Reshaping Music Education

Posted by David Sall

(NOTE: originally printed at USA Today — full version can be found here.)

 

There’s an elephant in the room — the band room, anyway. It’s no secret that music education is declining in our schools. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of children who received any kind of arts education decreased by more than 21% from 1992 through 2008.

Why? A few reasons — instruments are expensive, and we’re in a recession. No Child Left Behind has increased focus on test scores in “core” subjects. Our state governments have slashed funds for education, making it difficult for school districts to keep arts specialists. These are serious issues that we need to address as a country if we care about the future of the arts in the U.S.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why music education is in trouble: the way that music classes are taught. In a comic strip by music advocate Nick Jaworski, a stick-figure high school principal best articulates the problem: “How can I justify spending our (school’s) limited $ on a curriculum that only reaches 20% of high school students?”

This question is at the crux of the public music education debate today. The primary reason for the dwindling number of students is very likely an ever-increasing disconnect between the traditional band-orchestra-choir conservatory method of teaching — largely geared toward helping students to become professional musicians in classical ensembles — and the way that high school students listen to and experience music today.

There’s immense potential outside of this teaching method to help students connect to music on a visceral level. To see this in action, one only needs to look at the way that Fox’s hit show Glee— and its embrace of pop culture — has led to a dramatic increase of show choirs in high schools. We need to update our model of music curriculum in a similar way to meet the needs of a wider array of students.

A good place to start is with the recognition of the role that technology plays in music today. With a new version of Spotify (an online streaming music database), students have unlimited legal access to essentially all music, so long as they have an Internet connection. GarageBand, Apple’s easy-to-use sound editing software, allows students to easily compose and record themselves. Given the ease with which students can now create and listen to music, why is it that most music students graduate high school not knowing how the music that they listen to is produced?

In addition to evolving technology, the nation’s shifting demographics are inconsistent with our traditional views on what types of music should be performed in public schools. If a high school band isn’t playing an arrangement of a Shostakovich symphony, it’s probably playing something that many would mistake for one. Considering that as of 2010, the majority of American 3-year-olds are not white, why limit our students to predominantly European music if we’re hoping to attract students representative of our communities’ shifting racial and ethnic groups?

We advocate for music in schools by touting it as a subject that teaches students to innovate. It is a universal language, after all. The sad irony is that music education has stagnated in the 21st century and consequently is anything but universal.

There is still room for “traditional” music education, but music shouldn’t be taught with the intention of making every student a professional musician.

Instead of trying to defend traditional band, choir and orchestra classes, music educators would do well to embrace the craft as a way to teach creativity, problem-solving and cultural harmony — truly 21st century skills, for artists and engineers alike. If we do so, the demand for music will return stronger than ever.

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