schools offer string instruction or the opportunity to play in an orchestra. Moreover, a comparison of these statistics with those of two decades ago shows no significant change since the early 1980s. …

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