Who Do I Appreciate? Music Teachers.

Like a lot of my educator colleagues, when it comes to Teacher Appreciation Week, I come down somewhere between surly and cynical, preferring actual respect and control of my professional work, not to mention adequate compensation, over a potluck lunch and a mug.

Being snotty about Teacher Appreciation Week is bad form, however—a cheap shot. Exhausted teachers everywhere deserve recognition and our gratitude for making it most of the way through the ’18-’19 marathon. And one subset of educators—music teachers—merit an entire month of appreciation.

Music teachers do it all. They teach 250 students a day, often in groups of 65, with each student holding a noisemaker. Elementary music teachers might see 500 students in a week, struggling to learn all their names, and packing five or six skills into a dozen 30-minute lessons per day. Music teachers take their students out and about, singing for the nursing home or marching in community parades. They’re responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fragile, finicky equipment—and often have to raise the money to replace what’s broken or worn out or keep the music library fresh.

They deal with childish egos and children’s artistry, then put the results of their practice out there for untrained, opinionated parents to judge in concerts, musicals, contests and Friday football shows. They often sacrifice their home and family lives for the good of their programs, knowing that those programs can easily be cut at the next Board meeting, because they’re not ‘essential.’

I am part of a Facebook group of 26K music educators. What happens in BD Group stays in BD Group, but someone just asked if any of us had ever had to send a student home from a field trip or band camp. There were 158 horror stories shared (along with some great prophylactic advice), but none saying ‘…and then I stopped taking my students anywhere.’ Because everyone knows that what makes a music program memorable and magnetic is the concert at the State Capitol or the last night of band camp, when that large group of diverse kids has bonded into a weary but cohesive unit.

It’s easy to hack away at music teachers and their work. Everyone in the building or district or community has an opinion on what a ‘good’ elementary program, halftime show or orchestra concert looks and sounds like. I once got a letter from a Board member’s wife suggesting we raise money to buy capes to spice up the marching band shows. Her high school band had capes, and they were the ‘top band in the state.’ According to her, anyway. Multiply that by every, say, month—and you get the picture.

Or you can read an article entitled The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality,’ by Jon Henschen, a financial advisor from MN, which includes cheery bits like this:

Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US.

Besides the decline of music literacy and participation, there has also been a decline in the quality of music which has been proven scientifically by Joan Serra, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. The results of the study revealed that timbral variety went down over time, meaning songs are becoming more homogeneous. Translation: most pop music now sounds the same.

One wonders if Henschen has ever listened to American pop music from the 1950s. In fact, his piece could easily have been written in the 1950s. We’ve been fighting to keep music literacy and quality from ‘declining’ for a century or more. And when I say ‘we’—I mean music educators.

Stories, studies and op-eds about the value of music education pop up regularly. Like this one, from a young man looking back with gratitude at his musical experiences in high school.

Or this one, thanking a battle-axe music teacher that Jon Henschen would have lauded, for straightening him out and putting him on a path to becoming a lifelong musician.

Or this video, a perfect illustration of the utter joy of singing.

And yet—somehow, the message about the critical value of music education gets lost, over and over again. Why is that? Serious question. Why haven’t we learned that music—all the arts, really—are about our very humanity? In fact, there is new evidence that the ability to keep a beat, that most basic of musical skills, is linked to the ability to read.

Now, music teachers everywhere already knew this, especially those entrusted with developing a steady beat or pitch recognition (yup—it’s science) or simple melody repetition with small, distracted children at 2:45 in the afternoon, a half-hour before the bus comes. But still– it’s nice to see.

I’ll put that research into my bulging digital file labeled Music Advocacy, perhaps pulling it out when the next wave of Phonics Warriors suggests that we need to be re-allocating resources currently spent on ‘specials,’ because, you know, Reading First.

In the meantime, Music Teachers: I see you. I hear you. I thank you for your creativity, persistence and sacrifices. You absolutely rock.


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