NYSSMA’s Susan Weber: New York, New York

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 9, 2009

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SBO: Like a clearing of the underbrush?
SW: In a sense. We keep hearing that fewer teachers will be allowed to go to conferences, but we in NYSSMA have not felt that yet. Our numbers are still up. We do our conferences in December, and last year, even though we had already heard about some of the cutbacks, people had already been approved to attend our conference, and we had our biggest attendance year ever. From what I understand, the applications for this year’s conference are coming in quickly already.

SBO: Was there anything that your organization was doing to potentially soften the blow of economic hardship on music programs in New York?
SW: On our executive council, which is comprised of representatives from all over the state, we spent a lot of time discussing economic issues and finding out what problems we might see, and trying to give people helpful hints. We expanded our advocacy page on our Web site so that people would have resources to go to. However, at the state level, we have a very strong policy to discourage fighting for funding with other programs within the same district. If cuts are made they should be equal across the board and not just in music or the arts. We can provide information and support for everyone, but we can’t go district to district and tell people how to run things.

SBO: While everyone has access to advice on the NYSSMA Web site, is there anything in particular that you think that educators everywhere should really be keying in on?
SW: We have to remember that music, from all levels, whether it’s performance-based or classroom-based, reaches students in a whole different way from most other subjects. We reach students that nobody else reaches. I’ve always had a few students who only come to school because of their music classes. That’s an important thing to keep in mind. Music programs are expensive, there’s no question about it, but they’re important to the well-rounded student, and they’re critical to the many students who gravitate towards us.

The big idea in publicity these days is that students who do well in music will do well in math. Well why is that? Is it that music makes them better mathematicians? Maybe. Does math make students better musicians? Maybe. Or is it that there are certain parts of the brain that work well in one subject and will work well in the other? Music stimulates that part of the brain.

Music educators are also among the only ones that give the chance for creativity and building a community. By playing in a performing group, you are a part of a team. As much as I hate to relate music to sports, for many students, music is their sport in that it’s their place where they can be a part of a team, where they can get together with their friends and feel comfortable, and escape from other problems. I have students that walk into a cafeteria and don’t want to participate with other kids, but they do want to be with their music friends. They hang out together, but when they hang out, they practice, and work together, because they are within their comfort zone.

It’s so important to remind everyone that we teach so many things other than just how to play music. We teach social skills, which naturally come along with being a part of a music ensemble supporting each other, playing for the whole, working together all of these skills are a part of every little thing that we do. We don’t just teach how to read notes; there’s the overall effect of being a part of a music group.

SBO: Are there any specific initiatives that the NYSSMA is hoping to implement going forward to really spread that message?
SW: We’re in the midst of putting together an instructional DVD that we’ll be handing out at our conference. This is a part of a grant that we put in for about four years ago, and we are having top classes demonstrate how to teach specific things in every field of school music programs, including band, chorus, orchestra, middle school, high school, general music, electronic music, et cetera. We’ve recorded these DVDs with a professional company, and we’ll give them to everyone who comes to our conference. They’ll also be sent to every school district in New York State, basically giving teachers extra help. These DVDs can very easily be used for advocacy purposes, as well. It’s our way of reaching out, especially to those teachers who might be the only music educator in the community, and who might not know where to turn to ask questions or get support, to find out a different way of doing something, or how to reach a specific group of students. This DVD is in its final stages right now, and it will be ready in time for our winter conference.

SBO: In many schools, music teachers have to fight for their programs in a way that teachers of other subjects don’t. How do you feel that battle for legitimacy is going in New York these days?
SW: I think our music programs have proven themselves, and I think that NYSSMA being a strong organization has helped that. We’re not necessarily fighting every step of the way anymore. I think we have a lot of top-notch groups, and a lot of districts are beginning to learn the wonderful boon to PR that performing groups bring to a community. A lot of schools have, for example, had a school concert on the day of budget votes, because the kids’ performance will bring the parents out to vote. In addition to supporting us for what we do, administrators are beginning to understand that we can also help in other areas.

SBO: Is there anything that you’re seeing on the national stage that you wish was happening in New York, or the opposite, that your state is doing and you wish everyone else would do, too?
SW: MENC, the national organization for music education, is doing a lot more in advocacy, which is a good thing. In general, New York needs less help than other states, but that’s okay. We’re a large enough state and a large enough organization that we can do more than some of the smaller states. I see that when the Eastern Division states meet. There are states that don’t have the money or number of people to do things on their own, so MENC is there to help them, and all of the stuff they do on advocacy, on putting it out there, is very important. We do our own thing, and one thing we do that makes a big impact is something called the “NYSSMA Day” in Albany. Once a year, we advocate at our state capitol. We bring our performing groups all-state vocal and instrumental jazz ensembles perform, and talk to everybody. We don’t necessarily lobby, but we go, visit, and look for support. We don’t ask for specific things, other than for people to remember that we’re around and that they don’t forget about us. People know us because of that, because this event has been an every-year occurrence for a number of years. That’s made a very big impact, because they know we’re around.

SBO: Any other thoughts for music educators around the country?
SW: Schools can’t exist without music, and if we remember that, and keep enforcing that within our students and our programs, we’ll keep our programs strong.

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