Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Do Students Do When the Band is Gone?

By Mark T. Burke

Visit http://www.hpsd.k12.pa.us/archives/music/band02.htm
Bands go away every year for 10's of thousands of students.  Not because they are eliminated, but because students graduate from high schools and colleges.  When students leave those institutions of learning, they leave behind one of our most revered and cherished musical ensembles, the band.  It's no secret that we no longer live in the 1920's.  Bands just aren't part of our culture, ingrained into the social and musical activities of every community like they used to be.  Have you ever noticed how many restaurant chains use old community band pictures to decorate their walls?  These pictures remind us of a time when bands played a significant role in the musical entertainment of the day.  It's sort of ironic to me; placing those pictures on the walls. What are we saying?  Do we miss those days? We may, but not enough to cause a shift in our activities and maybe that is ok.  But the point is, for many students each year, band becomes a part of their history, not their future.

Last week, I spent 3 days surrounded by innovative educators, learning about the "here and now" and what the future holds.  We looked at learning from many different angles including online delivery, the role of social media, they ways learning can improve organizational performance, mobile learning and more.  The more powerful conversations occurred between presentations actually, which I am certain the organizers of the Bloomsburg University Corporate Advisory Council would not mind me saying. One of those conversations for me was a conversation around..."What do students do when the band is gone?" 

I believe for many students, when they leave high school or college, with no band to be part of, their musical interest waver.  I know many continue in some fashion, but what fashion?  What do these students do with their musical interest after school?  It is my belief that this is where music educators should place our focus.  When we focus on the "here and now", we focus on what we can do to make our bands better and disregard the fact that after school, we will essentially be turning our students loose on a world we have not prepared them for (at least musically).  Or, maybe a better way to put it, when they graduate, they show US what we could have been teaching in our classrooms, what WE could have been engaging in with them.  Yes, they show us what music will mean to them for the rest of their lives .... and the question is...are WE listening? 

Think about it this way...we know that 85-95% of students will graduate with little to no chance they will continue to participate in an ensemble such as ours.  Doesn't this concern us?  Now, I am not advocating that ensembles are not critical to music education..they are...but should they be our core?  What can we learn about what students do with music after school that can help us develop relevant programs?  A fellow instructional designer and musician asked me last week...What's the answer? 

When students graduate, they become more individual.  I see this with students I have worked with.  They graduate and then we start to get to know them better.  Their personal interests and desires start to become more visible through their activities, what they say and do, how they interact, who they choose to interact with.  They grow and evolve.  Who hasn't taught the shy kid who graduates from high school and then blossoms?  Some of my most recent students have driven this idea home for me.  I follow them using social media and NOW I see what their musical interests are.  They share their musical tastes, their activities and seek out rewarding musical experiences for themselves.  I see pictures of them participating in musical activities, going to concerts and more.  I feel now I am getting the real picture of their music interests.  Oh...and I have yet to see BAND at the core of those interests. 

So back to the question.  I believe the answer is...create music programs within our schools that provide the group experience but ensure the core program revolves around individualistic music for students.  Our programs should provide opportunities for students to create, compose, record, play instruments, sing, arrange, trade, organize, sell (yes sell), music.  Band should be an activity for them to learn from, but it should be one activity.  Band can help them learn about group dynamics (not musical) and participating, leading, contributing.  To ensure they are exposed to what their real musical lives will be like after school though, we must create individualized music programs for them to explore.

As music educators, I don't think this is hard.  We only have to look at our own musical lives and start to think about what we should be teaching.  How do we listen to music in our off time?  What can we teach kids about that?  Have an iPod or MP3 player?  Well, teach them about those?  What is an MP3, how are they created?  How can music be composed and then "uploaded" to one of those devices?  What kind of musical groups do we participate in as teachers?  Most probably don't have bands to play in...so what do WE do?  Do we work to perform in recitals or small ensembles?  Well...what can we teach kids about that?  What about those who play in pit orchestras?  I know I do that a lot.  What can we teach kids about playing in musicals?  Could our instrumental students be learning about musicals and the role of the instrumental parts? Could our students be creating lyrics and then experimenting with instrumental accompaniments?  Could we be teaching them about doubling and transposing all within the context of playing in a musical?

I believe as music educators, we can find a renewed energy in thinking forward.  To do so, we only need to open our minds, eyes and ears and listen to what our students are telling us, showing us.  We can help ensure music lives on in our schools by creating individualized programs for students while continuing to provide great ensemble experiences.  I believe we must do so to ensure we do not become pictures on the ways of our local restaurants.