Considering the Reach of the Music Education Profession
For many years, I missed watching the State of the Union (SOTU) addresses. For me, this Tuesday evening was always reserved for the band concert at one of the elementary schools where I taught. Each year, although I didn’t know the state of the union, I did know the state of my elementary band. When considering the state of the profession, I think the same may be true. I’m reminded of a quote from the man with the big shock of white hair that used to be in the backdrop for so many State of the Union addresses, former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill (D-MA). Congressman O’Neill was well known for saying “All politics is local.” Similarly, I think the state of our profession varies widely by location. I don’t think I have the vantage point from which to summarize all of these realities but perhaps there is one issue upon which I can comment.
One dimension of the current state of the profession, which is a cause for concern in many locations, has been around since the days when President Johnson gave his State of the Union addresses (if not earlier). This concern is that after mandatory music classes end in elementary or early middle school, we only reach a small percentage of students in the middle and high school levels. When President Reagan gave his 1982 SOTU 31% of high school seniors were enrolled in music classes (Stewart, 1991). When President George W. Bush gave his 2002 SOTU, this number had dropped to 21% (Elpus & Abril, in press). From the perspective of an individual music teacher, this might be an easy issue to overlook. There are still enough students to populate bands, orchestras, and choirs (for now). The 21% of students who are in music classes tends to be comprised of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and music ensembles are often sold as a way to socialize ‘with the good kids’. This is not a criticism of our performance organizations. Our bands, choirs, and orchestras have proven to be resilient and have provided great experiences and musical learning for many students. We need to continue to nurture, protect and improve our performing ensembles. However, in order to have integrity as a profession, we must either honestly declare ourselves an elitist enterprise which focuses on our performing ensembles to the exclusion of reaching other students, or we must broaden our offerings to reach ‘the other 80%‘. As a firm believer in the statement that If music is important, it is important for everyone, I believe that the latter option is the only viable choice.
While I do not view education as a corporate enterprise, to some extent it can be helpful to view this through an economic analogy. Any corporate board would view a 32% drop in market share as a huge threat. President Obama said in his 2011 SOTU that “In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make a living”. This is especially true for music education, where it is essential that we innovate so that we begin to earn back our market share. Often music educators are heard to lament the fact that music in their school is not considered to be a core subject, which raises the question: how can we be viewed as a core subject when our reach is so limited?
Extending our reach is essential to our broader mission of raising the level of musical citizenship in our country. In order to do so, we must not only teach the students currently in our classes, but we must figure out how to reach the students who walk past our doors. To continue the market analogy, this is not a matter of improved retention in our existing programs (although that is a worthy goal); it is a matter of diversifying our product lines. Past decades have consistently shown that a certain percentage of students want to (or are able to) perform. Instead of trying to reach the other students with the same offerings (which hasn’t worked in the last forty years), we now need to add new and different classes to reach the other students. In other words, if we were Coca-Cola, we would need to look beyond trying to get everyone to drink cola. We would need to offer other types of drinks as well. This diversification strengthens the whole company without hurting the original brands. For example, when Coca-Cola sells Dasani bottled water, it doesn’t reduce the number of people drinking Coke, but the company benefits from making a sale to people who wanted water instead of soda. Similarly, new secondary music offerings won’t reduce our performance ensembles; instead, they strengthen our music departments by reaching new students (and there are plenty!). Expanding our market share strengthens our overall venture. The corollary of If music is important, it is important for everyone is The more students that study music, the more important music is in that school. It is intuitive to state that a music department which reaches 60% of a school will be a more central component of a school than one that reaches only 20%. By expanding our offerings and reaching more students, music educators can have a greater impact in shaping the musical culture of our country, which should be one of our core objectives.
While our dropping market share is certainly cause for concern, there is also cause for hope. In recent years, individual teachers have increasingly begun to take matters into their own hands by creating classes that are designed to expand music’s reach in their schools. Many of the classes are technology-based music classes (TBMCs) and are well-suited to address the issue of declining enrollment. The technology aspect tends to bring a wide range of students into the door, and once they are there, it allows for easy differentiation of instruction to keep them engaged and learning.
Fourteen percent of high schools in the United States now offer technology-based music classes and over half of these were created in the last five rears. The classes were designed for, and are reaching, the students who are not in band, choir, and orchestra. (Dammers, 2010) It is natural to wonder if TBMCs cause enrollment to drop in the performance ensembles. However, in schools with TBMCs, anecdotal evidence suggests that the opposite tends to happen. Just as a rising tide raises all ships, performance ensemble enrollments tend to hold steady or grow after technology-based music classes are introduced (Kuhn, 2011).
As I mentioned in the introduction, the state of the profession is really a local issue. This is an empowering viewpoint, as the local state of the professional is heavily influenced by individual teachers. When considering the state of the profession in your part of the world, there are many aspects to consider. When reflecting on this, I hope you’ll consider these questions: What percentage of students study music in your school, and if that number is too low, What are you doing about it?
Dammers, R. (2010). Technology-based music classes in high schools in the United States. Paper delivered at the Association for Technology in Music Instruction conference, Minneapolis, MN.
Elpus, K. & Abril, C. (in press). High school music students in the United States: A demographic profile. Journal of Research in Music Education.
Kuhn, W.(2011). How a music technology program can take your music department into the 21st century. Presentation delivered at the Technology Institute for Music Educators conference, Cincinnati, OH.
Stewart, C. (1991). Who takes music? Investigating access to high school music as a function of social and school factors. (Doctoral Dissertation) Available fromProQuest Dissertations and Thesis Database. (UMI 9208660)
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