Minnesota Music Educators Association president Cindy Shirk

Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • August 13, 2010

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Music education in Minnesota faces a host of rather daunting challenges, some unique and others all-too-common in this day and age. While the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” is middle of the pack in terms of state population and size, nearly 60 percent of Minnesotans live in and around the Twin Cities, meaning that state legislatures must balance the needs of a dense urban population with those of residents living in sparsely inhabited rural areas. As the consequences of high unemployment and budget shortfalls continue to hit schools nationwide, SBO recently got in touch with Cindy Shirk, band director at Dakota Meadows Middle School in Mankato, Minn. and president of the Minnesota Music Educators Association, who shed some light on the well-being of music education in her state and shared a few of the current initiatives being undertaken by the MMEA.

School Band & Orchestra: How would you describe the current atmosphere for school music programs in the state of Minnesota?

Cindy Shirk: At our MMEA spring board meeting a year ago (May, 2009), we asked each board member present (about 25) to give an update about the current status of his or her school music program. At that time, at least half of the board indicated cuts or reductions to their programs. During the current year, it seems that the problem has increased. While I don’t have exact figures, I think nearly all schools in our state have been affected in some way by the current economy.

That being said, Minnesota educators are notoriously proactive and optimistic; our educators are striving to continue to offer the highest quality music instruction possible in their situations. This is evident by the high number of music educators who continue their membership in our MMEA organization, and who continue to attend our conferences and participate in our festivals and all-state activities.

SBO: What are some of the direct threats music programs in your state are facing, and how do you and your colleagues (both educators and the MMEA) plan to meet those threats?

CS: We are seeing cuts across the board in all areas of music. In my own school, for instance, music contact time was proportionately cut along with the other core subject areas. This has resulted in music teachers with heavier loads, teaching more students with less preparation time, and teaching more content areas, such as band and orchestra teachers being given additional general music assignments. Along with many other schools, we have also seen teachers being assigned to areas outside of their major emphasis, for example, choral teachers assigned to teach strings or high school teachers assigned to teach middle level. Unfortunately, in many cases, administrators look at numbers and dollars, instead of looking at what works best, or what is best for students.

To help counter these problems, MMEA decided to focus a recent issue of our state music journal, Interval, on helpful articles to help deal with these concerns. Some of the articles included topics such as “Frank Talk in Tough Times,” “Teaching Outside Your Expertise,” “Creative Ways to Get Students Excited About Your Program,” and “Increasing Support for Elementary Band and Orchestra Through Data.”

MMEA also has provided workshops at our annual Midwinter Clinic to help teachers deal with stressful issues during the current downturn.

SBO: Where is the main focus of efforts by the MMEA these days?

CS: Along with efforts listed above, we are also focusing our attention on communication, so that members throughout the state have current up-to-date information. We already have a well-functioning Web site, but we are finding our members to be so busy that they aren’t always able to access the site or seek help in areas pertinent to them. We have a task force currently exploring ways to increase communications, and they are confident they will soon have additional resource outlets ready for teachers.

We also partnered with a couple of organizations this past year to help schools. One partnership paired us with Minnesota Public Radio for a used instrument drive to help schools provide instruments to students who can’t afford them. The program was highly successful, and several hundred instruments were donated throughout the state. MPR was instrumental in getting the word out through their public service announcements.
Another project with a Minnesota recording company involved the making of Minnesota Beatles Songs, a CD of Beatles music performed by Minnesota artists. The proceeds from this project will go towards grants that schools can apply for to help augment their music programs. Both of these partnerships are expected to continue into this next year, and hopefully beyond.

SBO: Is there anything different that you’d like to see from music programs in your state over the next few years?

CS: We definitely hope to see funding increased so that what has been cut recently can be restored. So much of it is political, which is disappointing, because students end up become pawns in the money game of taxes and spending, both at the state and federal level.

A concern that needs to be addressed is ensuring that all students have equal access to music education. More than half of Minnesota’s residents reside within the Twin Cities metro area. We need to be sure that smaller rural schools receive adequate funding to keep their programs alive and active. There is a state study (funded through a grant utilizing Legacy resources from a sales tax initiative) being done to help determine the “state of arts education,” and it will be interesting to see the results of that survey in this coming year.

Our state legislature recently approved the revised Minnesota Standards for Arts, which will begin to be implemented this current school year (2010-2011). Already, our music educators are ahead of the game, and are proactively implementing the standards in their curriculums well ahead of other subject areas. That speaks highly for our state’s music teachers.

SBO: What can teachers or the MMEA do to help ensure that all schools receive funding for music, even the rural ones?

CS: Our rural, outstate schools have continued to have strong music programs, despite decreased funding, and I think the reason is because their communities highly value music and do what they can, through booster organizations and parent-teacher associations, to help keep those programs strong. Often times, parents are the ones who can make the difference if a program is threatened with a cut, and I’ve seen that happen in a number of cases, both outstate and metro. Music teachers are sometimes hesitant to advocate at the local level because they are simply too busy, or are possibly concerned about repercussions from administrators in power when reductions are made. Music teachers are very much overworked in our schools throughout the country these days, and many are isolated sometimes the only music educator in their district and they don’t have support systems at the local level.

MMEA has helped with advocacy at the state level in many ways. Mary Schaefle, our executive director, is very knowledgeable about all the school districts in our state, and she has often been consulted by teachers and parents who need advice with advocating during an impending program cut. This has helped save programs.

We also provide advocacy resources on our Web site, through articles in our Interval journal, and we also have a board member who is an advocacy chair.

SBO: Does the MMEA network with other state or national music ed organizations to coordinate initiatives?

CS: Recently, two members of our executive committee (our executive director and president-elect) traveled to Washington D.C. for MENC’s National Leadership Assembly, and while there they visited the offices of our state’s congressmen as part of MENC’s advocacy campaign. I participated in that event last year as well. It helps to set an awareness of the importance of music, and keep it visible. A past MMEA president was also an integral part of advocating our state legislature for implementing music assessment standards. While legislation was introduced and pushed through the process, it never became law. Nevertheless, I think it was worth the effort as it again made music education more visible. MMEA also works closely with our North Central Division leaders (north central states) to help provide input to MENC’s national leaders to advocate more at the national level.

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