Wednesday, December 07, 2011

School Music Programs

I have attended many junior high and middle school band and choir concerts over the years, including the years in which I played in school bands. Most of the performances at these concerts have ranged from extremely awful to tolerable. But that's to be expected. After all, we're talking about beginning musicians for the most part.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the band concert at my son's charter school. It was a vast departure from the normal fare offered by band students in his age group. But in the 3+ years our children have been attending this school, we have come to expect a higher level of excellence.

Although most of the students in the beginning band had never played a band instrument before school began this year, they played remarkably well last night. I'd say that they did at least as well as any 'advanced' junior high band I have heard in standard public schools. The advanced band was actually quite superb.

While Utah's charter schools are public schools, they function differently than schools in standard public school districts because they minimize administration and overhead in favor of focusing resources on the students. Charter schools are usually too small to offer some of the features available in standard public schools, but they also offer many opportunities that simply don't exist in those schools.

My son's band director handles all music related duties at the charter school he attends. She elicits a high degree of quality from the students. It is interesting to watch how well even young children enthusiastically step up and perform songs at school events (sometimes even in foreign languages). This music teacher is demanding, but the students obviously respond well to her methods.

Of course, it is rare for a Kindergartener or a middle-schooler to have a music teacher that has master and doctorate degrees in music, has been a professional symphony orchestra musician, can play many instruments, and can relate well with children. Musical teachers of that caliber aren't often found teaching children in public schools. I suspect that it's more of a labor of love for this music teacher, as she obviously has opportunity for greater earning and notoriety outside of this venue.

Another son began studying band with this same teacher a few years ago before transitioning to a junior high where he played in the advanced band. Before long he dropped out of this band because its general quality was far below the beginning band at the charter school. He simply couldn't stand it.

He transitioned to choir. That turned out to be great, because the choir director was energetic and demanding. Sadly, she moved on to a different school this year because my son's school cut back on funding for music programs. The new choir director is a very nice lady. She has tremendous vocal talent.

But once again, my son has gotten to where he can't stand the class because his new teacher seems incapable of demanding excellence from her students. It's amazing what students will do when excellence is demanded. Lack of this reduces student motivation.

I have noticed that the percentage of students involved in choir and band has dropped off since my day. I think that part of this is because students now have more options available than we did a generation ago. Perhaps this has diffused funding to the point that schools are less able to pay for quality music instruction.

Some argue that arts funding should be pulled from public schools completely in favor of focusing on core curriculum. Given the deplorable state of student performance in core subjects even while greater focus and funding have been directed at those subjects, I am dubious that this would prove to be a productive approach. Especially in light of the fact that IQ universally improves in students that engage in music.

If the argument is that parents should fund musical and arts instruction themselves, then let me have part of my tax dollars back and let my children spend more time away from the school so that they can get this instruction. After all, having students spend more time on core subjects at school isn't helping.

Since I won't get my wish, I will be happy for now that my charter schoolers get high quality musical instruction. I will also continue to make sure that my kids can take private music lessons—even if they sometimes grouse about practicing.

1 comment:

JBT said...

As a music educator in Utah for 32 years I am happy for you that your children are having a positive musical experience in the charter school they attend.

However, I find your sweeping generalization that charter schools somehow offer better music programs than public schools to be both uninformed and insulting to the fine music educators in Utah's public schools.

There are currently many exemplary music programs in public schools throughout the Utah that have existed for many years. The fact that one personally has not attended any of their performances does not prove that they do not exist.

On the other hand I know of several charter schools that have hired part time, unqualified and inexperienced music teachers at a paltry salary simply to save money.

Those program's performances prove the adage "you get what you pay for". To paint different categories of schools with a broad brush based on one's bias based upon limited experience serves no useful purpose whatever.