AbelsColor_lowres.jpg“Music should either touch your soul or make you dance,” Michael Abels says, and though he admits there is a lot of music out there that doesn’t do either, those should be the goals.  “I always ask my students ‘what is the purpose of your music?’  You can’t create it unless you know what you want it to do.”

Abels, 45, is a Los Angeles-based composer and educator who heads the Music Program at the progressive New Roads School in Santa Monica, a private K-12  school that–upscale zip code, notwithstanding–has a very diverse student population, with nearly half of the students on scholarship.   For Abels, that’s one of the things that makes New Roads a special place.  

“Although blacks and Latinos make up 25 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise only about 4 percent of the country’s professional orchestra musicians,” he says.  “Part of this is economic; a professional music education costs a lot, but a lot of it is cultural.  Promising minority kids often don’t get the encouragement or mentoring they need to push them to next level.”

Abels, whose own background is as all-American as apple pie and ribs, has certainly done his part.  He spent the first of two Meet the Composer grants on a three-year New Residencies program at the Watts Tower Arts Center in South Central Los Angeles where, in addition to composing the music  for the community-oriented Cornerstone Theater, and a work for the USC Percussion Ensemble, he  began a mentoring program for disadvantaged youths in music technology and production techniques.

More recently, Abels has been partnering with the Sphinx Organization, a non-profit organization dedicated to building diversity in classical music, and with the Harlem Quartet,  an ensemble comprised of 1st place Laureates of the Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino String Players.  The Quartet is a  group of young musicians who spend as much time bringing music into their communities as they do performing in concert halls.  All of which is  part of a nationwide movement to help increase the number of Blacks and Latinos in music schools, as professional musicians, and in classical music audiences. 

Abels’s piece Delights and Dances, (Think the love child of Stravinsky and Copland with a bit of Gershwin for garnish, one longtime S21 reader describes it)  written to celebrate the Sphinx Organization’s 10th anniversary, will be played by the Harlem Quartet at its annual Sphinx Laureates concert Tuesday evening, September 25, at 6:00 pm, on Carnegie Hall.   

I can’t wait to see if it makes me cry or dance.

p.s. (There will also be music by some cats named J.S. Bach, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson,  Astor Piazzolla, joaquín Turina and Duke Ellington).




12 Responses to “Practice, Man. Practice.”
  1. Kurt Brown says:

    I apologize Lisa. Your heart is obviously in the right place. It’s a little too easy for me to characterize an opposing view as a rant when I haven’t had enough sleep 🙂

    Based on the discussion here, I’m confident that if all of us were face to face in the same room, there would be enough common ground that we could agree on a curriculum for the kids we all care about.

    Group hug.

  2. Lisa says:

    Kurt, Michael is obviously a tireless educator and an exceptional human being. But I think it is fair to disagree on a fine point without it being dismissed as a rant. As a professional educator working with marginalized kids I am passionate about these issues and I crave discussion about them.

  3. Kurt Brown says:

    Lisa, I wish you could have been with Michael when he was using his classical training and his ear for all kinds of music to teach his kids in the projects at Watts how to turn their ideas into hip hop scratches and samples that spoke their thoughts and ideas in a new way.

    I wish you could have seen the kids in Compton perform his Hip Hopera “Homies and Popz” — based on a true story of the cricket team of the same name which was founded by Ted Hayes, who also felt that adding some European culture (cricket, in this case) into the mix would be good for disadvantaged kids, bangers and the homeless. Spend some time Googling it.

    I find it almost unbelievably ironic that you pick a story about a man like this to rant about “submission” under “European models.” Have you even heard his music?

  4. Andrew says:

    Who is this “Hayden” person in the spell checker?

  5. david toub says:

    Rodney, I agree with you 100%

    Why not teach the most stimulating, exciting, intellectually intense music ever written?

    And that would be? Uh, not necessarily Western music, at least in my book. Some might think of it as such because that’s what they know. But not if you’re from Yemen. Or Kenya. Or Bali. Etc.

    jerry, I agree with you as well, although I understand Lisa’s point, but do think that musical/artistic segregation is a bad thing. Like how us western types have segregated ourselves from a universe of great music outside our own confines.

  6. Lisa says:

    Jeff, fair enough. You think this one line of European music is fundamentally superior. I think that speaks for its self. I appreciate your honesty.

