Fight for Music

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 10, 2009

According to the US Department of Labor’s Web site, Tennessee’s unemployment rate of 10.7 percent ranks considerably worse than the national average, which currently hovers at around 9.4 percent. While the state’s public school music programs have been taken a hit, Gary Wilkes, orchestra director at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences and president of the Tennessee Music Educator Association, indicates that they aren’t going down without a fight. As part of the ongoing series featuring state MEA leaders, SBO recently caught up with Mr. Wilkes to discuss how music education is holding up in the Volunteer State.

School Band & Orchestra: I know it’s tough to make a general statement about a state, but, broadly speaking, how is this tough economy effecting music education in Tennessee?
Gary Wilkes: We’ve only heard of isolated cases of problems around the state. Some of the larger schools systems have consolidated programs due to retirement, and many metropolitan districts in Tennessee have offered incentives to entice some of the older teachers to retire. In those instances, I have seen several of those schools consolidating their music department, where, for example a band director might be teaching both band and orchestra, or band and choir. In Chattanooga, where I teach, we’ve had a few cases of a band director being asked to teach choir and another teaching part-time band and part-time orchestra.

SBO: You mean there has been a reduction in music teacher positions?
GW: I’ve only heard of four or five programs where the music program has been eliminated entirely, and that has only happened in some of the more rural school systems. Of course, we have a few counties here in Tennessee that are below poverty level, so their tax base is almost non-existent. They’ve eliminated programs, but I think it’s also unfortunate because we have a mandate from the state school board that in order to get even a general education diploma from high school, you have to have one, and in some cases two, credits of Fine Arts. And those fine arts classes pretty much center around musical activities.

SBO: That must put some of those districts in a pretty tough place.
GW: Unless they’re doing something really creative that we aren’t aware of.

SBO: What is the Tennessee MEA doing to promote the health of school music programs?
GW: Just like any other MEA, we’re focusing quite a bit on advocacy and we’re trying to keep one step ahead of pending legislation that could possibly cut the number of fine arts credits required for graduation. We’re doing a great deal of lobbying; not only in our local school systems, but also at the legislative branch, as well. We’re also trying to be proactive with some of the universities in getting students training to become teachers involved with schools.

SBO: I see, involving young people who are studying to become music educators. And what are some of the specific initiatives you are undertaking on the advocacy front?
GW: First and foremost, we are going to be sending letters to administrators at every single school in the state about what our organization is, what we can do for them, offering ourselves as mentors, and trying to be proactive, so that they will see the value in what we do, rather than putting music programs on the front burner for elimination. We’re sending this information out to every principal in the state. We’re also hoping that if there are any music teachers who are not a part of our organization, the administrators will be able to pass that information along to them, so that they can join forces with us. We are also doing the same thing to every state legislator.

SBO: How has music education in Tennessee changed over the last few years?
GW: Five years ago, almost everyone in the state was resting on their laurels and not being so concerned with how their programs fit into community-wide activities. Now we jump ahead five years, to our current situation, and nearly every director I know of is painfully aware of how his or her program exists in relation to the school and the community.

SBO: You are saying that the strong economy was the time to foster ties with the community and cement the status of music programs in the schools and beyond?
GW: Those of us in the larger school systems are probably more guilty of focusing on our own school activities. I know I have a lot of colleagues who feel this way. We started this advocacy and awareness program three years ago, which is when most of our financial problems all at once “hit the fan,” so to speak. At that point in time, people started having to say, “What do you mean you’re cutting our program? We have always done it this way,” and I don’t think those words have any relevance to today’s economy and today’s way of doing things. It’s an entirely new ballgame out there.

SBO: So what do you think educators need to be doing in order to empower themselves and protect their programs?
GW: They need to be their own drum major. Not only are they leading their own programs, but they also need to be leading the community. Relating back to three years ago, we were in dire danger of losing our string program. In Chattanooga we had an administration who, every time they were facing a financial crisis or were trying to get more money out of the county, would threaten to cut band, orchestra, and even sports, dangling those kinds of carrots in front of the people that controlled the purse strings. Of course, all it did was inflame the community, and so what we were forced to do was to become rabid in our advocacy for our own programs. I know all of the string teachers here, me being one of them, gathered as many parents and students as we could and we swarmed a school board meeting one night, complete with signs and banners and hostility. It worked; they backed down in a heartbeat! We are finding that we have to be more and more proactive, and, rather than doing things like that, we’re trying to be more active behind the scenes.

SBO: What are your thoughts on the national perspective on music education? Are you seeing things from your neighbors that you would like your state to emulate, or are there things you’re doing that you’d like to see everyone start up with?
GW: I know that in the southern division of MENC, which is basically all 11 states in the Southeast, first and foremost what we’re going to be doing is focusing on new leadership within our own states. We have invited all of the colleges and universities in our respective states to send some of their brightest and best student leaders to the conference. These are kids who are ultimately going to be taking over our jobs, possibly even in the near future. We want the young leaders of our state organizations and universities to come and take part in the workshop that’s taking place. There are things like that happening around the country. There has been a big focus on getting the new collegiate leadership involved.

SBO: My own impression is that that is one resource which has remains largely untapped. Any other thoughts for educators across the country?
GW: Stick to your guns. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind. When I was a much younger teacher, I kind of hid in the background sometimes before expressing my thoughts, and I never once ever thought that I would be elected the president of our state organization, mostly because I never saw myself in that capacity. The older one tends to get, and the more times you’ve been burned, the more apt you are to say, “Hold on, wait, what? Let’s think about this for just a second.” Probably the most important advice I give my student teachers is to not ever be afraid of speaking your mind. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you believe in, and be rabid in support of what your doing. After all, it might be you’re job that you might end up losing if you aren’t careful.

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