I Am Everyday People

Mike Lawson • October 2021Perspective • October 9, 2021

I’m from an era, and Title 1 schools, where music participation was a great expense, a luxury, and in some ways almost a caste system. The schools were not charging money to participate in math, science, English, or other core classes, but to participate in instrumental music programs depended almost entirely on the financial wherewithal of the family you were born into. My first attempt at an instrumental music program was beginner band in middle school. It started out with a parent night with a local music dealer coming in to pitch. The band director just happened to also work there. Many years later, oddly enough, he and I would deliver pianos together over the summer. 

There were sales, and then there were rentals. The rentals were in rough shape. The kids from more affluent homes had new brass and woodwinds. Yamaha was the “it” thing at the time, and I still recall the snazzy molded plastic cases they came in as opposed to the rectangular wood and Tolex case of my Conn rental. Those kids were the haves, kids like me were the beat-up rental class, and those kids who wanted to be in band but whose parents were somehow even poorer than mine were in band to play Sousaphone, timpani, or marching bass drum, because the school owned those. That was our beginner band caste system. 

Diversity? Let’s just say our band did not look like our community. Kids develop early an awareness of their socio-economic limitations with school clothes, or being on the “free lunch list” or other programs that remind them of their situation, those of us in the beat-up rental class, and those in the “I’m here because the school let me play bass drum” class – we know who we were. We knew, or at least hoped, that the kid blowing that clear note next to us had an instrument with better valves, or pads that worked properly, et cetera. 

Today, things are getting somewhat better. More and more schools provide instruments, even if it isn’t the instrument of first choice, removing that barrier. Even in those schools, the kids who can afford the instrument they want to play tend to get to participate at a different level. 

The fact is, across a country this big, with state-by-state standards, and countless school districts, budgets, importance given to the arts and instrumental music programs, this caste system will always be with us. Recognizing this from the director side of the podium is a big first step in minimizing the impact on a child’s ability to participate in music. Making sure our music programs reflect the diversity of our enrollments, not just racial, but economic, is crucial. Diversity in music classrooms will happen more when the economic limitations that apply to all students are addressed. I applaud the American Bandmasters Association for diving into the need to diversify its membership, as detailed in Col. Palmatier’s InService column this month. I applaud the Accelerando programs, like we catch up with at the Nashville Symphony, working to address these tough issues. It’s been said that the first step is to admit you have a problem. It’s a lot to ask of a band director to address societal change and needs on top of all they do, but music is that kind of life-changing force where that extra work may just come with the territory. This is a topic near and dear to me, and I am always happy when our contributors talk about the need to get programs in line with what the community looks like, and look at ways to break the financial wall down that holds up the caste system for band students.

Your comments, as always, are solicited. 

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