Why Music Is Not Expendable

2011Symposium_1_2If there has been one constant over the last decades in education, it is the ease and speed with which music programs are cut or eliminated when funds are short. Time and again, music is viewed as less important and even expendable compared to language arts, science, and math. While there are no doubt numerous factors to explain why this is so, two major ones come to mind immediately. Today I will explore these factors and discuss what music educators can do about them.

The first factor is elitism. The focal point of music programs too often are large performing ensembles. Most of the music budget is channeled into band, chorus, orchestra, and the sub-groups that are derived from each. The problem with this approach is that typically only 20-40 percent of a school population participates in large performing ensembles. While these students may cultivate a strong love of music, and accumulate rich and positive experiences in music, most of the students in our schools are not benefiting from most of the music education that is offered. When this majority grows older and many within it become community and educational leaders, they naturally do not attach importance to music education because they were never given the opportunity to benefit from it themselves. In fact, music programs are viewed as a threat to students’ future success, because many music lessons must be taught as pull-outs, requiring students, many of them high achieving students who aren’t looking for a way out of class, to miss a class in order to take music lessons. This keeps the number of students willing to participate down, and discourages some of our most promising students from joining a school band, orchestra or choir. If those ensembles are a student’s only option, they will miss out on being musically educated in school. I call this elitism, because it panders to the needs of the few with little concern for meeting the needs of the majority of students. As long as those ensembles are performing at a high level, winning awards at festivals and making a community proud, no one considers all the students who are left out.

This lack of inclusiveness has other negative effects as well. Ensemble lessons and rehearsals can easily be almost whisper_musicexclusively devoted to building skills while ignoring concepts. Students practice and drill all kinds of things, including rhythms, fingerings, pitches, even marching steps. But none of these drills and practices requires high level or critical thinking. When asked to defend the music program with what is being accomplished in terms of student learning, educators have an impossible task of justifying a program devoted solely to building skills. There must be components of meta-cognition, problem solving, critical thinking, connecting to other disciplines, creating and interpreting to bring music up to the same academic level as language arts, science, or math.  There must be instruction and practice in reading music, not just imitating aurally presented phrases and patterns.

The second factor is related to the first, and it is this: there is too little attention and value given to what a music education for students who are not interested in joining ensembles should be. The world is full of people who love music and enjoy listening to it, singing and dancing along to it, and even playing it on non-orchestral instruments, who will remain unknown to most music teachers because they don’t play in band, orchestra or sing in choir. These are the kids who will become superintendents of schools and principals and school board members. They must be included in the plan for music education. Programs must guide these students to a path of music making that interests them, and that will make a lasting and positive impression on them, motivating them to support music programs in their communities throughout their adult lives. Students need to be challenged to listen to and learn about music they otherwise would not seek out on their own, such as classical or world musics, but they also must be guided to more knowledgeably responding to music they already know and love, and to perform, compose and improvise in those genres too. The idea that fostering a love of music is restricted to Western European art music and perhaps jazz and symphonic pop is suspect at best. Music education must become a meeting of interests, where students are both supported in their existing musical interests, and challenged with new ones that enrich and extend both their ability to interact with music and the probability that they will always be allies of the arts.


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