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Still Working to Reach the Other 80%

Mike Lawson • Perspective • April 9, 2019

It is a percentage that is often used, and almost a cliché now. The actual number isn’t that germane, it could give or take a few points, but the big picture is instrumental music programs don’t reach the vast majority of students for a multitude of reasons.

The inequity of programs from district to district, city to city, and state to state is really staggering when you look at it from the outside as I do. I am in a unique non-educator position to learn about programs from coast to coast and observe the differences between them. Rich programs exist within districts at one school, and miles away in the same district, a program at a similarly-sized school is barely in place and struggling. It is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is little interest in the school by students because there is little offered, or there is much interest where there is a lot offered, and the program is promoted and successful.

I see the difference even in my own county, one of the wealthiest in the state of Tennessee. The county seat school has an amazing high school program with multiple instructors and directors and assistants. Their band room is to be envied with great instruments and technology, plus active parental involvement with a booster club. Across the county, some 20 miles away, the students struggled for years with an often-changing cast of shared band directors from the middle school, a marching band smaller than many jazz band offshoots, 25-year-old+ worn out uniforms (which were finally replaced after some seriously hard work by band parent boosters), and a band room full of instruments in disrepair. I’m happy to say that struggling program in my city turned itself around and is starting to flourish, but I also watched it flounder for several years.

Some schools have added another layer to their instrumental music program outside of the traditional band world. Guitar classes, and ukulele classes have grown in popularity, especially in middle schools. Some have added music technology classes, sparking the interest of students who would never make it in the traditional band world. When all is said and done, the goal is to make lifelong makers of music who will enjoy all of the tangible benefits that brings them. I can never discount the critical importance of traditional programs, learning the language of musical notation, site reading, and participating in concert, marching, jazz and other instrumental programs. Hearing a fantastic student group performing in an adjudicated festival and realizing these kids are teenagers who just played at a level beyond their years, is thrilling.

Equally thrilling is seeing kids who will never enter that world take up music in non-traditional ways. This month, we begin a new column, Modern Band, focusing on that movement to teach students “combo” instruments like guitar, bass, drums, keys, vocals, electronic music, and more. There are now millions of students across the country doing this, thanks to the work of David Wish, founder of Little Kids Rock, and his tireless efforts to get music into the lives of students in that other 80%. At SBO, we will always be about promoting traditional instrumental music programs and underscoring their importance, and we will always embrace other new programs that bring music into the lives of those students who can’t or won’t participate in marching or concert band. Music makes lives better for students, and we applaud music in their lives, whatever it takes to get them there.

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