    David, We must reach out to all kids. But we must do it in a way that serves them best, that empowers them to grow up and resist the worst of us. (Reading on Paulo Freire these days.)

    Jerry, I guess I’m saying that I see some hope in the fucked up, segregated, violent schools Ive worked in, some real chance to resist the kind of hegemony you are talking about, the kind of hegemony that has us ALL heading for disaster. Getting these kids off Hyphy and on to Hayden seems a way to silence this energy. Don’t you all think this S21 community and the music you all are making is somehow resisting the worst of our empire?

    Golijov is doing allot of things. Music by itself is just too complicated a political act for me to ever muster an opinion about, but teaching music is simpler.

    Rodney, all kinds of music can speak to all kinds of people. That is clear. When I first taught in an absolutely segregated elementary school in NYC I was shocked to find that kids lived and breathed at least a few oral traditions that go back hundreds of years. Hambone is alive and well in Brooklyn. (But not in my spell checker – Hayden is.) It is on fire even. Lets expose kids to everything, but lets really support and provide opportunities for the advanced cultures that are already exploding from their minds and bodies.

  7. Rodney Lister says:

    It makes me profoundly sad to think that it might be true that Bach and Beethoven and Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Debussy and Mozart and Haydn can only have meaning for and be important to white people. Of for that matter than Ellington, Coltrane, Armstrong, or Coleman could only speak to black people.

  8. andrea says:

    Lisa, I don’t think your fears are unfounded, but I do think that their attempt to program Ellington, Coleridge-Taylor, etc., is a step in the right direction. It would be ideal to have a program where kids learn a few different traditions at the same time: blues guitar, classical bassoon, and tabla. It would be a lot of practicing; perhaps too demanding. But it could be set up in a way that is empowering and not overwhelming.

    Alex Ross has a sweet interview with Yo-Yo Ma on his blog that touches upon similar issues.

  9. Jerry Bowles says:

    Lisa, Lisa, Lisa. We live in a multicultural world. It may not seem like it sometimes but black and white and anglo and hispanic are concepts that are slowly fading away as the forces of immigration and mass communication touches everyone everywhere (with the possible exception of the Arab world). Your liberal white person approach to the evils of segregation and apartheid is more segregation and apartheid. Are you suggesting, for example, that an Argentine-born Jewish composer like Golijov, who lives in America and draws influences from the tango and the klezmer tradition is somehow betraying his true self because he is is trained and writes music in the European tradition? Believe it or not, many people are capable of appreciating and learning from both Ellington and Elgar.

  10. David Salvage says:

    So, Lisa, if we reach out, we’re colonialists; if we keep to ourselves, we’re insular and elitist?

    No one here is forcing young musicians to be servants; they are creators and will bring their own backgrounds to European music. The latter will develop and change through their participation, and these kids will be exposed to music they might well not have be exposed to otherwise. I don’t see the problem.

  11. Because many of us frankly like European music better than African or other continent’s musics. We find it more stimulating, richer, more expressive, more varied in its melodic and textural approaches AND more exciting. We can love every culture’s music but there are many many good reasons to promote European-influenced arts.

    Why not teach the most stimulating, exciting, intellectually intense music ever written? Share the wealth.

    We should be sharing the BEST art forms our world has to offer and encouraging their adoption and appreciation. Not the most common. And this is just my opinion. 😉

  12. Lisa says:

    “All of which is part of a nationwide movement to help increase the number of Blacks and Latinos in music schools, as professional musicians, and in classical music audiences.”

    This is a dangerous mission. Why European music? Seems to me like a last step in a centuries long attempt to purge Black Americans of their African heritage, a last step towards eliminating the ability to resist.

    If you haven’t seen the insides of a federal prison or an urban public school in a while you might not know what I’m talking about.

    The influence of Western Europe on Africa has been and continues to be a living nightmare. My students seem to know this in their hearts even before they have the words to articulate it. Convincing these kids to embrace European models (economic, musical, political, etc.) is a step in the wrong direction, a step towards the final submission. These kids need more Elizabeth Cotten, Sun Ra, and Keak Da Sneak. They need to know that their relatives have been and continue to be part of a long incredibly rich tradition of music, ideas, and politics that are in some ways fundamentally at war with European culture and its empire.