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Tavis Smiley talks about his latest special report on conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the fate of music education

Kam Williams | 12/29/2010, 6:48 a.m.
(Photos courtesy of TS Media, Inc.) Tavis Smiley talks about his latest special report on conductor Gustavo...

That’s a very good question. One of the greatest artists ever, Stevie Wonder, was listening to classical music and playing jazz, like John Coltrane, when he was 13. I’m always amazed at how many artists in all sorts of genres started out taking piano lessons and playing classical. But I do understand the concern, and I even asked Dudamel in the special. “How do you get young folk interested in Beethoven and Brahms, when they’d rather listen to Beyoncé?” His response was basically that it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both/and. They don’t have to choose Beyoncé over Brahms or vice-versa. The kids should be exposed to both.   

The music education of El Sistema focuses on classic European music for the most part. What about the music of indigenous peoples?

The short answer is: I think there’s room for everything. Dudamel himself is an advocate of exposing the kids to everything. But the reality is that at the moment they’re being exposed to nothing.

Should music education also include music business education given the history of artists of color signing bad contracts and getting ripped-off?

Yes. I think that as people get deeper into the music, especially if they’re contemplating a career in music, they certainly should be taught about those business issues. That being said, there is still so much music has to offer, whether or not we ever go into the music business.

Since our country does not have the kind of state system we see in where children are recruited at an early age and trained at state expense, how can we find our talented young artists, especially among the youth whose parents can’t afford private lessons?

As you know, in this special, we profile a school in Boston where students get music education along with the regular curriculum. Their school day is a little longer, but the kids love it because they get to play music everyday. That’s the sort of program where you discover the prodigies, the gifted ones with potential. That’s how Dudamel was discovered.  

With newspaper headlines announcing how far behind we are in math, science and reading, how can we continue to demonstrate that the arts ­— not just music —  are part of the educational empowerment of America’s best and brightest.

Like I said before, all of the research indicates that when kids are exposed to music early in life, it positively impacts their comprehension and performance in every other area of their studies: math, the sciences, and so forth.

Give us three words which define Tavis Smiley.  

Passionate, committed and hard working.

Do you have another book project in mind?

It’s funny you should ask that. I do. In fact, I have it sitting on my lap. I’m editing it right now. It’s called “Failed Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure.” The book is about the biggest mistakes I made in my life and how I learned from them. The publication date is May 1.