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ASTA and the Future of String Education

Mike Lawson • Commentary • April 4, 2013

Q&A with Bob Phillips from ASTA.

Providence, Rhode Island was the scene of the 2013 American String Teachers Association national convention, which took place from February 27 to March 2. This annual gathering featured over 200 education sessions, star-studded performances and concerts, and a lively exhibit hall featuring over 100 string-related companies.

While at the show, SBO managed to catch up with Bob Phillips, an innovator in string education and current ASTA president, to discuss current trends in string education, as well as the future of this fast-evolving area of instruction.

School Band & Orchestra: How’s the show working out for you here in Providence?

Bob Phillips: Providence has been an absolutely fantastic site. This is our first time truly on the East Coast, following in ASTA’s philosophy of trying to move the conference around the country so that everyone has equal access to it over time. The sessions have been going incredibly well, and we’ve had a few surprise concerts from the likes of Rachel Barton Pine and Mark O’Conner.

SBO: For the folks that weren’t able to make it here, what are the key takeaways that they should be aware of for 2013 and beyond?

BP: For ASTA members, the board has worked very hard to develop a strategic plan for the future of the organization, especially in terms of the kinds of things we need to be focused on to support 21st century string teachers. In other words, questions we’re asking ourselves are what we can do to help promote and lead the way – be leaders – in preparing both students and teachers through successful 21st century teaching models. We are looking at how those models are changing, and where we are going as a society in terms of music education. Those fundamental questions will help us present a plan that will maintain focus and direction in the future, as well as to help us make good decisions for our membership. They will also give us filters to use that will allow us to make strategic decisions, not just ones that will seem easy at the moment.

Another takeaway from the conference is that over the past several years, ASTA has developed a national curriculum for K-12 string teachers. This is our first time being able to present that curriculum and actually do clinics on it. We have had all three presidents (Steve Benham, Kirk Moss, and myself), as well as two of the authors, Denese Odegaard and Julie Lyonn Lieberman, do clinics on aspects of the curriculum. Those clinics will be available online for teachers to learn about, and that curriculum is going to be absolutely transformational in string teachers’ lives because it is the first time that we have a national curriculum that is broad-based and not pedagogy specific.  It’s skill-based, and broken down not only on a conceptual level, but all the way down to a learning task level.

This becomes a road map to all string teachers and K-12 music teachers who are preparing students to go out in the field. We actually wrote the curriculum with that in mind, in terms of the sequence and structure that needs to be happening to have a comprehensive music education program for string players.

SBO: And having the results be assessable hits a key point in today’s education world. What are some of the bigger trends that you’re seeing in string education?

BP: One of the things I’m really excited about personally – and I’m known as a person who has led the charge on this nationally for a number of years – is the growth of alternative styles, or what we are now calling “eclectic styles.” That’s certainly been a growing movement. What’s really exciting is to see how many people are beginning to look at all of it as just music, instead of separating musical genres by calling it this or that. Musicians play in different styles and genres, and we don’t have to be defined or labeled by that style. I think that is an important trend.

Another trend people should know about is that string playing is as strong as ever in the United States. We know that, in general, we’re not losing programs. We’ve been successful during the economic downturn of the last four years at maintaining our programs, and in fact, we are growing programs. We’re adding programs. Are there isolated examples of programs being lost? Yes, but, in general, we’ve gained more than we’ve lost. We have had some situations where there might be a slightly lower teacher count in some areas, but the programs have been maintained. Given the nature of the economic downturn, we see it as a success that we’re not going backwards. Not every discipline can say that.

SBO: To what do you attribute this relative success during the downturn?

BP: Part of it is that we just have more opportunity than our band or choir colleagues.  Most schools in the United States already have a band and a choir program. We know that about a third of the schools nationally have orchestra programs. Now, that represents a lot more than a third of the students in the U.S., because oftentimes it is the larger districts that have string and orchestra programs, so more than a third of students have access to strings. That being said, we just have a lot more opportunity to expand in many districts.

The power of music and string playing has been realized in the past 20 years and many districts are achieving this, honestly, in an effort to be competitive with those around them. One thing that’s driving that is schools of choice. Where kids have choice in schools, you see schools adding string programs to be competitive with those programs around them. My own daughter started a program for that very reason. The real estate board came to her and said, “We need to have a string program because the districts around us do and [not having one] hurts our housing values and hurts our ability to sell houses.” In some cases that might be a situation where they are parents who have a child that plays or wants to play a stringed instrument, but in other cases, it’s something that’s seen as a mark of excellence: a district that has a string program may be a district that is music focused and has its act together.

SBO: Anything else you’d like to add?

BP: As a president of a national organization, I would like to stress how incredibly important it is for music teachers to understand how vital it is that they belong to their national organizations. National organizations are able to participate in advocacy and leadership, and create leadership opportunities in a way that smaller entities just can’t do. A great example of that is the Music Education Policy Roundtable, of which ASTA is a founding member, along with NAMM. The Roundtable has done fantastic work on Capitol Hill in terms of responding to legislation, in terms of creating new opportunities. These include the Grammy Foundation presenting a Grammy award to a music educator, and changes in the TSA’s policies about carrying instruments onboard planes. Those are the kinds of things that are really hard to change on the local level, but much easier to address at the national level. I encourage everyone to join and support their national organizations.

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