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The Costly Sound of Silence

Fallout from under-funded music programs felt throughout school system

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If you have a musical child in elementary school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg county school system, by now the sounds of silence from the band rooms are an all-too-familiar fact of life.

Before the 2002-2003 school year, the school board, faced with a budget reduction of some $22 million, elected to eliminate the instrumental staff in Charlotte's elementary schools. Those 22 jobs (most of the teachers were given other assignments in the school system) saved the school system $1.2 million, but may have far-reaching costs that won't show up on any bottom lines.

While it may be a fait accompli at this point, the reverberations of not having music programs in elementary schools -- a nation-wide phenomenon in many instances due to budgetary cuts -- are slowly but surely making themselves known.

Anne Reese, a music teacher at Kennedy Middle and Southwest Middle School (who has taught at the high school level as well), says the program cuts threaten more than just a child's music education.

"Mathematical skills, language development, process skills -- anything where you're dealing with abstract concepts, higher-level thinking skills that help students solve more difficult problems" are all being affected, she said. "Not to mention the social aspects: getting along, working and playing well with others."

The numbers back her up. According to Support Music, a national organization dedicated to safe-guarding music education in the United States, children who are instructed in music have SAT scores as much as 63 points higher in verbal and 44 higher in math than those who have had no musical training.

Of course, students are still receiving music training at other levels of their schooling, and the general elementary music program still exists, which gives students in grades one through five music instruction once a week. But the general music program is very basic and doesn't provide students with the opportunity to actually learn how to play an instrument. The students are not offered instruction nor given the opportunity to play in band or orchestra now until the sixth grade level.

"Where it's really going to have an effect is in middle school," says Sharon Frazier, a music teacher at a Montessori magnet school in Charlotte. Middle school teachers had a pool of elementary school students to choose from who had already had an introduction to instrumental music and were ready to sign up for middle school band or orchestra. Now they have to recruit directly from their own middle schools because the elementary school students don't have any previous experience -- unless their parents are getting them private lessons.

But private lessons still require instruments, and for many families, that's often a luxury they can't afford. The cost of instruments can be staggering. A used, student-model Yamaha alto sax can run as much as $1,600. A relatively low-end brand student-model tenor sax runs $400. Even a used trumpet can set parents back as much as $300-$400. And don't even mention a decent piano. Bargain-hunting parents can sometimes find lower prices for used instruments on e-Bay or at music store liquidation sales. But while many families can't afford to invest the time to find those rare bargains, other parents just plain can't afford them at all.

Nevertheless, many parents are finding ways to get their kids started on beginning a music education. Guitar teacher John Tosco's business has experienced an upswing due to the musical shortfall in the public school system.

"I certainly have heard from parents of my guitar students how disappointed they are with the lack of music in their schools, which is one of the reasons they're coming to me," said Tosco, who now has a waiting list filled with younger students. "I've had several cases where the parents have said "music lessons really turned my kid's life around. They're doing better in school, socially they're better as far as not getting in trouble, and they're more focused and happier with what they're doing with their time.'

"That opportunity is so important, because not everybody can afford private instruction."

To alleviate part of the burden, the private sector is being actively recruited by the school board. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Dr. James L. Pughsley recommended that the Board of Education establish a 501C-3 foundation, which is a public charity for the district. Pughsley's recommendation passed, and the board is actively seeking donations from local businesses and individuals. But the monies are not all earmarked for the arts. Literacy, math skills, technology, hiring teachers and administrators are all included -- in short, music programs are still pretty far down the list of "things to pay for."

"Our priorities as a society seem a little out of whack," Tosco said. "People just don't put enough value on arts education, on how it can tremendously impact so many young kids' lives."

There are other private methods of funding available. Though no local grassroots organizations exist in Charlotte yet, there are several national ones dedicated to raising money and awareness for musical programs in the schools. Support Music is one of the larger ones, boasting celebrity spokespersons including the Goo Goo Dolls, gospel group Take 6 and Kevin Bacon.

Support Music is a public service of the Musical Education Coalition created in March 2002 by NAMM, the International Music Products Association, and MENC, the National Association for Music Education. The organization's website, supportmusic.com, provides tips on how to organize a grass roots foundation. That includes who to target for funding, such as local organizations like the Rotary Club, the Optimists, and the Chamber of Commerce, and who to contact for support, including elected representatives. The site also provides links to other national organizations dedicated to preserving music in the schools.

The Selmer Company, manufacturers of wind, percussion and string instruments, also has a strong advocacy program. The manufacturer has invested a sizeable sum of money in research to see just what music does in correlation with academic progress, and how it assists in brain development.

Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser, Selmer Music's resident advocacy expert and educational spokesman, believes that getting involved in politics is one of the most effective ways to show support and get results in music education. "The politicians are the decision-makers, and, thus, the most vital aspect of our music advocacy efforts," Lautzenheiser said. "One stroke of the budgetary sharpened pencil can instantly destroy many years of a tradition of musical excellence in your community. Political leaders can be music's "best friend,' but they must be informed."

"The fact of the matter is that if parents can't invest the money for an instrument, it doesn't happen," said Reese. "And when budget cuts do come it's an easy place to look because it's such a high expense item. That is really a problem. It shouldn't matter what it costs."

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