What was once a steadfast approach to building a foundation, and the strategic layers that sat upon it, can become irrelevant over time due to multiple facets. We know that education systems were created to alter as society changes, intelligences shift, and technology advances; thus, the truths of appropriate instruction must conform or get left behind.
Unfortunately, the current system in place for the study of music has and continues to be an elitist, excluding art form . Elitism can hide in plain sight:
“We know enough about our ancient past to be able to say that most ancient civilizations, once they were big enough to have cities, had elitism. Human civilizations have always had power relatively concentrated in the hands of a few, and the elite have often received that status from parentage and wealth, although with many exceptions; at times, the strongest, smartest, or boldest individuals have been able to raise themselves to elite status.
“Throughout human history, most people have believed that the elite ruled by right; that they deserved to be the elite, and had better personal qualities than the rest of us, whether that was supposed to be because of the families they came from, because they were chosen by God, or because they competed for their status with superior strength or intelligence...But even if you reject heredity and God as sources of elite status, you may believe that the people who are raised in the best environments and receive the best educations are going to end up most qualified to wield power.”
Prolific pedagogues such as Mozart who played for royalty further propelled the notion that the study of classical music (as a genre) and the instruments therein were only available for the financially wealthy or privileged. Expensive symphony tickets and extravagant formal attire worn by upper class in attendance also rooted us in these elitist ideals. Social status labels were not isolated or unique to Europe.
In 17th century United States, however, the initial call for music education served primarily to increase singing and notation reading skills specifically for the church congregation. By nature, it promoted inclusion of all people as a community. This initiative did not have an elitist or exclusive undertone, but empowered participation by all.
It was not until 1950 that the Child’s Bill of Rights in Music was written as a model by MENC, which outlined that every child have the opportunity to a music education. Sadly, writers did not anticipate how to provide these same rights to all students at every age in public, private, and urban/city systems who were interested in music beyond the scope of singing. Our children want to make music not just with their voices; therefore, granting access to instrumental music at every grade, finding solutions for instrument affordability, and providing a quality, process-based method of instruction (over that of ensemble product) in all schools is key.
Granting access to instrumental music education for all students means we have to eliminate the notion that musicians must start at a certain young age to reach proficiency. Knowing the science of how our brains illuminate upon learning an instrument should deem any access point in school worthy of our consideration. (The point of how that affects program quality efficiency is addressed later.) It may not be financially feasible to offer every beginning instrument each school year, but providing students ample opportunities for entry into instrumental study is critical to granting our students their natural rights.
In 2017, a Yale Symposium on Music in Schools created a dedicated document to address inequity and lack of accessibility within urban or city systems:
“This document is designed primarily for the fields of music and education at their broadest contexts, and we challenge these fields to assertively claim music as a social, educational, and cultural right for our cities’ students. It will also inform urban education policy discussions, ensuring that music is recognized as an important part of a comprehensive education system. We choose to provide a policy framework rather than a “road map” because each city’s needs, history, and populations are unique. It is up to the members of each city’s “music ecosystem” to determine how best to provide a robust music life to its students.”
While this document addresses equitable access for urban and city areas, a parallel comparison can be made to that of isolating entry points in larger suburban school districts, who exercise exclusion by only allowing beginning instrumental music at specific grades. Student realizations and roadblocks arise such as:
- What if I want to try an instrument now?
- My parents couldn’t afford an instrument before, but now they can.
- I moved into the district after beginning band or orchestra started, so how can I be part of it now?
- I feel like I’m on the wrong instrument for me, but I can’t afford private lessons to switch.
All of these restrictive circumstances are well within the realm of approach to a district dedicated to music for all students at every level of maturity. If a well-rounded education system is providing tiered ability-based performance ensemble opportunities in the high school setting, then students who begin later ideally all have a place for the advancement of their playing. Furthermore, if choral programs offer yearly access points in school (typically with no prerequisite), then instrumental programs must provide the same equality.
The first call to action bullet on the 2017 Declaration on Equity in Music for City Students states:
“We call for every student in every city in America to have access to a robust and active music life.”
It then affirms:
“Every student in every school in America deserves opportunities to make and learn music. A student’s access to an active music life should not be dependent on zip code, socioeconomic status, racial or ethnic background, country of birth, or language spoken at home.”
We must do our part as teachers, administrators, parents, and students to voice advocacy for all students at every level in education to promote the opportunity to grow musically via instrumental instruction.
“In its most recent report on arts education, U.S. Department of Education noted that "whether a school offered music instruction varied by its concentration of poverty."⁶ For example, elementary schools with higher concentrations of poverty were significantly less likely to offer music year-round, to have dedicated rooms and equipment for music instruction, and to have arts specialists available to teach music."
