A Comprehensive Music Education Program
Six years ago, I chose to bid from my current high school position in our district to a brand new high school that we were building. Included in that position that was being a part of a year-long planning team before the school opened. During that year, we taught at our existing school but also met frequently to be involved in every aspect of the new school–and ultimately, I had a large part in defining the entire music program at that school (I also had a band colleague in this process).
Although it may have been my driving opinion, we felt that a modern high school should not simply offer band, choir, and orchestra. As a result, we created a program with the following elements:
- Traditional Bands, three levels, ability based
- Traditional Choirs (five), two gender-based “beginner” choirs, and then three abiltity based mixed choirs
- Guitar, three levels
- Beginning Music Theory
- AP Music Theory (music theory level 2)
- Music in History and World Cultures
- In my last year, we managed to put a Music Technology course on the program of studies, although the course did not have enough enrollment to run (see below). I became convinced that music technology was a needed (an interesting) element to add to the curriculum.
- We also wanted to consider adding courses such as Jazz Band, Show Choir, and Drum Line.
We built the music program with the idea of, “Build it and they will come.” Even if the courses did not run, they were on the books and could run when they needed to run.
Over the first four years of the school, we ran a number of these classes; typically two bands, three choirs, occasional classes in music theory, and regular courses at Guitar level 1, and the occasional level 2.
We had a MIDI lab installed when we opened the school, a seventeen seat lab with a computer, MIDI keyboard, microphone, Finale (2010), and other free software (e.g. Audacity). The plan was to use this lab in conjunction with our Music Theory courses.
Ultimately FTE ratios became a challenge. In music courses, the minimum cap number of 25 was usually enforced. Any music teacher will tell you that FTE is a deceptive number. There are always courses where FTE is allowed to dip “below” that magic number of 25, and if the district ratio is at 32.5 (as our is), no one is ever concerned if music or physical educaton teachers have a FTE ratio far above that ratio. Counselors I talked to considered these courses “black holes” where you could place students and lower the FTE for other teachers. Ultimately, if your program is a “favored” program of your administration, the administration runs those courses regardless of FTE. As we opened the school, both the Band and Choir were below the “actual” FTE requirements, partially because we opened under the last year of a four-period day where students were strongly encouraged to take two years of math and two years of foreign language in one year while they still could. Choir began with 35 students and band with 105; by the end of my four years there, choir was at 156 and Band at 88 (there was additional growth for next year). I don't want to make the case that we were overloaded with students, but I do want to point out that an additional class or two could have been added, only further justifying our FTE. One year I taught (under the four period day) three choirs and another course (music theory or guitar). But that only happened in one year (year 2, I believe).
Logically, courses such as Music Theory are intended as a place for your most gifted musicians who want to prepare for college (I also found that a number of guitar players not in traditional band/choir/orchestra would take music theory to learn how to write music). We will run an AP course of 15 students for a high level science or math course for students wanting to pursue those fields in college–but doing so in music was a hard thing for our administration to justify.
Furthermore, it became clear that the MIDI Lab was a poor investment; the MIDI Lab only had 17 work stations, and if you needed a class of 25 to run a course, what do 8 students do while the others work on the computers?
As I have written about in the past, I left that school last year, and have taught this year at a middle school in our district which is 1:1. I will be writing about those experiences in the weeks to come. Yesterday I was visting with another teacher in our district, and wondered if my former schools was going to be offering any of the comprehensive music courses we created. I looked at the district program of studies, and all of our “comprehensive” courses no longer exist at that school.
To be clear: the program of studies is impacted by the staff at each school, and they have input on what courses are offered. It is possible that the new teachers had no interest in offering those courses. Many music teachers consider themselves specialists: “I only teach ______.” Many teachers do not even want to consider teaching theory, history, guitar, or music technology as a separate course. I understand that point of view, but one of the things I have learned in my educational path is that schools need to offer more than band/choir/orchestra. You might disagree, or you might not feel equipped to teach such classes. But the end result is that you CAN teach those classes. You are a music educator–you are first and foremost a generalist, a common practitioner, and a specialist in your field second to that. If FTE is a factor in your teaching position, why wouldn't you want the FTE from guitar or music theory to keep you at 1.0? Sometimes we are afraid that we will lose kids from traditional band/choir/orchestra if we offer other courses such as “guitar.” You might lose some kids to those classes, and you can take steps to protect yourself (don't make guitar meet an Arts credit–making the course a true elective, only offer it to upper classmen, etc.). But generally, my thought has become: if a kid is in music, taught by a music teacher, they are still in music. MENC (now NAfME) used to say, “Music for every child, every child for music.” When 80% (or more) of high school students aren't in music when band/choir/orchestra are the only options, we're missing a lot of kids, and there is huge potential for growth.
Again, I don't know if the new teachers simply didn't want to teach those courses (which didn't always run), but the removal of those courses from the offiicial “program of studies” also shows that the administration of that school did not share the same vision for a comprehensive program in music education. Otherwise, you could simply leave the courses in the program of studies but simply not run those courses. So it is yet a further validation that my decision to move (first and foremost for my family and to work in a 1:1 situation) was the right move.
Let me be clear: I am in total support of band, choir, and orchestra in our schools. I love classical music, and I think those programs are relevant for today; I am not sure that our students (or their parents) always agree with us. So, keep offering those traditional music courses, but also consider offering non-traditional courses for that other 80%. But: would you be willing to teach a theory course, or a guitar course?