Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Getting to Know Bruce Carter

What better way to welcome Dr. Bruce Carter to the National Council on the Arts than by introducing him to you, our beautiful reading public? A resident of Miami Beach, Carter received his master’s in music from the Peabody Conservatory and his PhD in music education from Northwestern University. With a diverse background in research, arts education, and music composition, Carter has done everything from leading public school orchestras and researching issues of creativity to serving on the editorial committee of the Music Educators Journal. We recently had the chance to sit down and chat with Carter about the overlap between social justice and arts participation, how the digital age has changed music education, and what he hopes to accomplish during his time on the NCA.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience or engagement with the arts?

BRUCE CARTER: I grew up on a tobacco farm in southern Virginia. There happened to be a neighbor who owned a farm, and he happened to be a musician. He used to perform with country music groups, bluegrass, that sort of thing. He was a friend of the family, and early on as a kid, he said, “You know, Bruce should take lessons and learn music.” And I said, "Sure, why not." He would come over and I think he charged a dollar or something, which is ridiculous because he was a really great quasi-professional musician. He would come over and give me guitar lessons. I think he enjoyed having someone to teach, and someone who was interested in learning, and I loved it. It was a really kind of serendipitous thing to have someone who was so gifted musically in this very agrarian, very rural community. So I was exposed to that really early on.

NEA: How did you move from this experience to becoming a professional musician?

CARTER: I wouldn't necessarily use the term “professional musician” in my case because my work is largely grounded in arts research. My undergraduate was in music education, and my master’s was in composition, and my doctorate was in music education. So largely my career is focused on the music education profession. That stems from my sheer joy of sharing the musical experience with others. That's always been even greater than my performing or composing.

NEA: In reading your bio, I saw that one of your areas of interests is the intersection of social justice and arts participation. So I have two questions. One, what does that mean? And two, what sparked your interest in that area?

CARTER: My entrance into social justice stems from when I was completing a master's in composition. My best friend was going through the process with me---she was asking a lot of questions about why aren't there more female composers. Where are the female composers? And largely, where are the female composers throughout the course of history? So when I was completing my doctoral work, one of my questions was what is the role of gender in the creative musical experience? That was the initial intersection in heading down the road of social justice. In arts education, there was this idea of the role of gender in musical creativity, and that has grown and morphed in ways that now include issues of race, gender equality, and geographic areas---how being in certain geographic areas inform your experience or perception of musical experience. I keep pushing myself and challenging myself about ways in which we can continue to examine the role of social justice, and how that informs the musical or arts experience.

NEA: Over the next couple of months, we're going to be rolling out our new arts education platform. As an arts educator, what are some of the things you think individuals in your field should be talking about?

CARTER: That's a great question. I'm seeing a larger trend towards issues of assessment in arts education. I celebrate that trend, because I think we always need to be talking about not only the process of the arts experience, but also the product of the arts experience and what does that mean in our overall life experience. While I celebrate the need for assessment, I think we also need to understand the qualitative perspective of what the arts experience means. Even if music can make you a million times smarter, or if it can make you six feet taller, or whatever it is we want to say it is that the arts can do for you, I always tend towards that central component or belief that art for art’s sake is important. The experience you achieve through the arts is standalone of value. Even though I am the one who pushes the boundaries in determining quantitative ways [in] which things are successful…I always challenge myself to return to this idea of arts and aesthetic and art for art’s sake as a central component of the arts experience.

NEA: Here's an easy one. Who are some of the artists, past or present, who inspire you in the work that you do?

CARTER: I work a lot with students of various ages in the creative musical process and that ranges from songwriting to let's call it “art music.” Without question, I think some of the students engaging in that musical experience are so incredibly inspiring.

NEA: Has the teaching experience changed at all now that you're dealing with a generation that has grown up with the Internet and what have you?

CARTER: Oh, absolutely. I'll speak just specifically to the idea of music creativity. Technology has completely changed everything, even more so when you think about what can you do with an iPad. It's just extraordinary. I've seen students take an iPad and within an hour create something that's more sophisticated and nuanced than you will ever hear on a typical radio station. It's incredibly powerful. It's given such an amazing voice or tool to young people to use to create. I don't think that I even understand the degree to which everything has changed. It's impossible to wrap your arms around.

NEA: If you haven't heard it already, our motto at the NEA is that “Art Works.” What does that phrase Art Works mean to you? What comes to mind when you hear that?

CARTER: What comes to my mind is that it's an active tense. It's something that's actively ongoing. It's an understanding that it's a verb. It is something that you are engaging in the experience of, the artistic experience. For me, engaging the artistic experience is what is paramount. Providing ways in which everyone in our culture feels as though they have easy access into the engagement of an artistic experience. For me, when I hear that, I think about no one passively sitting in the audience, but really engaging meaningfully.

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