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Music Without Borders 

by Robert Herold
High school music directors are amazing. They face students of uneven preparation and motivation, yet somehow manage to select and teach music that holds appeal for the more advanced student while still being playable by those with less talent and preparation.

Once again, they find themselves besieged. Budgets have been cut; travel, suspended. And, wouldn't you know it -- the Bush administration has managed to mess things up even more through its so-called "Leave No Child Behind" legislation, which places pressure on high schools to devote more time and resources to remedial reading (to fix a problem not of the high schools' making). As always, resources will be taken from music and the arts.

Given all these challenges, you would think our music education folks would seek to be inclusive, so as to build involvement and support. Unfortunately, many who ply these organizational waters view their professional world narrowly, interested only in strengthening their own bands, orchestras and ensembles. Then they complicate things further by self-imposing an organizational model appropriate for interscholastic athletics, but not for music education.

Consider this revealing example: The music educators association excludes all students from music adjudication competition who aren't participating in their respective school band program. Can you imagine a coach telling a kid that he can't play football unless he signs up for gym?

All music performance is restricted to respective school boundaries, a fact that also reflects the athletic team organizational model. This leads to more unnecessary rigidity. Two examples will serve to illustrate:

* An excellent, student-created jazz quartet happens to be made up of kids from two city high schools.

* An accomplished horn octet is made up of students from five area high schools. (By way of disclaimer, let me state that I'm the bemused Dad of one such high school horn player. And I realize that no single high school in town could ever round up eight good horn players.)

Our team sports paradigm, limited in its language, defines both these groups as "all-star teams" to be banned from "league display."

So these kids get left out. The jazz band plays gigs. The horn octet wins a single adjudication and goes home.

Music performance, you see, just isn't like fielding a school football team. Music programs need porous institutional walls. But this concept has no place in school bureaucracy, let alone music education.

To worsen the problem, schools often impose incentives designed to promote rigidity and narrow thinking. Music directors report that their budgets depend on a numbers game -- enrollment in band programs.

Happily, some music directors manage to find ways to be more inclusive and flexible. Most, though, rely upon truly counter-productive tactics that only exacerbate their problems. This ill-advised tactic might be termed "hostage-taking."

Consider the long-running issue music teachers have with the Spokane Youth Symphony. This audition-only organization attracts many of Spokane's most talented and advanced young musicians. Isn't this good? Isn't this just what we want? Don't we want to create as many opportunities as we can for students' musical involvement?

Well, not exactly. Music directors see the SYO also as a means to an end, as a way to "strengthen my music program." They want the SYO to accept only those students formally enrolled in their respective high school band programs.

Or how about all that jazz? An effort is underway to create a high school jazz orchestra, comparable in purpose to the SYO. High school band instructors have had nothing at all to do with this initiative. It originated from dialogue among some jazz players, their parents and the college faculty who would provide the artistic leadership. Yet even before the details have been worked out, the usual demands are being made to restrict membership to students enrolled in high school music programs.

Parenthetically: Has no one in the world of high school musicdom ever heard of the concept "coalition-building?" Or do they have a whole new take on the value of hostage-taking? It seems to run like this: If your kid won't be our hostage, we have no place for him or her. (Oh, and by the way -- we really need your continued interest and support.)

A class in Practical Politics 101 might help.

More important than these organizational and political questions is the fundamental question: Why have music education at all? While I would never diminish the social value of school bands, certainly the importance of music programs should never be reduced to halftime shows and trips to festivals. You see, high school music directors struggle to do God's work. They know that music is the crossroads where mathematics, foreign language, artistic expression, history and, yes, teamwork, responsibility and preparation all converge.

So long, however, as they hold themselves hostage to narrow thinking, their task won't lighten.

While our coaches no doubt would be dismayed to read this, it has been my observation that our young musicians, even while they are playing up a storm at the big game as fans, aren't all that, uh, rabid. Many of these kids would just as soon jam in each other's pep bands. And why not? Isn't playing the goal? Isn't participation what we are after?

Shouldn't we actually strengthen our music programs?

Publication date: 09/11/03

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