An Unsolicited Address to the Music Educators of America
Note: The article below is written in the style of a Presidential “State of the Union”, including applause lines and verbose language. While I hope some of the ideas resonate with my readers, I ask that they do not take the language too seriously – I was just trying to have some fun.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of the Internet, distinguished guests, and my fellow music educators:
I am honored that we have all gathered here to discuss the current state of our profession. While there is much to talk about, we must first acknowledge the efforts of our nation’s music teachers who have both captured the interests and sparked the imagination of millions of American children over the past 100 years. (Applause)
You have served your country well and none of us would be here today if it were not for your exhaustive efforts. And we, the American people, thank you. (Applause.)
Some might ask, “Who does this guy think he is and why is he pretending to address the entire music education profession?” These are fair questions and they deserve honest responses. My answers are simple: I am a music educator who is committed to ensuring our profession’s future and I am giving this “speech” because, well… I can. The ability to share your thoughts with people from all over the world can be both a blessing and a curse. Its advantages are obvious: Our digital world provides us with the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a variety of ideas about a seemingly endless variety of topics. However, it turns out that a good percentage of us tend to sequester ourselves into pockets of the digital ether – spaces that create the least amount of internal dissonance for ourselves. And, that’s a shame. Because unless we find places where we confront new ideas and engage in real dialogue, we’re squandering the advantages of our digital age. It is my hope that Leading Notes becomes one of those spaces.
Now, while this shouldn’t be a surprise, I am here to say that the state of our profession is not strong.
(Wait for gasps, surprised whispering, and an angry, “You lie!”)
Okay, okay, settle down. To put it in terms that may be more palatable: Things are not going particularly well right now.
The list of bad news keeps piling up:
- In an age of assessment and standards, music is having a hard time finding its footing among our modern “core” subjects – math, science, and English.
- Music programs were already being slashed prior to our nation sliding into a recession. With schools needing to ensure that their math and science scores improve, school boards and administrators feel forced to divert more money to those areas that get tested by the state.
- Despite the fact that student interest and access to music must be at or near an all-time high (76% of all children, ages 8 – 18, own an mp3 player), only 21% of high school seniors actively engage in music. In California, a study showed that student enrollment in music declined a whopping 50% in a five-year period ending in 2004.
We must not make the mistake of confusing a poor or difficult situation with one that is hopeless. We have options, but they will require the efforts of music teachers all over the country. The solution to our dwindling relevance in the sphere of education is multi-faceted and the only way we are going to be able to succeed is by acknowledging that the times have not been kind to us.
Some may say, “Nick, you’re overreacting. Music education has been doing well for the majority of the last century! There are bound to be periods of decreased importance and visibility and this is just one of those moments. Don’t worry! Everything will be okay.” And, to be fair, those individuals may very well be right. This could just be a rough patch for a field that has enjoyed a fair amount of support and success over the years. However, unless we are absolutely positive that our state of affairs will rebound – and I don’t think we can be – we must respond both quickly and decisively to ensure our profession’s success. On some level, my hope is that if I make a dire case about the state of our profession, then others, by at least acknowledging that something needs to change, will meet me half way.
My dire proclamations do not mean that I think music education is doomed. In order to help turn things around, we must do four things:
- We must broaden our conception of the music that is worth studying in school;
- We must embrace technology in the same way that the rest of the world has;
- We must keep up with the latest practices in education at large;
- And, we must stop using the idea that music will make children better students to justify its inclusion within the school day.
Rethink “Good Music”
Ever since the early 20th century, various reasons have existed for including music in our schools. Among those was the democratic ideal that American students should have access to the highest level of culture that, seemingly, all children in Europe enjoyed. Because America, in comparison, was still a young nation trying to establish its identity, it makes complete sense that our citizens would want to invest in the cultural capital that classical music provided. Frances Elliot Clark, an early adopter of the phonograph in the classroom and a member of the MENC Hall of Fame, believed that, “If America is ever to become a great nation musically, as she has become commercially and politically, it must come through educating everybody to know and love good music”.
