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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night*

A colleague whom I've known since our undergrad days recently posted a Music In Our Schools Month meme, and added a few choice words in recognition of some issues he's having with the state of Music Education in his area. This was my response:

It's tempting to give an "Elevator Speech" answer to that question, but it deserves better, we both know that. From a music history standpoint, Jazz Band is as central to the music curriculum as American History is to the Social Studies folks. It may simply be a numbers game, Roger.  Band directors are putting their core ensemble, be it Marching band, concert band--whatever the largest number of kids is--in the class schedule in the hope of keeping it viable in the eyes of administrators.  

Academic demands have increased. More time and attention are being given to STEM and Language classes. The impression is that colleges want to see AP and Honors on those core classes. As a result, students, parents, and music educators are put in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between an arts class or no arts class.  When we were in high school in the 1970’s, we could take band and orchestra or band and choir during the same class week. There weren’t many of us who did, but we at least had that opportunity.  From a student body of 1000 at Holland (MI) High School, we had 150 in the marching band, well over 100 in four choirs, and 40-50 in the orchestra.  Some cross-over, but not a lot. As a music educator in 2015, you’re risking a lot to add to the curriculum, particularly at the secondary level. Adding Jazz Band to the class day could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your best players will become stronger musicians for the experience. On the other hand, you might not be able to stack that ensemble the way it should be because of class conflicts.  I had a 30-piece band at one of my last teaching assignments, playing well, doing right—only to have the principal say, well, these students can graduate early if they take this class, and kablooey, there goes half the group. My complaints fell on her deaf ears, and when I persisted I was reassigned.

Part of the problem here too, is that school administrations tend to have very narrow ideas of what a music program should be.  The biggest disaster is the concept that it should be all things to all people. It needs a central mission, a vision. Proverbs 29:18 says it best: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (KJV). Band programs wither and die, too, and it’s sad.

In an ideal world, where the elementary and middle grade feeder program was solid and well-supported, I’d do this for my high schoolers:

1)      Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band would be classified as Honors classes, where there are prerequisites, auditions, and high expectations. Concert programs would be created “Collegium Musicum” style, whereby a different era, composer, or geographic area (or other criteria at the teacher’s discretion) would be studied in depth each semester, much like a school’s theater department concentrates on a certain play each semester or season. Administrators would have to understand that they couldn’t arbitrarily put student X in the group “because there’s room”.
2)      Concert Band would be the core of the wind band program, out of which comes
a.       Marching band, out of which comes
                                                               i.      Auxiliaries (flags, rifles, drumline) and winter guard, all meeting evenings and weekends
3)      Chamber Music would include Rock and Jazz combos, handled as group lessons taught on a “pull-out” basis and/or after school, with regularly scheduled performance opportunities.

Unfortunately, it’s not an ideal world, is it?

*--composition for Concert Band by Elliott Del Borgo, 1978; also scored for full orchestra.
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