October 2, 2016
Dear Superintendent Sullivan:
I send you this letter just having returned from a two-day residency at Metea Valley High School. Ostensibly I was there for the great pleasure of being awarded Honorary Lifetime Membership in the Tri-M Music Honor Society. This the more consequential in light of the fact that your school maintains the largest Tri-M Society in the United States. During my time with your music faculty and students, I had extensive interaction with virtually the entire musical life of the school. I gave clinics to two ensembles, visited several music classes, and made motivation speeches to everyone involved with the music program. I also observed the work of, or had meaningful conversations with your music teachers.
I want to tell you what a privilege it was to participate in such an inspiring and remarkable music education environment. Your music staff are absolutely top class, dedicated, eager to learn, and, most impressively, continue to ask hard questions of themselves. I have had the good fortune to visit hundreds of American high school music programs in my decade-long role as a consultant to the Guitar Center, the Conn-Selmer Corporation, the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium, and the National Association for Music Education. Keen to understand how school music programs function, how successful they are, and the core challenges they face, I have travelled across the country observing, interviewing, and providing guidance to music educators and administrators. While I have found excellence more than occasionally and have seen up close a number of outstanding music curricula and gifted teachers, your school stands apart. Let me say why.
First of all, the best, performance-oriented music departments tend, with few exceptions, to rely on a demography of middle to upper income families. Commonly, the strong orchestra-centered schools count a significant Asian population and are situated in suburban geographies. The band-centric schools often derive their successes from a legacy or tradition of primary commitment to marching band. Of course there are exceptions. Your school, however, is the ONLY one I have encountered which claims its preeminence by a unique penumbra of assets. Breadth of offerings, a richly diverse student body, superbly creative faculty, and, not least, a pedagogical philosophy which sees the goal of music instruction to be about the student, about the capacity to transform and change the lives of young people; these are the defining qualities at Metea Valley. The resulting performance standard is very high but the process for achieving it magically conflates instructional skill and deep regard for the welfare of every student.
You are to be commended for your unflagging support of this educational treasure. Aware that administrators are under constant pressure to justify what happens every day in their schools, continue to make difficult decisions vis-à-vis budgets, I applaud your resolve and genuine care for why music matters. I am sure you are conversant with the robust data on the neurological impact of music study. Meta-analysis repeatedly shows that doing music enhances brain power. But there is something more something more profound which inheres in the very act of learning music. Over my life in our profession, I am more convinced than ever that music-making, even irrespective of proficiency, enriches the meaning of life itself. Rare indeed is that case made more dramatically clear than in your school.
I loved my Metea days. Fifty years in our profession as a kind of Johnny Appleseed for the cause of music education has brought me both concern and hope. Visiting your school, your students happy, motivated, and amazingly mature, your faculty the epitome of dedication and grace, your community of parents and friends animate and wholly devoted to the breathtaking alchemy of musical immersion, even your facilities humming like a Mozart aria, all these striking examples of sentience writ large filled me with a sense of well-being, a kind of manna for the soul. This is how schools should define purpose and Metea Valley is the epiphany of same, unequalled in my experience.
Special kudos to fine arts chair, Donald Devany, leader extraordinaire whose blend of evolving wisdom and humor made my stay rewarding and fun. Big props to orchestra conductor, Mark Liu, a musical illuminati and my inviter, and band director Glen Schneider, mensch and new friend. Both of these gentlemen let me mess with their ensembles. Choir leader, Paulette Boddy was a voice of special insight and kindness, my chauffeur and new soulmate. Props as well to Robin Sackschewsky, who got stuck driving me around, Josh Kaminsky, who was saddled with introducing me at the award ceremony, Claire Fenton, Michael Naughton, Nathan Bramstedt, and Melinda Arnold, each or whom impressed me as a dedicated and exceptionally purposeful educator. All were incredibly supportive in helping me negotiate a whirlwind visit choc-a-bloc with events.
With my heartfelt appreciation and respect,
Larry J. Livingston
Chair, Department of Conducting
Thornton School of Music
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0851