Of course, actually defining good music proves problematic. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu believed that the taste for good music (or “bad” music) is something that is learned, not innate. This initial observation might seem to support the idea of learning only classical music in school, but Bourdieu also believed that our tastes are a product of a “specific process… of [repetition] characteristic of the educational system as it applies to upper- and (some) middle-class families.” Bourdieu believed that a person’s taste was an effort to define themselves as different from others – “the pursuit of distinction,” in his words. By separating ourselves from the “bad” taste of popular music (e.g., rock, hip-hop, country), music educators are attempting to elevate our profession into a higher class – one that is above the tastes of the average American. In my opinion, it is important to understand that this distinction between good and bad music is, at least in many ways political, as much as musical. By opening our classes to a wide variety of styles, we open our doors to a wide variety of students who would benefit from the experiences we can provide.
Unfortunately, as a profession we often separate the music we listen to in our personal lives from the music that we think is appropriate to share with students in our professional lives. This simple concept reveals a couple of important ideas:
- As trained musicians, we enjoy a wide variety of music and find significant value in music from all genres.
- Our classroom musical offerings are incomplete and, in some ways, disingenuous. If the “experts” in music find value in genres other than classical, intentionally keeping it out of the classroom provides our students with an incomplete picture of the role of music in our society.
This last point is important. As educators, we shouldn’t actively engage in reinforcing stereotypes concerning culture or taste – especially when we enjoy this music within the comforts of our own homes. Perhaps it is this disconnect that is causing our numbers to dwindle. Simply, we are no longer as relevant as we once were. However, the good news is that by all accounts, any music class that offers to engage students in the type of music that is considered “popular” attracts immediate attention. We must capitalize on that enthusiasm.
I know it is a cliché, but Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity seems to make my point better than I can: “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Our profession’s consistent resistance to broadening our conception of “good music” is alarming. And, in the face of the nationwide budget cuts that are eliminating good music programs, that resistance is simply confusing.
(Except for a smattering of claps, nobody feels like applauding.)
The invention of the phonograph at the turn of the 20th century would allow access to “good music” to any person or school that could afford the cost of the machine. This new ability to bring classical music, fully realized, into the classroom would create a form of music education that was called music appreciation – a term that has proved to be problematic for over 75 years. After the phonograph, the radio also provided a new point of access for students and teachers all over the country. In fact, in 1942, MENC President Lilla Belle Pitts said, “no product of modern science has greater educational potentialities than radio”. That statement was backed up with the resources of MENC as it worked to ensure that quality programming was made available over the public airwaves. I find it striking that the phonograph and the radio had such immediate impacts in how we taught music to children, but the computer has failed to truly find a home in the music room. Those periods of technological transition proved to be beneficial for music education and our resistance to the power of the computer is both puzzling and counterproductive.
Assess and Differentiate
While still recognizing that music is not a typical school subject (see below), music teachers need to find ways to engage in the modern world of education in the United States. The days of rehearsing tirelessly for a concert and simply giving everybody a grade are over. As often as possible, it is important that we provide concrete assessments that honestly measure student progress. While giving attention to every student should be a justifiable cause by itself, the added benefit of being able to show data to parents, administrators, and school board members will help create the feeling that the music department is doing its part to demonstrate student learning. And, when school budgets are being slashed, the ability to quantifiably demonstrate student achievement will go a long way in helping to stave off cuts to your program.
Make the Right Case for Music Education
As I’ve said before, nobody gets into teaching music because they want to help kids raise their math or science scores. By constantly harping on the extramusical benefits of music, we present arguments that lack the adequate passion to be effective. If we were to succeed in making the case that a solid foundation in music simply makes children better students, then what will we do when a cheaper, quicker alternative is found that is just as helpful?
Instead of telling people that music will make you smarter, why don’t we ask them one question: “How can a finished citizen be made in an artless town?”
