Thursday, April 1, 2010


Let's start with this interesting comment that I got the other day on my Cui Bono (Who Benefits?) post:
Speaking of Who Benefits, Pioneer has just won another award for their music program. I would love to see an expose of this program and who is benefitting. The orchestra is basically a public school forum for private music students. It has nothing to do with the school program that starts in 5th grade and doesn't teach enough for kids to suceed in high school. The teacher simply cherry picks the top students that have been privately studying music since a very young age, devotes all the resources to them, and literally leaves everyone else behind. The kids that can't play at a level well beyond high school are in a basic technique class where they can either accept their 2nd class status or quit. You never hear about them because they don't go anywhere beyond the school auditorium! The whole program is focused on winning and they are not about to let anyone in who can't do that.

I have mixed feelings about this comment.
On the one hand--point well taken. The top levels of the orchestra/band are very exclusive. At least one acquaintance has told me that the majority of the kids in it are taking lessons, outside of school, for at least an hour a week, from the very best teachers in town--no college music majors for them! I don't have personal experience of this because none of my kids has played past 9th grade (at least, not yet). But I believe the commenter when s/he says that many of the kids experience the lower levels of the orchestra/band as "second rate." And one of the reasons that I am happy about the presence of Skyline is that I believe this will make more room in those top bands (and Varsity athletic teams) for kids who are good, but not the very best.

On the other hand--this charge could be leveled not only at Pioneer but at other schools as well. They all use their music programs to attract students. I have seen articles about Huron, Ypsilanti, Lincoln, Willow Run, Community High, and even Stone School's music program. I think this is natural--although everyone thinks "basics" are important, it is the extras that draw people in to schools. And generally music is perceived as, and should be perceived as, value added.

And on the third hand (if I had one)--a friend of mine went, several years ago, to the NAACP annual dinner. She (a white woman, and a teacher) was seated at a table with several middle class African-American couples. The talk turned to school, and to the achievement gap. [And I would say that both my friend and I, as white women concerned with education, have been concerned with the achievement gap as a problem, but not as a problem that personally affected us. These families felt it affected them.] My friend reported to me later that the other parents were discussing their strategies for keeping their kids out of trouble and in with the top-performing kids. Universally, their favorite strategy--even for kids who weren't in advanced classes--was to keep their kids in the music program. So many of the advanced students are in Orchestra, Band, or Choir, that those classes end up driving a lot of class schedules. In effect: stick with Orchestra, and your kids end up being with hard-working students for the rest of the day.

Last, but not least--I really believe that when you learn music, you are also learning math (think rhythm, notes, spatial awareness) and arts (besides the beauty of music, it really is like learning another language). So I think it's important, despite the fact that my (older two) kids' interest in music peaked in 6th or 7th grade, and I want the schools to have good music programs.

Finally--I don't have much experience with the local music programs, and I would be interested in yours. Are they elite and snobby, or open? Does everyone benefit, or just a select few?


  1. The point is that only the top 2 orchestra go on tour, to competitions, have professional uniforms and numerous other perks activities that make the program special. Kids that are also very interested in music, and work hard are excluded from these extra educational activities that are really beneficial in broadening horizons. If the school simply selects students based on skill alone, they are giving a huge advantage to private students and abandoning kids that have depended on their own program. I am not talking just about taking private lessons, I am talking about starting music education at the preschool age. This creates and sustains a huge achievement gap for the kids that haven't had access to extensive private sector training. Music is an academic class. Why is this OK?

  2. I think this is an excellent point--anyone else want to weigh in? Could we envision a different kind of music program?

  3. I think we may need to separate two distinct motives for having music programs. One is to pursue excellence for its own sake, helping already talented and experienced kids to hone their skills, work with other talented musicians, and to enjoy the fruits of all that. The other reason to have music in our schools is to make sure that every child has a chance to experience something that opens the mind and enriches the spirit, encourages a slightly different kind of mental discipline, and connects with so many other things they are learning in school and beyond.