We all understand the financial burdens of learning a musical instrument, and some are more costly than others. Often times, larger suburban districts have the upper hand when it comes to availability of finances per student, but a resourceful answer could be endowments or donations that fuel need-based scholarships for struggling families in smaller or private schools. When there is nowhere else to turn, districts must be held accountable to uphold the premise of Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, and now the Every Child Achieves Act approved by Congress, which slated music as a core subject.
“It is essential to recognize that “access” does not simply refer to the existence of music opportunities at a school: it means that opportunities are easily accessible to all interested students. While a school may report “offering” music, it does not always follow that all interested students are able to participate; some remain excluded from this fundamental part of a well-rounded education due to a variety of financial, social, structural, and musical barriers. Each student should have equal access to a rich, meaningful, and inclusive music life. To address this, we must make existing music opportunities in city schools more robust and inclusive."
Elitism is further ignited when high schools require camps, charge marching band fees, attend regular competitions, and offer trips, which again engages the manifestation of exclusionary elements.
“We call for both school leadership and classroom music educators to consider the ways in which their current practices might be exclusionary to students. By examining current practices and trends—however uncomfortable doing so might be—it is possible to identify the barriers that prevent potentially interested students from participating in music. These may include:
Financial barriers: prohibitive costs, including purchase/rental of an instrument and fees for uniforms or transportation; incapacity to pay for outside-of-school enrichment opportunities including private lessons and summer music intensives; the need to spend out-of-school hours in employment rather than in rehearsals or practicing.”
Keep in mind instrument rental stores acquire playable overflow that can be made available through the course of the year as well. Stores may even donate instruments to schools as tax write offs; therefore, making a phone call when a student is in need never hurts. Reaching out to parents, whether PTO or booster representatives, can often have powerful social media pull in acquiring instruments through donation.
No matter how difficult or seemingly expensive opening multiple grade-level access points might be, our students have the right to an instrumental music education.
Process over Product
Over the last 300 years of music education in the United States, there is and continues to be an emphasis on developing well-polished, elitist products to promote the recognition of performance accolades at state and national conventions. Our measurement of quality music programs tends to rest entirely on an ensemble’s ability to record and be selected by a panel of university professors, but what about all the other underlying factors that could be used to determine the success of a well-rounded music program?
Perpetually, directors pose these types of judgmental notions to fellow music educators:
- How many students are in your program?
- What percentage of students make the honors band/orchestra yearly?
- How many students were selected for state this year?
- How many entries do you have attending solo and ensemble festival?
- What number of those entries received Superior ratings?
- What grade literature does your top ensemble perform?
- What did your ensembles receive at contest this spring?
- Do your students receive regular private lessons?
“We have to trust these feelings. We have to trust the invisible gauges we carry within us. We have to realize that a creative being lives within ourselves, whether we like it or not, and that we must get out of its way, for it will give us no peace until we do. Certain kinds of egotism and ambition as well as certain kinds of ignorance and timidity have to be overcome or they will stand in the way of the creator. And though we are well thought of by others, we will feel cross and frustrated and envious and petulant, as if we had been cheated, somehow, by life". –M.C. Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person
Directors, NAfME members, and administrators alike, your challenge is to raise the bar for the artistic processes so encouraged by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) and redefine your expectations. Some considerations:
- Why are we still writing classroom assessments based on product preparation or performance?
- Why does large ensemble festival merely take a snapshot of performing elements alone?
- Why are we allowing ensembles to perform at state and national conventions without analyzing the entire program’s artistic processes output as a whole?
- Where are the new curricula, accounting for less concert preparation and more project-based learning and ideals to enable this shift to the NCCAS?
Engaging in the intended shift means analyzing student understanding of these processes (creating, responding, and performing); not putting out performances for spectatorship alone. It may also allow directors breathing room to effectively enjoy their craft, and in turn, our students to further appreciate our programs.
“Innate human dignity implies innate human rights. The right to enjoy and participate in society and culture is a natural extension of this relationship.”
Lastly, in order to accommodate the rewiring of our student’s brains in a technologically advanced era and shortening attention spans, we must agree that perhaps the time of child prodigies and pedagogues is coming to a close. Children are unable to engage in mastering skill sets for hours, and so, the original foundation of our music education system must relocate and rebuild to survive.
The landscape is vastly different than even 10 years ago, and the time to provide access at every age, and at any cost, is now. The basic fundamentals of what it means to promote humanity through the vehicle of music is at stake.
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