Occasionally when school districts face budget shortfalls and are forced to re-examine the value of their offerings to students, the place of music (and the other arts) in the curriculum is threatened. No one debates the necessity of instruction in language literacy, math, or science, but some inevitably wonder if schools can afford to have music programs. Obviously this causes music teachers much consternation. Their responses in such situations range in effectiveness. In the worst accounts I’ve heard, music educators defending their jobs, rather than the essential role of the arts in a complete education. At spring concerts or PTA meetings, a teacher say something like, “The proposal out there would eliminate six music teaching positions. These are people with families who have provided years of fine service to the school district.”
As true as this may be, it doesn’t make a compelling case in a time of budgetary “belt-tightening” and educational prioritizing. Some people—school administrators, parents, and other stakeholders—see music education as a frill. An enjoyable and enriching experience for some students…but not something that schools MUST provide. Those of us who have experienced the transformative power of music don’t respond well to it being sold short in this way. We know music belongs in schools and believe that eliminating if from the curriculum amounts to educational malpractice. But what do we make of those who take the “music as frill” perspective? Are they ignorant or just misinformed? Most importantly, what can we—the musicians, music teachers, and arts advocates—do to protect the place of music in schools?
Unfortunately many in the field of music education have seemed to desperately grasp at straws to defend it. They may claim that “music makes you smarter,” or that it produces more conscientious and productive members of society (shortly after the heyday of bank robberies, some music advocates adopted the slogan “Teach them to blow horns, and they won’t blow safes“). Former students may credit music education for teaching them discipline and teamwork. Other testimonials share how school music provided a place to fit in socially and build relationships with peers. Of course all of these things can be true (well, except perhaps for the one about blowing safes), but I’m not sure that they really help the cause of music education. You don’t hear other educators justifying math and science classes for their contributions to students’ self-discipline and interpersonal skills. These classes are staples in the curriculum because most believe that the subject matter itself is important for everyone.
In contrast, it’s much more common for people in athletics to praise sports participation for its contributions to character building and social development. So if a school music program is comparable to an athletic program, is that a problem? I think so. First, it point out that these educational by-products (e.g., responsibility, teamwork) are not unique to music. But more troubling is how similarities with sports can threaten music’s place in the curriculum. Athletics—not to be confused with its distant cousin, physical education—are squarely part of extracurricular activities. It’s rare for a full-time position in a school to have the sole assignment for coaching sports. Yet, some music teachers choose to run their classes like coaches run their teams. Just to be clear, I love competitive sports and think young people gain much from participating in them. But I’m not in favor of having Volleyball Team or Wrestling Squad become classes that meet during the school day. There are important reasons why sports teams and other enriching clubs and activities happen outside the curriculum. When school music operates more similarly to these groups than to courses like math and English, then I fear they are in jeopardy of being relegated to extracurricular status. Someone thinking only from a budgetary standpoint might wonder: why employ a full-time teacher if student music groups can be covered by a part-timer, say, a musician from the community? Or perhaps there’s a teacher of an academic subject with enough musical background who’ll work with ensembles afterschool for an extra-duty stipend (this is the scenario of the TV show Glee, in which a Spanish teacher leads the swing choir-type glee club). Some school districts have already gone this direction and moved all performing ensembles to after school.
Music teachers would do well to embrace the expectations placed on “core” academic subjects. Music course offerings should be part of a well-organized curriculum, and each class should make known its musical learning objectives. Teachers should focus their efforts on guiding all students to individually attain those objectives, with publicly-shared group performances happening as an outgrowth of this learning. Student grades should reflect attainment of learning objectives, and not be based on things like attendance and attitude…can you imagine if math teachers graded on attendance and attitude!
I believe the most compelling reasons for music’s inclusion in a school curriculum are those centered around the nature of music. The main purpose of the arts is expression. In fact, the arts can be effectively defended because of their unique ability to provide people with a means of exercising creativity and self-expression. I would like to see music education advocacy much more focused on this. Of course, we in the profession must then be sure to teach in a way that truly gives students opportunities to be creative and express themselves. In many cases, this will require teachers to relinquish some of their decision making power and put it into the hands of students. It is difficult to convincingly promote music education for its creative and expressive benefits to students if their experiences are dominated by the rehearsal of other people’s music, under the strict direction of a teacher who prescribes exactly how it should be performed. Again, this latter approach sounds more like a sports team—a coach creates the game plan, and runs team practice to prepare for the next contest. In contrast, music education can give artistic decision making to students. They can engage in experiences to develop their creativity by composing original music. They can collaborate in small groups with peers in which they make decisions about how to prepare a piece of music for performance. They can learn to improvise so they can readily express themselves. And this approach doesn’t mean abandoning large ensembles, which provide such great musical experiences and learning opportunities that cannot be had otherwise. But it may mean forsaking the exclusive dedication of class time to teacher-led rehearsal.
I’m pleased to know many music teachers who teach like this everyday. And I hope that the profession will see more and more of them as we move into the future. Their educationally sound practices should further solidify music as a basic subject that every school will want to offer to all of its students.