A Tough Pill to Swallow

Attrition is a terrible thing, but it’s becoming all too common in the world of music education.

While I was student teaching, I had the opportunity to look over some data that showed the level of attrition in the band program. The numbers were pretty scary. The band was losing high school kids at over 10 percent per year, and the middle school classes kept shrinking in size as well, meaning that the numbers lost at the HS level were not being replaced in the lower grades.

I was having another discussion last night on Facebook with a friend who teaches music in West Michigan, and he is dealing with similar issues, but the problems are magnified. He’s lost so many kids in one class due to inflexibility in scheduling that the school might cut the class, which would mean he would lose his full-time status.

Stories like these are becoming commonplace. When a school is forced to make cuts, a core class is never the first thing on the chopping block. When students are putting together a schedule for the school year, graduation requirements mean that core classes win out over electives like the fine arts. As graduation requirements become more expansive, the fine and performing arts get marginalized.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not trying to diminish the value of core classes. The skills and knowledge gained in those classes are invaluable. I won’t suggest something so radical is pushing core classes out of the way to accommodate the fine arts. Music does deserve a more prominent place in today’s schools, however.

A friend of mine likened music students to anthropologists during one of our College of Education seminar classes. Through music classes, students learn a great deal about the histories of various cultures, similar to what one might see in a standard history or social studies course. But, music courses take this one step further. Through performance, students actually get to experience firsthand this cultural history. This is a valuable and enriching experience in itself, and should be included in any curriculum. I like to think of this aspect of music education as a history course that features highly interactive participation.

As easy as it is for us to say that schools should be doing more to integrate the music curriculum, it’s that difficult to look inward as a music educator and analyze our own curriculum. While music has remained important in our culture over the years, its role has changed, as has how we experience music.

Before the advent of iPods and walkmen, music was a communal activity. If somebody wanted to hear music, their options were limited. They couldn’t turn on a computer and go to Pandora, or pull on a pair of headphones and isolate themselves from the world. Radio was an option, as were record players, pianos and live concerts. That’s why traditional large ensembles were such a vital part of musical culture in the not-too-distant past.

With technology changing how we experience music, the traditional offerings need to be expanded to keep pace with an ever-changing musical culture. Don’t ditch band/choir/orchestra completely—those still have a definite place in music education—but expand on those offerings. Add to the traditional course listings in order to maximize participation. There’s a very good chance that a guitar workshop or a composition/songwriting class would attract legions of students who aren’t drawn to the large ensembles.

Dr. John Kratus published an excellent article on the topic of changing music education culture in the Music Educator’s Journal back in November of 2007. He uses Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” to make an argument for updating the music curriculum. It was controversial, but as a young teacher, also very refreshing to read.

Music Education at the Tipping Point (PDF)

In looking back and reflecting on this post, I know that it positively reeks of idealism, and I’m not bothered by that. It’s a goal to shoot for, strengthening the school music curriculum and adapting to change.


3 thoughts on “A Tough Pill to Swallow

  1. I worked as a professional performing musician for 30 years before starting to teach. The reason I started was because my kids school had a recording studio and wanted to see if anything could be done with it as a classroom. Well! I hated my music program at High School and that was in the 70’s. Things haven’t changed too much but they are changing in some schools. I now run a music and media tech classes that have double the numbers of the band program. This is a good thing as now after having them up and running many of the students are also getting involved with band because they have a keen interest in music. They old way of teaching music was never a great way of teaching music. It is time to make the programs much more realistic to types of jobs available. Recording sound is a HUGE industry but our music programs do nothing to address this. We push to get an orchestra with cello and violins and it is a joy to listen to these orchestras however, how many full time jobs are there for these instrumentalists if they spend the huge amounts of time needed to become professional on these instruments. Music composition is a field that most music programs either do not have or simply introduce to young musicians. Technology makes music composition and enjoyment come into the 21st century. Let’s make use of it! Today!

    Brad Johnston
    Yokohama International School
    Director of Music and Media Technology and IB Music
    Blog: johnstonb.wordpress.com

  2. Pingback: Talk is Cheap « Joe Guarr

  3. Brad,

    Thanks for the great comment. It’s really exciting to know that there are forward-thinking teachers like you already in the field, working to make music education better. The way we experience music has changed drastically in the last 20 years, so should the way we teach music.

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