Rich Choir, Poor Choir, Politics Call the Tune

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Can you imagine a school football team that still uses leather helmets and metal spiked cleats? A team where each player is required to provide his own various non-standard helmet, pads, and related safety equipment along with providing the very ball with which to play? Sports have their place, they are important to schools on a very rich level, and I don’t want anyone to think I don’t value their contribution. However it saddens me to see a rich investment in a school football program while the choral programs are left to perform often in student-provided “formalwear” or in matching t-shirts because the people providing the funding have misplaced priorities.

With April upon us, I’m fresh off of the flurry of state “MEA” shows for the Winter 2016 season. I’ve been to Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Tennessee MEAs since December 2015. I met amazing music educators of all stripes, teaching varied music programs that range from the very utmost in traditional choral programs, to more non-traditional programs that include a show choir component. I saw students dressed to the nine’s in formal wear and performance gowns, and I saw students who held their heads high and performed in less glamorous apparel, but were just happy to be on the trip and singing.

I met directors who were fortunate enough to be part of a school program with multiple directors and a music department staff that rivaled some small colleges, for whom their only role was directing multiple levels of choral programs. I met directors for whom the idea of being shared between multiple schools was completely foreign, who glowed about the astounding support their administrations give to music, who recognize the importance of their programs to the overall academic life of their students.

I also met a lot of teachers from smaller districts, who not only were shared between middle and high school music programs, who had one kind of choral program at a time at each school, because their other time at these schools was spent serving as the general music teacher, the music appreciation teacher, the “specialty” music teacher teaching guitar, and even the band director, for whom a dedicated program with one teacher at a school teaching music was not soon going to be a reality. The common threads I found among this group of teachers: a lack of investment by the districts in music education. The common threads between the well-to-do-programs and the ones I just described? Dedicated music educators who get it, and students for whom going to school is largely important to them because of their music programs. Students for whom getting up and getting to school each day is largely motivated by their music programs, and the teachers they are lucky enough to learn from, funding or not.

As hard as it is to believe in the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, there are school district administrators, school board members and superintendents, who think music classes are not that important. These districts invest the least in financial and human resources for teaching music, and they reap the inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy of struggling music programs with fewer interested students because the students don’t see the value being placed in it by the school.

Parents can’t and should not be expected to raise outrageous sums of money each year to support music programs at a cellular level. While booster clubs and fundraising are critical parts of most choral programs, well funded or not-so-much, at the end of the day, this is a priority at the voting booth. From the highest offices in the land to the highest offices in your state, and yes, right down to your local elections, the people who get the votes make the budgets. As we look at this often dramatic national election season in front of us now, perhaps this is a good opportunity to share a small side-lesson on civics with your music students and remind them that their program is as funded as the national, state, and local politicians want it to be, and the importance of their eventually exercising their right to be heard at the polls, choosing political leaders who will fund music education. 

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