Illinois: ‘Music for Everyone, Everyone for Music’

SBO Staff • ChoralDecember 2009UpFront QA • December 8, 2009

John HeathWhile Illinois ranks only 25th in terms of landmass, it has the fifth highest population of any state in the U.S., and boasts the major metropolis of Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, as well as many rural, agricultural areas. As if the national economic woes and a diverse population base weren’t enough to contend with, Illinois has also endured the tumultuous to put it kindly; some might say disastrous governorship of Rod Blagojevich, who left office amidst massive Federal corruption charges this past spring. However, in spite of all of this negativity, school music programs in the state seem to be holding their own.

In fact, according to John Heath, president of the Illinois Music Educators Association, most programs haven’t felt too much of a pinch… yet. Heath, in addition to his duties with the IMEA, is also the director of bands at Batavia High School in the suburbs of Chicago. He has been very active in gauging how his state’s programs are holding up, while rallying music and arts educators to advocate for continued recognition and funding from the state legislature. As a part of this magazine’s ongoing series of interviews with state education leaders, CD recently caught up with the busy band director, who shared his thoughts on what Illinois school music and arts programs can do to serve their communities better than ever before, even in these trying and eventful times.

Choral Director: In broad terms, what is your assessment of how school music programs are doing in Illinois?
John Heath: It’s a little difficult for me to say because I am not as completely at ease with the state funding formulas that we use here in Illinois, but I do know this: funding has been tight for a long time and, as you probably know, with our dear former governor [Rod Blagojevich] and all of the things that happened with state financing during his tenure in office, financially, the state is really in very bad shape. This is definitely not having a positive effect on school funding; we’re still waiting for funding that was supposed to have already arrived in our schools throughout the state.

Here in the suburbs of Chicago, we’re starting to feel some of the effects of the down economy in that this year our building budgets are being cut and we’re trying to get as much done as we have done in the past with fewer dollars coming from the school. Because of that, I sent out a request to my district presidents from around the state to basically let me know what’s going on in their areas. I have received a fairly mixed response.

We are a rather diverse state in that we have the metropolitan areas of Chicago and St. Louis, but then we have a lot of rural areas in the state as well. Some districts have been cutting back for so long that the current events aren’t really affecting them any worse than what they have already been feeling. In the larger communities, particularly in the suburb areas, I’ve found that while this year is tight, almost everybody is very concerned about what is going to happen next year. The property values are either staying the same or going and the taxation isn’t increasing. This year, the CPI (the multiplier that we use to get the state aid) is down to about 0.1, and in past years, it’s been closer to 4.0. Many people are worried that while we might be starting to feel it this year, next year is the year when we are really going to get lambasted with financial difficulties.

Some of the districts have reported that they have not been experiencing any changes in their financing or in the support from their schools and communities, and I was very happy to hear that. In that respect, we’re kind of a diverse group. It depends where you are in the state and how your community has been dealing with things up until this point.

CD: While you mentioned that many communities have had cuts, has the number of music educators generally remained stable throughout the state?
JH: I have had a couple of contacts with people who’ve reported that there were a few cases where some teachers were retiring or moving out of the area and those positions are not being filled. Their duties are being taken over by faculty already on staff. I’ve heard of very few programs actually being cut. That’s not to say that they’re all safe, but at this point anyhow, everyone seems to be somewhat intact. We’re not losing programs or starting levels for instrumental classes in grade schools around the state. In that respect, I think we’re holding our own on that, but the future is what we are all concerned about.

CD: So the big question is this: as a leader of an organization that promotes music education and works directly with music teachers in your state, what are you doing to combat cuts?
JH: Our feelings right now are that the biggest thing we can keep going or get going, as the case may be is some degree of advocacy for the arts, and music in particular, to remain in the system. We do have a special area chair, and that person is totally focused on advocacy for music in the state of Illinois. He’s been very active in that position, getting things out and trying to make sure that we’re in the public’s eye as much as possible. We’re also doing work at other fine arts committees throughout the state, with the thinking that if we all join together, we will have a stronger voice.

The IMEA has a very large voice for music education in the state of Illinois, but we also have a lot of other lobby groups that have loud voices for Fine Arts in other aspects of state life.

CD: Are you worried about the different voices competing for the same funding?
JH: No, I don’t think they are. From what I’ve experienced since I’ve been in position for the past nine months, while the focus might be slightly different from the music education groups, it is more of a common goal for music and the fine arts in the state of Illinois.

I know that some of the agencies are receiving funding from the government which obviously has been cut this year, in some cases as much as 25 percent, but I think everyone realizes we are all in the same boat. Unified, we can be a stronger voice and hit the people that we need to hit from many different angles. We’re doing that in the state level, but we’re also doing it at the national level. We had a very successful conference in Washington D.C. in June where MEA leaders from all over the country came, did some lobby work with their legislators, and gave some very public performances to get in the public’s eye.

