Here in Pennsylvania, we face a number of ecological challenges. Big business has decimated our beautiful home. Texan multinational corporations are putting leaky (and exploding) gas pipelines across the commonwealth (a month doesn't seem to go by without the local news reporting on a new leak!). When we fish, we can't eat more than about a small fish a week from most of our waterways, which is due to high PCB and mercury levels. Strip mining and mountaintop removal has long destroyed our rural ecosystems and communities. Lets add coal ash contamination to our ever-growing list of big business generated ecological crises.
According to a recent report, nine of Pennsylvania's power plants are leaking coal ash into our groundwater. "At one former coal plant near Pittsburgh, arsenic levels in the groundwater are 372 times EPA’s safe drinking water standards." When this happens, it's us taxpayers who have to foot the bill for cleaning our drinking water. And this is at a time when the tax burden is already needlessly high in Pennsylvania. As a father of a four-year-old; I really long for the past, when our lazy summer days could be spent with families at our beautiful State Parks, fishing and cooking our catch for an afternoon picnic. Of course, we should still appreciate our State Parks (but I'd stay away from eating too many of the fish!). It doesn't matter if you live in one of our large cities, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, or across the rolling hills at the center of our commonwealth; our State Parks and protected lands, and even those non-protected ecosystems are our shared heritage. We have long protected wilderness, and game land, and other sites because of their importance to all of us. Our collective heritage and duty. But our current government is failing at protecting our shared heritage from big business interests.
There's a lot I can do as a parent, as a church parishioner, and as a citizen. But, what can I do as a music teacher? What can other music teachers do? We are uniquely situated in schools (I teach at Penn State Altoona part time, and State College Friends school with their after-school program--previously I taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools). Unlike our counterparts who teach reading and math, we don't often have pre-set curricula, scripts, and standardized testing to facilitate for the government and businessmen at Pearson. What we music teachers do have is control over what we teach and how we teach it: as long as when the Principal shows up she sees good work being done, which can be accomplished in many ways. I suggest that we have to pick up the work other teachers cannot accomplish (with their hands tied behind their backs). Music provides distinctive opportunities to open space for conversations that matter. It is important that students, especially in high school, know what's happening environmentally at the local- and state- levels. If we're conducting a band piece about national parks, or singing a pastoral song in choir, or designing an interdisciplinary lesson in general music; we have opportunities to facilitate conversations around environmental issues that our students are facing. We can open space by bringing up a local issue, and see how our students share their opinions and ideas. We don't have to dominate the conversation with our opinions. Let them talk about it in their own language; using their own ideas. This may even provide ideas for student-lead informances when concerts come around. Our students, after all, will be the active citizens, parents, church parishioners, and musicians of the next generation. And we (we with them) will have to clean up the mess we have made here in Pennsylvania.