One thing that anyone involved in arts education should keep in mind is the ancient dictum: When you talk to squirrels, talk a lot about acorns.

The education of musicians (maybe other arts as well, but I only know about musicians) has a number of Mount Rushmore-sized gaps in it that are neither easy to see (tradition and habit blind us) nor easy to fix (Ocean Liner Curricula, i.e. tradition, habit, vested interest, etc).

One gap is the lack of sufficient and useful training (especially early on) in the aural side of musicianship: sound before sign (or symbol) learning, improvisation & composition (thinking in music), and so on, which contain powerful motivators, learning tools, and build adaptability into the musical DNA of the musician to be able to survive and even thrive in this century (instead of being ready for the 19th as our current education prepares us, mostly). This part is a matter of ossification of attitudes and the status quo – just try to squeeze a new course into the curriculum no matter what the merits – no time, no room(s), it’s not what we’ve done before, the excuses go on and on. The climate is getting colder, but the dinosaurs see no reason to change anything, we’ll have a committee study the matter and then forget about it.

The other grievous gap is training in the business side of the arts. If it’s all scales and no Entrepreneurship, we are house cats thrown into the jungle without claws, puppy dogs thrown into the wilds without teeth. We should all learn how to start and run a business along with scales and arpeggios; at least be taught the basics, the vocabulary and outline of business (including marketing, building effective web sites, applying for grants, and so on) practices, and so on. We could use this to help survive in this era of Cut Everything Even (or Especially) the Good Stuff.

A smidgeon of this kind of training might enable us to better Talk to Squirrels. While we were all working on scales and arpeggios, some other folks were using the time to get ahead in the business world. Or go to law school. Those are the kind of folks most likely to end up writing laws and making big salaries in business. Money talks, and big companies spend millions every year on lobbyists to influence what and how laws are written. We can’t compete in that area – we have some organizations and some wonderful people in them working to get the message out, but somehow it seems that that message is not getting across. We have some basic marketing problems: in spite of overwhelming evidence of the manifold positive benefits of arts education for the individual and for society, it’s hard to weigh it, count it, or point to any instantaneous results. We live in a culture whose credo seems to be “If at first you don’t succeed – brilliantly – quit! But let us sell you something in that area.” We have a culture that would rather spend $50 on more prisons than $1 on communities, youth programs, etc. We would rather wait until a bridge collapses than keep it in repair – think of all the money we save before it collapses! Balance sheets have to show profit every single quarter. Investment in the future is pejoratively labeled ‘spending!’ and cancelled or gutted. How do we promote a long-term investment like arts education in a culture that values the ultra-short term?

It’s not easy, but I think that Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) is on to something. Maybe our Acorn Parley needs to shift from talk about the clear and obvious human benefits of arts education to something else. (Remember that famous Gary Larsen cartoon? The man is scolding the dog: “Ginger! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, don’t pee on the carpet! Ginger! What’s the matter with you? If I ever catch you…” And so on. It shows what the dog actually hears: “Ginger. Blah blah blah blah Ginger. Blah blah blah Ginger. Blah blah…”. I think that is what lawmakers and others in power hear when they hear us talk about the benefits of arts education. “Blah blah blah Arts. Blah blah blah blah arts education. Blah blah….”).

Acorn time. Maybe we should cut out the blah blah about the vital necessity of the arts as a part of any healthy society and talk about the shortest term things we can find. And talk about the direct financial benefits for businesses and for fiscal health. Pink’s Conceptual Age needs people who can not only draw straight lines, but who can come up with solutions that involve curlicues and folding the paper over to write on the back. The bloom of the former boom of the Information Age is past. While we will always need computer specialists, businesses have not been slow to discover that they can hire an extremely competent computer specialist in Mumbai to write software or do customer support for 1/7th the cost of hiring someone in this country. Where we have the potential to do great things is in promoting L-directed thinking. And this is where arts education comes in. At all levels, starting from the beginning. Get everyone making music, drawing pictures, dancing. Open community centers with arts training programs and offer space for practice. Educate everyone in the arts all the way along, and give them tools and permission to express themselves freely, not just in big groups or ensembles. You never know who is going to have the next great idea to redesign the future, so you educate everyone. Arts study lights up the brain – literally – have a look at brain scan research. Arts connect people. Arts open people’s hearts and minds, make them adaptable, flexible, ready for the future, and enable them to help invent the future. Here’s the acorn, in a (ahem) nutshell: arts education is good for business.

Some countries have figured this out and are pursuing it with gusto. I think it’s time to start talking some serious acorns to selected squirrels. If we can do this, if we can get this nutshell across, the whole society will be much the better for it, and into the future.

If we don’t learn to talk acorns…. or if the squirrels don’t listen…. then maybe the next language we learn should be Mandarin.