Much of my recent non-music writing has been in the area of music advocacy. This article should come as no surprise that I am once again waving the flag, but this time I am looking to get the attention of a different audience. As I look ahead to my doctoral studies at Kent State University, the area of music advocacy is one area that I feel that music educators (and future music educators) must take greater care in developing as part of our profession. We must strive to make every class (like that being offered by the creative Owen Bradley) and every academic and extra-curricular ensemble provide a meaningful connection with music for our students and grow within them a respect and admiration for this art to which we have given our careers.
Of all the battles I have faced during my tenure in the public schools, this is the easiest. We sometimes are the most consistent factor each day in a student’s life – and like Uncle Ben said to Peter “With great power comes great responsibility.” It also just so happens that we teach the most dynamic, cross-curricular, aesthetically appealing unique subjects in the history of the world – and if you missed it earlier reference Peter Parker’s uncle listed above. Our students may have trouble admitting it, but they want this exposure to everything that music can offer them: Appreciation as an individual? Step up to the mic and play over the changes Coltrane Jr. Contributions to a team that can achieve great things? Ask the GCC Marching Band how they felt after the Clarion County Festival a few weeks ago. Experiencing the height of human emotion and beauty? How about the Vaughan William’s “Variation on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”, Morten Lauridsen “O Magnum Mysterium”, or even “October” by Eric Whitacre (yes, he’s a youngster, but he is so good!). Power? Intensity? Drama? Mahler, Beethoven, Respighi. This is the easy battle. It’s when they leave the school day at 3:15 p.m., or after marching band, or show choir, or district festival practice….the battle at home begins.
No matter what they tell you in your methods, education psychology, foundations of education, or learning theories classes it comes down to this: Kids struggle in school because of heredity and environment. Why is being a public advocate of music so important? If you lose the battle at home, YOU WILL LOSE THE WAR. Educating the students about music is easy. Educating the parents who we only see at concerts, games (where a music group is performing), and booster meetings is ultimately tougher. We have limited time with them. We don’t have time to build the relationship of trust and communication with them like we do their children. Worse yet, talking with several colleagues who had recent confrontations with a parent, there seems to be less and less parents who have established a value system for music within their family setting. The impression I am left by some parents is that music is not a “real” subject. It is a course designed to give the core classes their prep time. It should therefore stand to reason that discipline problems within music do not matter, and attendance at a concert should be optional not mandatory.
I feel sorry for any family who feels this way. They are cheating themselves of the greatest of human experiences. Worse yet, they have cut off another generation from this experience because of their own myopic, uninformed, and uneducated point of view. They will pass this off as “I don’t understand music, so why would my kid?” Le the trained music educator expose your child to something you don’t understand so that maybe – just maybe – your child will become something greater than you. And as a parent, that is what I want for my three daughters – how about you?
Why is this battle so tough today? I can offer a few thoughts that we should consider. But I am more interested in giving some suggestions to all of you about how to start winning the battle on the home front for the good of music education and your program. First of all, I believe our microwave society is a detriment. We want instant gratification – something that goes against the very core of music’s being. Parents want instant success for our kids, and there are many bad avenues out there to explore. We can roll a ball out on the grass, watch six children swarm around it like bees around a hive and they call it a soccer team. Put six instruments in a room with six children and at the end of a day you have a music shop repairman’s nightmare. I use soccer as an example – we aren’t concerned with the quality of the experience, just so the child has the experience….and has time to get to another experience….which gets me to my next point. Will someone start telling the college and university admissions office that filling a resume with line after line after line of meaningless experience as officer for every tom, dick, and harry club in high school does not constitute a quality student? All this experience, but yet: what is this student actually good at? What did they really apply themselves in during these years. I grow increasingly frustrated with the over-commitment that stems from some parents making their kid do it all. Finally, my last suggestion as to the battle points towards the cheapening of the musical experience that has occurred thanks to MTV over the past 20 years. The students in high school and middle school now are products of the first MTV generation. Pop music has reigned supreme, and we all let the TV beast with its mindless stories of the pop star, their entourage, their trite songs of getting wasted, having a good time, their hardships growing up in Detroit suburbs (sorry Marshall Mathers….) tell us that this was music. Let me be clear on this point: Pop music is junk food. It isn’t bad to have once in a while. Too much of it and we are all going to be obese and blame McDonald’s…er….wait a minute! Do we have another instance of art imitating life?
We must fight for what we believe to be true about music all the time, and that means stepping outside our “box” and taking the battle home. This can alter the future of music education either way. My friend Joe and I go back and forth on this very point: What will music education be in the public schools in another 40 years? Will the traditional school ensembles and music classes exist as we know them? Or will the deluge of curriculum trimming, lack of financial support, and collapse of support and appreciation by parents and community members relegate music as a mystic art studied for the sole purpose of being able to play “Brittney Spears at age 50: Whoops I’ve fallen again, and I can’t get up!”?
The fight is on, and the fight is now. Some solutions I would offer to all of you as the education outside the school day begins:
1) Program Notes at Concerts: I use program notes at every concert. I am very particular about what they say and what information it reveals to the audience. It also allows me to expand my own notes to the audience when I choose to speak. As many parents drop their students off for a concert, they might actually enjoy having something to read! On a PSSA related note (hope your reading this Governor Rendell), it does promote literacy.
2) Host an “Informance”: Hold an open rehearsal with your ensembles in the evening. Allow the parents to sit side by side with their child in a live rehearsal. It might be loud (suggest earplugs), but they will have a better understanding of what their child is expected to do in your ensemble. If any of the parents are musicians have a side-by-side rehearsal. You could even program a song at an upcoming concert and invite them to play. Choruses do a great job with this at Christmas with the singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Ed Lisk originally developed this idea and has some great formats in his books.
3) Parent/Student Contracts: For several of my after school groups, I make use of a contract. It gives the family the opportunity to declare known conflicts with the ensemble, and I know that the family reads the material about the ensemble as it requires parental and student signature before it is returned. It is one form of communication that can prevent unwanted and unpleasant confrontations.
4) Monthly Newsletter: I compose a monthly newsletter to distribute to my students. It includes news about the curricular and extra-curricular bands. It also includes news from our Booster organization. Special kudos to outstanding musicians and a full calendar on the reverse side of that month’s band dates. A great way to communicate and administrate without sacrificing rehearsal time to read through a list of announcements.
5) Say Thank You: Express your gratitude frequently to the parents who are supportive of your efforts. It may only start with 3 or 4, but it is a start. A handshake and a kind word to let a parent know that you appreciate how they have raised their child, how much their support means to music and the program will sometimes go a lot farther than a pizza fundraiser. Tom Zumpella always told me that a phone call to say thanks is an easy thing to do, and if you can’t find a phone they do make nice little cards you can write in and address yourself.
I will leave you with a quote/paraphrase from Dr. Jack Stamp that I heard a number of years ago, but am only beginning to understand. At a Region Band, he was commenting that a parent said his choice of music wasn’t very “entertaining”. He responded by saying “I am a music educator. If you want entertainment, turn on the television.” We can find moments of entertainment to share with our community, our students, and our parents as long as they align with our goal to allow every student to connect with music in a meaningful way. What we must find is our desire to educate both in school and at home. We have tremendous power as music educators. Share the vision you have and empower music education at school and at home.