Perspective: Rich Band, Poor Band, It’s Politics that Fill the Stands

Mike Lawson • Choral • April 4, 2016

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Mike Lawson Can you imagine a school football team that still uses leather helmets and metal spiked cleats? A team where each player is required to provide his own various non-standard helmet, pads, and related safety equipment along with providing the very ball with which to play? Sports have their place, they are important to schools on a very rich level, and I don’t want anyone to think I don’t value their contribution. However it saddens me to see a rich investment in a school football program while the marching band there to cheer them on and lead the crowd’s excitement in the stands plays beat up instruments in matching t-shirts because the people providing the funding have misplaced priorities.

When a student is walking into a middle school or high school for the first time, and they walk past the trophies for the sports teams stacked high for generations in cabinets behind glass, along with decades-old photos and bragging rights for their teams, yet see little or nothing celebrating their marching band or pep band or concert band, jazz band, or even choral group, they can clearly see where the administration puts its priorities. When they walk into a classroom equipped with 40-year old Sousaphones and a mismatch menagerie of dented brass and woodwind, and percussion instruments available for them to play (if they are one of the students with financial need), along with band uniforms that make Sgt. Pepper look contemporary, they know where the school system and administration places their priorities.

I’ve met directors who were fortunate enough to be part of a school program with multiple directors and a music department staff that rivaled some small colleges, for whom their only role was directing multiple levels of concert band, or only leading a string program. I’ve met directors who glowed about the astounding support their administrations give to music, who recognize the importance of their programs to the overall academic life of their students.

I’ve also met a lot of teachers from smaller districts, who not only were shared between middle and high school music programs, but were serving as the general music teacher, the music appreciation teacher, the specialty music teacher teaching guitar. The common threads I found among this group of teachers: a lack of investment by the districts in music education. This was not by a strictly financial measure; though believe me, I heard a lot of about a lack of financing, but also on an academic level.

The common threads between the well-to-do-programs and the ones I just described? Dedicated music educators who get it, and students for whom going to school is largely important to them because of their music programs. Students for whom getting up and getting to school each day is largely motivated by their music programs, and the teachers they are lucky enough to learn from, funding or not.

As hard as it is to believe in the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, there are school district administrators, school board members and superintendents, who think music classes are not that important. These districts invest the least in financial and human resources for teaching music, and they reap the inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy of struggling music programs with fewer interested students because the students don’t see the value being placed in it by the school.

Parents can’t and should not be expected to raise outrageous sums of money each year to support music programs at a cellular level. While booster clubs and fundraising are critical parts of most band programs, well funded or not-so-much, at the end of the day, this is a priority at the voting booth. From the highest offices in the land to your highest offices in your state, and yes, right down to your local elections, the people who get the votes make the budgets. As we look at this often dramatic national election season in front of us now, perhaps this is a good opportunity to share a small side-lesson on civics with your music students and remind them that their program is as funded as the national, state, and local politicians want it to be, and the importance of their eventual exercising their right to be heard at the polls. Personally, I think that how a politician prioritizes and values music in education says a lot about them in general.



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