Thursday, December 17, 2009

School Band Programs Are Dying

By Mark Burke

As schools cut elementary and middle school band programs, the future of high school (and college) programs is unclear. I am sad to say that even in my own backyard, I see evidence that band programs continue to shrink or at minimum, not grow. While my observations are anecdotal, it does not take a data collection effort to see large school stages, once filled with musicians, now occupied by small ensembles as a sign of the negative changes occurring. For sure it would be unfair to say that all schools, even in my own area are shrinking. It is also unfair to say that shrinking bands are not quality bands. I was once the director of a 25 piece Marching Band that performed well. So for clarity, my point is not that small is worse.

The point is though, that there are others who see the shrinking of bands as the real, global issue that it is. This video by ABC represents what others are experiencing in their communities. Bands are shrinking now more than ever due to budget constraints and school beliefs.

Marching to the Sound of Silence

Schools no doubt choose to cut elementary and middle school programs first. Those programs can more quickly fade away. If students do not have the option to join, the thought is that they will simply move on to other choices. Eliminating a high school program means eliminating the history of both the student performers and the band. High School bands are highly visible in the community so eliminating them ignites many emotions. For schools, this means the "anger" of the community can enter the board room, a situation schools want to avoid. Cutting the elementary program at first seems easier and less controvesial.

Over time, that decision will impact the high school, college and professional musical ensembles. With no feeder systems, those programs are sure to suffer. A decision that seems easier at first becomes gradually harder to deal with over time. Of course, it's only harder to deal with for the people who want and need music in their lives. Raise your hand if that is you. I fear too many people forget that the music they appreciate and listen to each and every day started in quality, elementary music programs in some way, shape or form. If you were responsible for cutting a program at some level, and raised your hand indicating you need music in your life, it's time to rethink your actions.

What role do music teachers play? First, times have changed. It is no longer feasible to think band programs can thrive following the old school ways of engaging students. Lessons must create excitement in students. When they leave the lesson room, they must feel rewarded and motivated to work hard toward clearly defined goals. The days of listening to students each week, with only a pencil and lesson book in hand are over. As teachers, we must have a planned course of action for our students, a learning plan. We must set goals and show students how to reach them. We must demonstrate that music is a learned art, a subject that has value beyond just pushing buttons and blowing air into a horn.

Teachers must also make use of tools outside their comfort zone in order to bring awareness to their program, ensure educational value, learn new techniques and create opportunities for students. I will go so far as to say, if you are a band director and make limited use of technology, it's time for a change. The change goes beyond taking a class on using the internet. You must get past understanding what tools exist and move to integration quickly if we expect our art to survive. Educational Technology is not the end all solution. The tools are there to help us as educators meet our instructional goals. When instrumental music teachers begin to demonstrate our role in the overall education of students, and the impact on our communities, we will start to rebuild instrumental music's place in education.

Where should we start? Start by having open discussions on this topic. Search the web and you will quickly see our profession keeps this topic wrapped up. There is little public discussion going on about how we can help each other. Even on the top Band Director Facebook page, little interaction is occurring on the topic. Start here. Share your thoughts.

Am I wrong? Are band programs NOT dying? What can we do here and now for the future?

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