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Forecasting Music Education: Down the Rabbit Hole

By Laurie Schell

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We are all Alice. We tumbled down the rabbit hole a year ago into a strange land. And like Alice, we are by turns bewildered and downhearted, yet determined.

Unlike Alice, as we grapple with the urgency of every day, we know it’s not a dream that will end on our waking.

Equity

As we have seen, some districts turned to online instruction readily, while others spent precious resources initially in feeding the children. Access to devices and secure internet connections highlighted inequities in high poverty and rural districts. We’ve experienced a grab bag of instructional models– totally virtual, hybrid, and in-person. With a push for in-school instruction, inequities persist. Some teachers are just meeting their students in person for the first time this year. The future means managing expectations, addressing inequities of access, and keeping the spotlight on the essential nature of music.

Virtual Learning

Many believe that some type of virtual learning is here to stay. That can be a good thing if it challenges our preconceptions of what music instruction “should” look like. A new focus on deeper learning and creativity is hopeful.

“A major shift has occurred that opens up new possibilities for individualized learning guided by teacher/learning managers; large group experiences may come in cycles with other learning and students have the opportunity for deeper learning through creative teaching that supports the larger group experiences….”

~Mary Luehrsen, NAMM, April 2020

That said, the virtual model has taken a toll. Some music teachers are reporting declining enrollment in music programs as they return to school. Student mental health issues loom as a health crisis in itself. Teacher stress is a primary cause for teachers exiting the profession. Our collective grief and loss must be acknowledged with accessible trauma-informed care and expressive arts therapies.

Flexibility

The future will favor the nimble. It will also favor those most open to change and willing to consider a range of possible futures.  Music teachers have done more than pivot. We’ve seen triple pirouettes, with virtual classrooms, adaptation to protective gear, leaps in technology, and re-vamping curriculum.

“… I truly believe what and how music educators teach will shift. …The very definition of music education has quickly expanded to include student generated content and constructed knowledge that expands beyond performance, which in turn will lead to lifelong learning and independent musicianship.”

~Anne Fennell, San Diego Unified School District, April 2020

Activism

We know historically what happens to the arts in times of diminished resources. We anticipate threats that may impact staffing levels, scheduling, partnerships, and availability of instructional resources.

Post-COVID 19 changes to public education are inevitable. Federal dollars may not be enough to backfill shrinking coffers at the local level. Some music programs are experiencing reduced enrollment, putting them at risk. Districts will have increased flexibility in how to spend education dollars with a higher priority on reading and math remediation, perhaps hindering the arts.  We must be vigilant, protect music programs, and embrace our role as advocates.

Silver Linings

It’s fair to say the value of music education is universally accepted. Music education is the law, with major policy victories with ESSA and Title IV-A funding and strong policies at the state level.

Stronger connections are taking root between music and community organizations, STEAM, arts integration, social emotional learning, and racial and social justice work. More schools are embracing music technology and contemporary genres.

Feeding Our Souls

We can attest that the past year has allowed (forced) us to think about our own journey—the big questions of self-worth, mortality, and existence.

When we emerge fully from COVID, the world we have known and functioned in will not be something we can “go back” to. We have the tools to adapt. By its very nature, music is improvisational, ever adaptable and fluid, allowing us to express our deepest self and respond to our changing world.

“In this moment all of us are challenged to reach deep within ourselves. As we contemplate what will be different in the world, we think about what will be different for us as humans. Think of the essentials, what provides us with joy, inspiration, and a sense of continuity. Art is that thing. Creating, listening, observing, understanding art is the ultimate crucible that will sustain us in the days ahead.”             

~Joe Landon, former executive director, California Alliance for Arts Education, April 2020

Yes, we are all Alice, tumbling in a strange land. And yet, one year in, we are comforted knowing that music is a forged-in-fire, life-affirming belief that will sustain us.

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education. elevateartsed.org

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