That question is from a radio speech that John Dewey gave in 1940. (You can read the amazing 3-page speech here.) A question like that changes the discussion. It focuses our attention on the role of art in creating a citizen, not just a future worker. In order to reinforce this idea of the importance of art in shaping our country, Dewey also provides this insight when he says:
It is by creation of the intangibles of science and philosophy, and especially by those of the arts, that countries and communities have won immortality for themselves after material wealth has crumbled into dust. What has been true of other peoples will be true of our own. Creation, not acquisition, is the measure of a nation’s rank; it is the only road to an enduring place in the admiring memory of mankind. [emphasis added]
Of course, we know that Dewey was right. Why then, instead of focusing on the power of art, have we allowed ourselves to make a completely different argument about test scores that we don’t entirely believe? Our message about music’s ability to increase math and science scores drips of cynicism – a belief that the public cannot and will not understand our real vision for music education. If we are to survive as a profession, we have to believe that Americans are capable of hearing messages like Dewey’s.
I would like to clarify that a shift in our approach to teaching music to children does not mean that we must abandon our traditional curricular ensembles. The suggestions I have discussed are designed to be additions to what we already offer, not replacements. Our bands, choirs, and orchestras have established themselves as an integral part of the American public school experience and keeping them alive is one of the main goals of expanding our musical offerings.
If music education is going to start moving in the right direction, we must realize that the reforms I’ve discussed don’t start at the national level; they start with each and every music teacher in America reaffirming their belief that music education is worth saving, while acknowledging that our approaches to advocacy and our very conception of music education must change to fit the times.
The realization that music education must change is not a criticism of what the profession has successfully done for 100 years; it is an affirmation that our world is different, whether we like it or not, and that if we want to continue educating America’s children, we must change. If we don’t, music education will be remembered as just an experiment in our public school system — one that, while successful in the 20th century, ultimately didn’t have a place in the 21st.
In closing, remember that change can start right now – with you and me agreeing to do our part to positively impact our profession’s future. Let’s join those incredible teachers who have already started us on this journey. And, at the risk of sounding cliché again, I feel that I should remind you that Gandhi told the world that we must “be the change” that we want to see.
And, while we may not fully grasp all of the steps necessary to inspire our students and save our profession, we do know that the first step is easy and that it can be climbed right now. Make that decision to “be the change” and then keep moving forward, bringing others with you. The more we commit ourselves to take that first step, the higher the possibility will be that we’ll recapture the support of parents, administrators, and elected officials who are in the best position to help. And, even more importantly, we will recapture the imagination of our children and help them to enjoy the same richness of experiences through music that brought us into this profession in the first place.
Thank you. God bless you, and may God bless the profession of music education.
 Elpus, K. & Abril, C. (in press). High school music students in the United States: A demographic profile. Journal of Research in Music Education.
 Mark Katz. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Forever, Revised Edition. University of California Press, 2010, p. 59.
 Katz, p. 58.
 Richard Jenkins. Pierre Bourdieu: Key Sociologists, Revised Edition. Routledge, 2002, p. 133.
 As opposed to a piano reduction, which would have been the only option available to a classroom music teacher (if they could even play the piano).
 CBS American School of the Air. School of the Air of the Americas, teachers manual 1942-1943. Columbia Broadcasting System, 1942, p. 33,
 Nick Jaworski. Learning through the static: A look at the forces behind music education over the radio. Unpublished research paper, 2010.
 (While there are programs out there that assess and differentiate, I have witnessed the incredible teaching and organization of Michael McManis and Matthew Dethrow at Kennedy Junior High School. While their website isn’t designed to instruct other teachers on their system, a trip there is still revealing. Visit it here.
 I’m not trying to bring religion into this discussion, I’m just mimicking what all of our Presidents say (“Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.”)
Nick Jaworski is a graduate student in music education and communication at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois. In addition to teaching introductory music education technology classes at the university, he serves as the Vice-President of Secondary General Music-Elect for the Illinois Music Educators Association. Previous to graduate school, Nick taught band, music appreciation, and rock & roll methods at Winnebago High School, in Winnebago, IL. Ways to get in touch: Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick currently blogs at teachingmusic.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JaworskiMusic.
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