Broken records, broken dreams: A crisis in Arizona arts funding

Since I was in fourth grade, I have played the cello. It's an instrument, for those unfamiliar, that's smaller than a string bass but larger than a violin. It is an instrument that matches the range of the human voice most closely.

While I was first tempted by the promise of a middle school trip to Disneyland (Disney's churros are rewarding), I kept with it as so many of my peers quit music and didn't take advantage of the opportunities given to them at such a young age.

I think this is because there's a certain stigma to playing a stringed instrument: it's boring and shows little result. There's actually so much more than just learning to play, and that in and of itself is a rewarding experience.

Throughout middle school and high school, most of my social group came from playing in an orchestra. Being in music taught me many things besides putting my bow on the string, from politics to selective hearing to patience.

In college, I've had the pleasure of taking MUS 394: Chamber Music for Non-Majors. This class, taught by the Tetra String Quartet, really drove home how important chamber and orchestral music is to me and the impact its made on my life.

The quartet formed for the class continues on and changes to match the interest we have in different eras or music or even moods that each piece has. We've played pieces ranging from Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet to Grieg's 1st String Quartet.

What I've described is what's at stake in this election year. Millions of students could have the chance to play an instrument, sing, dance or act, but our state simply doesn't support that kind of creative expression.

A 2010 study found that Arizona ranks 50th — dead last — in the amount of money we spend to support arts and expression.

Another study found that 79 percent of schools spend less than $1 per year on arts education.

In the Scottsdale Unified School District, an aversion to property taxes caused the district to propose "eliminating all art, music and physical education in K-5," according to an Arizona Republic article. The district dodged that, but arts keeps coming up on the chopping block.

Those facts are ridiculously depressing. This may be a time of lean state budgets, but the passion and worldview that I learned by playing the cello is priceless. The only time I could have picked up this skill was in elementary school, before it was too late to learn.

It may seem unimportant to fund the arts and waste valuable class time while so many people want to turn today's elementary schoolers into STEM drones.

STEM, while important for the future of the U.S., does not give the entire brain stimulation. We need the arts so that we can see the world from a different point of view. We need the arts so that we can learn how to be human again.


Reach the columnist at or follow him on Twitter @petenorthfelt

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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