The second wave of school change is now bearing down on teachers, students, and parents. You remember March, right? When Mommy-needs-vodka types were posting hilarious blogs thanking teachers and telling them to go right ahead and teach in their jammies? Because holy cow, teachers were the light of the world.
There were those teacher car parades, and funny Zoom memes, before Zoom bombing and low average attendance figures revealed that this was going to be a long, depressing slog. And now? We’re talking about the drop-forge model of school cuts and how unnecessary classrooms are, anyway.
I’m a music teacher. I know what this means. I’ve been through several cut-to-the-bone-and-beyond school reductions. Several of my music teacher friends and social media acquaintances have been dreading the decisions they fear are coming.
Because it’s not just ‘trimming the extras,’ the evergreen but erroneous argument that music, art, physical education, and other active, non-Big Four subjects are somehow less important than the others. It’s acknowledging that some disciplines—in the ways they’re traditionally taught– are currently more dangerous than others.
We’re not going to be singing in groups, as usual, this fall, or rehearsing the band, or learning how to play the euphonium in a beginners’ class.
I sing in a community chorus and play in two community bands, and we’re out of business for months, perhaps a full year. There is no way that students will be allowed to sit, even six feet apart, and breathe deeply while licking their reeds and blowing warm moist air out of their bells. Students will not be leaning their heads in to harmonize or tune. The science is clear: these are genuinely hazardous behaviors.
Trust me when I tell you that band, choir, orchestra, and general music teachers know all about the little boxed heads making wonderful music on your You Tube. They understand far better than the general public about the costs, skills, and technological resources necessary, even for the simplest collaborative music videos. And they also know that 5th grade beginning band students need years before anyone wants to see 45 of them individually negotiating the app, the mic, the conductor, the click-track, the printed music and—oh yeah, producing the right note.
There’s a reason why listening to a scaled-down Toronto Symphony is so exhilarating as they play Appalachian Spring. It’s because all of those musicians once sat in an orchestra full of 10-year-olds, bowing irregularly and approximating pitch, with their teacher–gently, one hopes–praising then correcting them. They learned to love the music (essential for a career) in the same place. All the beauty and ingenuity we’ve seen emerge in music in the last two months started in someone’s music classroom.
Music has gone in and out of favor in American public education. Choral music, easier and cheaper to organize and accomplish, has been around as part of school curricula much longer than instrumental instruction. Bands, as school-based activities and classes, didn’t really get established much before World War II—and then were largely promoted as contests. When the Baby Boom started filling schools, band and orchestra programs took off, as professionally trained music teachers became available and parents and communities saw the value in a wholesome, challenging group activity leading to a lifelong skill.
But that doesn’t mean that school bands, orchestras and choirs haven’t been cyclically imperiled by budget cuts and what might be called fashion. Ask any band director who’s ever had to start a struggling or deceased program over again (raising hand) how long it takes for band to become ‘cool’ in a school culture again, to gather the resources and community enthusiasm needed to build something really magnetic and valuable.
All arts and elective programs go in and out of popularity. Some school sports falter, as well, because they’re expensive or demanding– and kids have other things to do. I’ve been part of a half-dozen ‘Save Our Band’ campaigns. I have boxes full of handouts in my garage as proof. The most persuasive argument, by the way, was always the one that demonstrated music teachers who instruct large performing groups are highly cost-effective; once you start talking about aesthetics and elevating culture, however, you lose your audience.
So what are we to do, facing the school arts abyss caused by the pandemic?
- First, remember that good programs are always generated by good people. Creative teachers will innovate, as much as they can, to keep the flame burning, even when the conditions and resources are suboptimal. Outstanding people—not budgets, not equipment, not festival ratings–are the fuel, and the inspiration, for keeping the music education alive in tough times.
- Next, we can shift the paradigm of what a good school music program looks like. Strip it down to its basics—the teaching of melody, harmony, beats and Beatles. Focus on what kids need to enjoy music and understand its role in our lives. There is individual skill-building, of course, but also the lifelong value of musical literacy.
- Let go—for now, anyway—of all the traditional events and educational practices you’re accustomed to– the big elementary music performance in the gym, recorder class, the choir concert, marching band shows for football games. Stop thinking about the damage pausing or starting over will do to an established program and focus instead on serving kids. Especially let go of competitions. Think outside the grid and the uniform.
- Ask students what they want to learn about music, what turns them on, how they’ve used music during the pandemic. Assume that music teachers themselves should be the ones to create pandemic-friendly programs using new ideas and goals—administrators will have other things to worry about, and you really don’t want them to decide how to ‘fix’ music.
All those ideas are a framework for teaching music without large groups singing or playing—but the reality is that many music teachers won’t get the opportunity to innovate, create or rebuild. They’ll be excised. Many schools will not value teachers’ excellence, or work to find ways to keep the arts alive.
I had a friend ask me why it was important to have school bands and choirs now that technology could provide more ‘individualized’ instruction. Why not use pre-recorded backups and autotune and fun little video creation programs or self-instruction guitar modules for music class? Nobody wants to take bassoon lessons anymore, he said.
I asked the obvious question: Did he play in the band or sing in the choir? No. He played football.
I pointed out that the ultimate payoff—teamwork in doing something pleasurable—was similar, but he stopped listening before the kicker: Music is something you can do for the rest of your life. Football, not so much.
There’s one more thing teachers can do: Plan now. Jot ideas and suggestions down. Don’t wait for your state legislature to use the crisis to hack away once again, saying their hands are tied. That’s the easy path for policy-makers—no money for schools, so sad. Be there with your plan and your pitch early.
You’re protecting something vital to humanity. Don’t stop.