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Poetry By Heart. Is it Smart?

January 10, 2013

Reading about the British Government's poetry recitation initiative for school children, Poetry By Heart, in The Guardian over the past few days brings to mind another recent attempt by the UK authorities to inculcate school kids with more sensitivity and smarts through cultural engagement.

The scheme I am thinking of is Sing Up!, which was a government-backed project that ran for four years from 2007 to 2010 to get school kids singing regularly.

Primary schools all over England received training and formed choirs. They learned songs from special songbooks that had been created for the program and worked to achieve various levels of attainment. To promote Sing Up!, the initiative was spearheaded by the composer Howard Goodall, who was dubbed the UK's "Singing Ambassador." At the height of the project, around 90% of schoolchildren in England were involved in Sing Up! according to Bridget Whyte, who was one of the key figures involved in planning and executing the scheme.

Poetry By Heart also has a dedicated poetry anthology as well as a public figurehead in the form of Andrew Motion. There's a strong competitive element to the initiative.

Sing Up! and Poetry by Heart both seem to be guided by the same positive impulse: that kids who get comfortable with activities like singing and reciting poems are more likely to be more engaged human beings.

But I wonder how much genuine good such initiatives really do? It's all very well running a national poetry recitation contest for a few months in 2013. But what about the sustainability that's necessary for truly inculcating the spirit of poetry in students' minds and hearts?

It took a while for Sing Up! to get off the ground. Bridget told me that things were slow to get going and only eventually snowballed their way to success. And even with a plan that continued on for several years, the good work that Sing Up! achieved seems challenged at this point in time owing to a change in business model. The government stopped funding the initiative after the initial four year grant and now it is meant to be self-sustaining through schools paying to be members.

But apparently -- and unsurprisingly -- many UK schools are not very happy about having to pay for the project's resources, which used to be free to them when they were government-funded. As a result, Sing Up! seems to be losing some traction as an agent of change in music education.

What does this mean for Poetry by Heart? I guess that what I am getting at here is that cultural initiatives in the schools can be powerful tools for developing young minds. But if really careful thought isn't given to the long-term sustainability of these endeavors, then their value must be questioned.

A Quick Rant About iTunes

January 9, 2013

I hate iTunes. It's official.

Organizing my digital music collection has always been tricky. Many of the recordings I own aren't commercially available so the data often fails to correspond to the tidy, pop music-oriented categories prescribed by the application.

But since my computer prompted me to download the latest version of the iTunes software a few months ago, the situation has become worse.

At least in the past I used to be able to search my iTunes library in a generic way using whatever term I thought might appear in a recording I wanted to access.

But now that the software seems to force users to search for tracks under the specific categories of songs, albums, artists, genres, videos, playlists and radio, I frequently can't find what I'm looking for. This is due to the fact that the data that goes with many of my recordings isn't categorized "properly" according to the limited iTunes classification system.

When it comes to looking for tracks in a genre like classical music, this has proved particularly frustrating. If I'm in the "song" category, do I search for the title of a complete work or an individual movement? And is the "artist" box filled by the name of an orchestra, an individual soloist or a composer?

In short, I feel like abandoning the latest version of iTunes and going back to the older interface, which at least didn't penalize me for having a non-conformist music collection.


A Day at the MFA

January 7, 2013

It's no surprise that Mario Testino's photographs, some of the most iconic of which are currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are  attracting thundering hordes.

The images, which I ogled yesterday on my first ever visit to the MFA, are huge, colorful, sexy and packed with celebrities and super models from Madonna to Kate Moss. 

But besides Testino's brilliantly disconcerting image of the actor Ashton Kutcher looking Photoshop perfect in a pristine white suit with an arm savagely torn at the elbow to reveal the wires and cables of a robot, I was completely bored by the eye candy on display. It amounts to little more than celebrity porn, even if the colors are rich, the prints, glossy, and the torsos depicted, beautiful. 

Of much greater interest is the museum's current The Postcard Age exhibition. The show brings together around 400 postcards from the collection of Leonard A. Lauder. What's fascinating in our age of Twitter, Facebook and email is how powerful the postcard was a hundred years ago not only as a medium of communication, but also as a means of transmitting political, social and commercial messages. Plus, many of the tiny canvases on display are gorgeous works of art. 

I was particularly struck by a pair of postcards depicting photographs of men's neckties on which scantily-clad ladies clung to the central knots. Cards like these apparently inspired the surrealist art movement. A card with a painting of a fat man running down a beach with arms outstretched above the tagline "Skegness is so bracing" made me laugh:  Anyone who grew up in the UK would find this reference to the windswept and barren resort town of "Skeggy" to be funny. 

The exhibition is packed with small wonders that reveal a world of rich communications that seem so much more tactile and personal than the mediums that proliferate today. 

Oh, and I should mention how much I enjoyed wondering around parts of the MFA's permanent collection too. The museum has clearly thought a lot about how to activate spaces that might attract less people than big-draw exhibitions such as the Testino photography show. 

In one of the more gaudy nineteenth century American art galleries packed with white marble sculptures, it was fascinating to chat with a young man who was demonstrating and answering questions about how sculptors work with stone. He was seated in the middle of the room at a table with a plaster cast bust and a stone bust as well as a bunch of artist's tools. The presence of the docent in this capacity makes people slow down and pay attention to the work in a gallery that might otherwise be more of a "walk-through" space.