I Thought Music Was Supposed to Be Fun

A friend sent me to a link to an article which appeared in The New York Times several days ago.  It was on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

Race to the Top is the latest federal effort to reform public education and try to rectify some of the flaws in No Child Left Behind.  States submit their education reform plans to receive federal funds for implementation.  It gives the states more control of education reform and keeps the feds from imposing its own.  But think about this for a moment.  A race implies winners and losers.  What happens to the student who lives in a state which did not get money for education reform?  So, a student loses out because state officials were not as creative or bold as officials in another state?

Although I’ve got some choice comments on that, I want to consider the article’s reference to New York State’s plans (which US DOE approved) to assess teacher performance through student test results instead.  Testing will expand from the usual academic subjects like English, history, science, and math to school music programs.

Back when I worked for a local school district, my office was in one of the elementary schools.  I remember watching the fourth graders in the halls after they finished their state mandated assessment tests (we call them MCAS here in Massachusetts).  The kids looked wrung out.  Typically they looked happy, many with laughing smiles.  After the test they had no spring in their steps and their faces were pretty glum.

So, New York wants instrumental teachers to assess their students.  Honestly, I’m not sure how they can listen to all their students play individually.  Maybe they can each play a scale, but I can see where some people will not think that is rigorous enough.

At the risk of sounding as though music is less important than other subjects, why are these students being tested anyway, except for the school administration to assess the instrumental teacher.  Most of the kids who take instruments, especially in elementary school are not necessarily taking the instrument to be the next Wynton Marsalis or the next Hilary Hahn; they want to make music because music is fun, wonderful, and beautiful.

What does adequate yearly progress mean for music students anyway?  Some will do very well and others will not.  Some children come from households where music is as natural as breathing and others from households where music is foreign.  There are some children who are simply musically gifted and others who will never get past the basics.  Some children will be able to practice, whereas others can’t or won’t.

Then we have the question about instruments.  Many children begin their music lessons with rentals.  They are rarely quality instruments.  They can even pose an impediment to good playing.  How fair is an assessment when the student’s instrument hampers his or her playing?

Music should be a part of every child’s experience in school because it is culturally enriching and it can foster a lifelong appreciation for aural beauty.  I also believe that part of that experience should include music lessons, either vocal or instrumental, and that each child should be able to find his or her own comfort level with playing.  If a student can’t play, that’s fine.  At least that student can learn to appreciate music for its sheer pleasure.

However, by subjecting music lessons to a test to assess the instrumental teacher robs music of its pleasure.  It renders music just like science, English, history, or math.  (I don’t wish to imply that there is no pleasure in those subjects; some students get a great amount of pleasure from those subjects.)  It places pressure upon music lessons by saying, “You must excel.  You have to meet certain benchmarks.”  It takes the pleasure out of music.  It implicitly says, “You don’t study music for fun or beauty.”

Let’s be real.  Students are smart enough to know their musical abilities after awhile.  They can see some of their classmates are excellent musicians, but they are not.  They might decide that they’re comfortable where they are musically and that they want to put their energy into another subject or another art.  Making an assessment of their playing to meet certain benchmarks is exactly the strategy we need to make them stop playing before they’re ready.  The experience may turn them off to music’s pleasures altogether.

I don’t think people realize how music can support academics.  Students who excel in music know discipline and hard work pay off because that’s what got them to play so well.  I found that playing violin trained me to concentrate on my work because practicing required all my concentration.  Even those who studied instruments for a few years and gave them up will have learned the value of discipline and hard work.

Already music programs in the schools are hanging by a thread.  The emphasis on standardized testing in academic subjects has rendered music programs in some schools second class.  In those schools music lessons and ensemble rehearsals are cursory at best, which compromises the music program.  School budgets barely set aside money for music, maybe a few hundred dollars for the year, which is to cover music purchases (ever price music scores? imagine buying enough parts for the orchestra on that budget) and instrument maintenance.  Annual assessments as New York seeks to implement will drive students out of music programs, which will leave fewer students to study, which will make it even harder to justify what little the music departments receive.

Maybe the best idea may be to eliminate music programs altogether.  Let’s stop making believe we’re giving our children a comprehensive education that helps them to grow intellectually, physically, and artistically.  Take the few hundred dollars the music programs receive and buy textbooks so students don’t have to be 10 to 15 years behind in science and history.

Then we can wait a generation.  When the students become adults we’ll wonder why our concert halls look even emptier.  We’ll reminisce how days of yore seemed more civilized and the world seemed more beautiful.  We won’t have to worry about community bands, orchestras, or choruses because there won’t be enough amateur musicians to form the groups.  We might find ourselves saying to our grandchildren, “We used to have music in school because it gave us pleasure.  We had pleasure for pleasure’s sake.”

Testing music students to assess teacher performance.  It’s one of the more boneheaded things I’ve read in a long time.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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