The Future of Strings
A Green Paper Prepared by the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) and Adapted for Leading Notes
ASTA Executive Committee Members (2008-10):
Jeffrey Solow, President; Kirk Moss, President-Elect; Mary Wagner, Past President; Donna Hale, Executive Director; with guest Michael Gagliardo
The following Green Paper was written for the Americans for the Arts 2010 national conference in celebration of their 50th anniversary. The authors amended their original post to better suit the purposes of Leading Notes. The state of our profession is one in need of greater access to music instruction, including strings, for all children and strategic advocacy to sustain existing music programs in the face of budget cuts.
Our Vision for Strings and Orchestra
The American String Teachers Association’s (ASTA) vision for strings and orchestra in the 21st century centers upon these principles:
- Providing access to strings and orchestra for all children, protecting string programs from economic uncertainty, and teaching members how to advocate for string programs;
- Influencing policy at the local, state, and national levels to promote the arts as a core component of a well-rounded education and of a thriving community;
- Strengthening the importance of orchestras within our communities through collaboration, education, participation, and support;
- Recognizing the foundational importance of classical music while embracing all styles of string and orchestral music; and
- Developing strong state chapters and leaders to provide benefits, services, and activities responsive to the needs of our membership.
Obstacles Facing Music Education
Within the broader discipline of music education, we face some daunting challenges to realizing this vision. One of the greatest obstacles is access. Currently, only one out of four school districts offer curricular string instruction. When compared with other music subjects such as band and choir, this number is relatively small. Owing to the current economic crisis, scheduling concerns, and the impact of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), reauthorized in 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), many existing programs are at risk of either reduction or elimination. Such budget cuts can occur almost anywhere, including school districts with a history of strong programming in the arts.
Additionally, testing mandates of NCLB have decreased the amount of time in the school day for arts instruction. Even though this legislation identifies the arts as core, some school systems reduce the arts to spend more time preparing students for standardized tests. As Congress renews the debate about reauthorization, we must address ESEA to ensure that funding for music and arts is a priority at the national, state, and local levels.
Attempting to influence policy, at any level, is often a challenge for music educators. Most are so busy working with their performance ensembles, teaching private lessons after school, or playing gigs in the evening that it can seem as if they are the last to know that the program is in jeopardy. Even for the most savvy and experienced citizen, getting elected leaders to focus on the arts is ever more challenging as other topics such as healthcare reform, a rising deficit, and crippling unemployment take center stage on both the national and local agendas. By the time many educators rally to save music programs, the political die has already been cast.
The challenge of access also has a direct impact on the stability of many community and professional orchestras. Recent research, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and the League’s Audience Demographic Research Review, indicates that orchestras must review their practices to remain viable. If we do not have music programs, including strings, that encourage interest at the public school level, generating and maintaining interest at the community level will become more difficult. We will also experience a shortage of music teachers and performers. These issues are part of an arts ecosystem and will require further development.
The evolution of musical styles presents string teachers, and the music education profession as a whole, with both great opportunities and challenges. No matter what genre a young musician embraces, the student needs a solid foundation in technique. The fundamentals of technique, and the flexibility to adapt learning to a wide range of musical styles, is first taught in schools and private studios. These educational opportunities inspire students to succeed as performers in the concert hall and as future educators in the classroom. Classical music, rock, jazz, fiddle, and world styles all occupy a place in music history. While many of today’s music educators find themselves teaching and playing many styles of music, not all teachers embrace these changes. Teachers need to lay the foundation for an eclectic approach to music making so that students can then apply these skills to their preferred stylistic direction. Developed school or studio programs now must teach a wide range of music styles in addition to traditional performance practices.
Overcoming Obstacles and Turning the Vision into Reality
In addressing a vision for the 21st century, we must encourage all stakeholders in the arts to play an active role in shaping arts-friendly policy. Our reach must extend from around the table at school board meetings to the corridors of Congress. Everyone must take responsibility for advocacy, including students, teachers, parents, administrators, and all those who support music education. ASTA partners with organizations such as Americans for the Arts, encouraging our supporters to be active in the Arts Education Fund. We very recently partnered with MENC and NAMM to co-host the first Music Education Policy Roundtable.
ASTA provides training and resource materials that support music education. We have a network of string educators and supporters poised to help programs. We plan to continue these programs and to expand their depth. We will continue to offer advocacy training at our conferences. Our collaborative partnerships with other associations and nonprofit organizations strengthen our voice on the national landscape. As ASTA stays abreast of these issues, we must continue to build our membership base by maintaining and constantly improving the other services we offer.
Increasing access to strings remains at the forefront of ASTA’s mission. We have applied for and received several grants from NAMM that explore expanded delivery systems, such as after-school string programs and seed money for programs in economically challenged areas. We are conducting research in several areas related to increasing access, including examining the factors that lead to new string programs, continuing to study the shortage of string teachers, and focusing on underserved areas that do not have programs. All of this research has an underlying goal of making it possible for more young people to play stringed instruments. The data we collect may enable us to formulate more strategies to reach this goal.
In order to strengthen the relationships among schools and community and professional orchestras, we continue to encourage dialogue among public educators and private teachers. Many of our members already collaborate with their community orchestras as performers, through children’s concerts, or adjudicating local orchestra competitions that recognize promising students. ASTA will continue to work with the League of American Orchestras to showcase their Common Cause program that promotes the link between education and community orchestras. In the future, we hope to include more “how to” information both on our website and at our conferences, as well as in our professional journals.
While one of the goals of an orchestra teacher is to teach students to play an instrument, another is to cultivate in students a lifelong appreciation for the arts that encourages ongoing community involvement. The children, who play stringed instruments, and their parents, are certain to be among the patrons of orchestras both now and in the future.
Together we must demonstrate that music is one of our core values. Together we must outgrow competition and instead model collaboration. Together we must ensure that music, including string instruction, is both adequately funded and accessible from the pre-school classroom to the symphony hall. While the majority of music students will not become full-time musicians, they will become wholly human and wholly educated. Where words fail, they will be able to speak through the music.
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