I write this article for the March issue of Choral Director on President’s Day as the snow is falling in New York. Halfway through the month of February, it feels like the longest month of the year here in the Northeast, even with regular sunset walks and fireside gatherings. I’ve read that winter is supposed to be a slower time of year per our natural biorhythms; that we rest and store up energy for busy times when the days are longer. My advice to music education advocates everywhere is to rest now because some of the most intensive and exciting days for music education are ahead of us!
For many years – possibly decades – music and arts education advocates have responded to threats of cuts to programs during school budget cycles each spring. During the months of March through June, I would receive plaintive phone calls from people around the country who were worried and/or desperate after hearing their music programs were to be reduced or eliminated. Each caller asked me to “do something – send a celebrity, write a press release, call the national guard!” – anything to make the threat of a cut to a music program “go away.” My advice was always the same: gather like-minded parents to organize and share a positive message about the benefits of music education; speak respectfully and sensibly to school leaders (administration and board); carve out a plan for sustaining access; build a temporary “fix it” to bridge to better times; and work to secure as much opportunity for music learning for all students as possible. My advice is based on “we have to work together to do the right thing for kids.” Over time, local advocates turned what was a “911” call for help to stop the elimination of a music program into a “wellness care and management” program designed to nurture and expand the support for music education.
With the passage of the federal education reauthorization, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), new opportunities for expanding and developing music education are more attainable than ever. Among the new law’s requirements is accountability for “school climate,” and already, we are hearing from school and district leaders that they are looking to music and arts education expansion to help meet goals for improving student engagement and to enhance student connection to school. From what I’ve heard, school administrators and district leaders want MORE music education and MORE diverse music learning experiences that reach and serve more students. And with this call to “give us MORE” they are signaling to professional music and arts educators and their community arts collaborators to build high quality, impactful and sustainable music and arts education curricula.
All of this is to say that now is the time to plant the seeds of expansion and development for music education programs in all school districts across the country. If your school or district has a fairly solid band, choir and orchestra program serving single digit percentages of students in the middle and high school years, now is the time to suggest curriculum expansion to include classroom guitar, world drumming or music learning via the vast offering through technology. If your school or district offers general music for all elementary students, now is the time to assure that all students receive equitable access via district-wide assessment of students’ opportunity to learn music (equity of teacher-time); and it could be time to expand “time to learn” for all students. Now is also the time to expand project-based music learning via composition, improvisation or steel drum ensemble or think way outside the box and start a instrument training program in high school – no performance expectations, just total immersion into the elements of music and playing an instrument.
A remarkable opportunity awaits. Let’s do this!