Another thing we need to make people understand is that the arts are included in No Child Left Behind, too. They are a part of that program and we really need to point that out to everybody so that the state and local boards of education will realize that this is not a frill; it is an integral part of a child’s education. I’m not talking about just music, but the fine arts in general, and we have to make sure that it remains in position so that our children can have a well-rounded education.

From our standpoint in the IMEA and within our own membership, we have been working as diligently as we can to advance our members’ professional development both at our state conference, as well as at workshops around the state throughout the course of the year. These sessions will hopefully encourage more educators to become involved with advocacy.

CD: So is it all about getting the word out?
JH: As a teacher, my position is, “Just give me my music, give me my kids, and I’m in heaven.” At times, music teachers might not realize that they also need to be known throughout the community and even the state.

School bands do draw attention to themselves, but the fact is that music is a part of everybody’s life and we need to expand our offerings in the public schools so that we get not just those band, choir, and orchestra students, but also the kids whose music experience is listening to the radio in the car or being involved in a garage band at home; we need to try to involve them in aspects of music that will draw them into the program so that people can see that we aren’t just dealing with this specific performance population of musicians, that we really are dealing with the general student body of the school.

Like everybody else in the public school system, we are already so busy doing what we do that we might not be able to find time to expand our offerings to reach a really diverse base of student interests. If some of the schools are cutting back on the amount of people available to teach in a particular area, it does make it much more difficult. We have to be careful not to get caught in that rather devastating cycle. We have to try to get more kids involved with our programs and make sure that our teachers are aware of the fact that advocacy is the best way to get the word out and that includes the Friday night football game, orchestra concerts, choir performances, and things like that. We have the luxury that a lot of other subject areas don’t have in that we are very public already.

CD: Do you think it’s a numbers issue that you need to reach more students?
JH: For me, speaking personally about my own program, yes, I would like to reach more students. I think in the back of my brain, “Music for everyone and everyone for music.” Everyone has had some contact with music, whether it’s in the background in a movie or whatever, and because of that, I know as a music teacher that there’s something I can offer that person that either he or she can discover on his or her own or something that we can discover together. From the standpoint of the teachers in my state, no, it isn’t a numbers game. Most of the traditional programs are based around performance musicians. Many schools, maybe even most schools, offer some type of alternative music classes, along with traditional band, orchestra, and choir performance classes.

For instance, at my program in Batavia, I have an assistant director who just began working with us last year. He’s young and full of energy, and, because of his age, he is in his mid-20s, he is now offering a rock-and-roll music class. We have two sections of it and they were both filled immediately. Amazingly, most of the students who signed up are non-performance kids; they’re students who we’ve never seen in the music department before and they’re so wound up with what’s going on with their own music and the music of the recent past that they’re just having a blast. And these are all kids that we wouldn’t have had any contact with because they aren’t part of the standard performance groups they’re not band, choir, or orchestra members. Those are the kinds of classes that I’d really like to see being offered so that we can reach more of the student body.

We probably have 25-27 percent of the student body involved in music. That’s great, and it’s probably better than most schools, but that then means that there is 73-75 percent of my student body that is not involved in music. It would be a little bit less if I took my whole fine arts department as a whole because we also have a very nice visual arts program, but the fact is that all of these kids needs the arts to enrich their lives and high school might be the last opportunity for them, depending on what they plan on doing after high school. So my own personal push is to get as much as we can get going here.

Plus, I think as far as a point of security for programs, if the community, the board, the administration sees that we’re reaching out to the general population of students to help expand their appreciation for the arts in the lives, I think that would be a much better sell than always dealing with our own very specific music-focused kids. If my kid who had never played music before signed up for a rock-and-roll class and he was loving it, when the word comes out that the music department was facing some financial problems, as a parent I might be a little more supportive of finding a solution.

CD: By the same token, the performance ensembles are the ones who get the most attention because they are the ones performing out in the community.
JH: Right, they are the visible ones. The reason I am a music teacher is because I thoroughly enjoy playing my instrument, and I enjoyed my activities and experiences in my music programs growing up, that I chose to go into music education. That is probably true of the vast majority of music teachers. That said, I think we are sometimes missing the boat with the students who aren’t into the traditional performance ensembles. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in steel pan bands, mariachi bands and other groups that aren’t always included in typical music programs. They have become very popular among students who might not be into the band/orchestra/choir set up. I would love to have the opportunity to offer those sorts of things here, but for logistical and financial reasons, I understand that it’s not always feasible.

With all of the exposure to music that kids get these days, by the time they get to high school, many students’ taste has matured to the point that this is a great opportunity to have a professional educator present them with music appreciation, provide them with some diverse genres, and really expand their musical horizons. That’s one of the reasons I’m all about trying to have the music departments really reach out to the general student body, in addition to teaching our traditional performance students, as well.

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