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Why Does Music Advocacy Have a Cutoff Date?

Thomas Palmatier • InServiceJanuary 2022 • January 19, 2022

Music is for all, for life

Music educators and their numerous advocate groups have rightly stressed that music education is absolutely essential to a quality education for all students. If music is vital for 6- and 16-year-olds, why do we not seem to equally care about it for 26- or 66-year-olds? That our concern for ensuring access to music seems to mostly expire at high school graduation diminishes the effectiveness of our arguments regarding the centrality of music to a full life and makes it seem like all we’re doing is preserving our own jobs.

Just as only a tiny percentage of high school athletes get college athletic scholarships and an even tinier percentage become professional athletes, the same math is at work in music (only without the $30 million-dollar-a-year contracts). Few of us have more than a few students who may major in music in college and those who will someday earn even a modest living as performers is miniscule. So, it is not surprising with only a few discretionary elective hours available, students and parents may question the long-term value of music in high school to prepare students for their future.

Luckily, the solution to this is often right down the street. According to the Association of Concert Bands (acbands.org), they have approximately 600 member bands. These range from “no audition” community groups (the majority) to highly selective ensembles performing the most difficult literature. Another organization, the New Horizons International Music Association (newhorizonsmusic.org) provides entry points to music-making for adults, including those with no musical experience, and those who were active in school music programs but have been inactive for a long period. They have ensembles all around the world. The League of American Orchestras (americanorchestras.org) also has a directory (click on Connect and then Member Directory and type in your state in the search bar). The North American Brass Band Association (nabba.org) represents many of the fabulous amateur British-style brass bands in North America. There are countless community ensembles that don’t belong to any of these organizations so also try a local search. 

So, what’s in it for the busy music educator? Just about every one of these ensembles includes educational outreach in their mission statement and for many, it’s a requirement to get grant funding. Want free clinicians to do master classes or group lessons? Contact your local ensemble. Want an established group to perform with your school group on a joint concert? Most would be thrilled to do so.

Do your students lose some of their musical skills over the summer? Many school educators are involved with their local community ensemble as performers or conductors and they strongly encourage their students to perform with the group during the summer. It keeps their skills up and gives them an exposure to music making at an adult level.

These are all plusses but most importantly, we are showing students, parents, and administrators that music is important to a community and we as music educators should be the leaders in demonstrating music’s lifelong value to performers and audiences.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of performing as a tubist and occasional guest conductor with the wonderful Virginia Wind Symphony. Most of the members were music educators and we were led by the ensemble’s founder, the late Professor Dennis Zeisler. Performing in a high-level ensemble helped me so much as a conductor and an educator because I was reminded what a rehearsal looks and sounds like from the back row.

More recently, I auditioned to be conductor of the Thornton Community Band in the Denver area. The musicians knew I had been conductor of both The United States Army Field Band and The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” two of the finest bands in the world. As I was waiting to go onstage, one of the percussionists said, “I just have one question, ‘Why?’” My reply was simply that I love making music and I love being with musicians. Despite working through a little thing like a global pandemic, it has been everything I could have hoped for. Members pay dues to be in the band, they want to get better, are enthusiastic about rehearsing, and love to perform, especially to a full house which we did recently. The word “amateur” is seen by some as a bit of a pejorative, as in not being “professional.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The true meaning of the word amateur is one who does something for the love of it. Who could ask for more than that?

Thanks to Cmdr. Michael Burch-Pesses (U.S. Navy Ret.) who shared information for this article. He is the community band representative for the National Band Association. Thanks also to Jon Bubbett, a terrific music educator and composer, who recommended The Total Teacher by Danny Steele which will be next month’s entry in the Colonel’s Book Club.

Colonel (Retired) Thomas H. Palmatier is the former leader and commander of The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” and commander and conductor of The United States Army Field Band. He holds degrees in music education from the Crane School of Music (State University of New York at Potsdam) and Truman State University as well as a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the U.S. Army War College. He is an active clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor of concert bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, and marching bands. He is a Conn-Selmer Clinician, and a member of the American Bandmasters Association.

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