    I appreciate the desire to do the former (and it has some positive side-effects in the form of good press for our schools), but given a choice I'd rather spend resources on the latter.

  4. I see two directions this could go. Philosophy number 1: Don't risk holding the advanced students back by letting any of the average student in. Philosophy number 2: Make sure the dedicated average students can move up by junior year so they can improve and share in the unique experiences of a sophisticated music program. It all depeends on what the school system wants to accomplish.

  5. Music seems like a hybrid program. To start, we could compare it to math. In math, at least initially, you generally (should) get put into a math level for which you are prepared--for example, algebra before geometry. On the other hand, to move up to the next level, all you have to do is pass the class.
    In sports, on the other hand--especially "cut" sports like baseball or ice hockey--you move up based on your ability. And although it is not the stated rule, it is typically the case (in bigger schools) that if you haven't had prior training (say, played travel baseball) you will not be placed on the team--and not everyone makes varsity. Many kids get cut their junior and senior years.
    I like the idea of Philosophy #2 above, that you cannot get cut, and at a certain age you do get to move up to the highest or second-highest music program. It probably would lower the playing level of the program, and that would be okay with me. In that same sense, the way the Ann Arbor schools have things set up now, anyone can sign up for advanced classes, even though it might be discouraged for some kids. They cannot absolutely prohibit you.
    Here's another thought. The performing arts booster clubs spend a lot of time raising money for trips. What if they were to raise money to pay for out-of-school lessons for kids who want them but can't afford them? That would be another way to level the playing field.

  6. As a graduate of the Pioneer Orchestra system that is under fire in this post I take offense to some of it. It's been 15 years and the Orchestra was run by MariJean Quigley at the time (who was WONDERFUL) so things may be different now. But I started violin like everyone else in 5th grade, as did much of the students around me who eventually made the top-level Symphony Orchestra. And yes, we won prestigious awards during my tenure. But I think you'll find that the majority of those students started in the public school system playing an instrument and NOT having private lessons first. Private lessons may have come later as someone became more serious and interested in their instrument but it's not where it started for much of the students.

  7. Back when I went to Pioneer (when it was still a 10th-12th grade school) there was one orchestra for 10th graders and one orchestra for 11th and 12th graders. Even the crummiest 11th and 12th grade string players were in the Symphony Orchestra and it was still a pretty awesome ensemble--we played really challenging rep and played it pretty well. The woodwind, brass and percussionists were more exclusive and were picked from the Symphony band (and as I remember, only came to the Orchestra rehearsals once or twice a week).

    I wonder if the competitive aspect was added for the kids since, back in my day, not that many orchestra kids played sports. My question is do the kids want to compete or is it something that their conductor wants more than they do? I'm sure that the school district loves using the awards the orchestras bring home in their PR materials.

  8. It would be very interesting to survey current juniors and seniors at the high schools and find out when they started playing their instruments. If, in fact, it was in fifth grade in the public schools, then that would be a really important thing to know, because obviously the 5th grade and up music program provides a great opportunity.
    In my experience (limited, basically, to my kids' friends families), the kids who continue on in music generally have strong parental support and/or interest in music.

  9. There is no need to take offense. In 15 years, yes the situation has no doubt changed dramatically. It is not just in music and sports, it is in everything. Some students are studying privately and getting way ahead of what the school system is teaching. It would be entirely plausible for a student to start in Kumon math in elementary and reach the college level during high school. It is the same in sports where kids are members of private swim, tennis, hockey clubs stating young. Also in music. If the system relies on competition, those that haven't had the extra are pretty much boxed out. My sense of the schools is that they are totally unwilling and unprepared to deal with this in any fair way. This is happening much more, not less and there needs to be some policies to maintain equity in educational opportunities.

  10. Ann Arbor can be a very snobby place and music tends to draw people with a holier than thou attitude. It's definitely not a place where one would find an emphasis on inclusiveness or equal opportunities. Too bad. I personally had a wonderful experience in a high school music program. But, at that time everyone was included.

  11. I too am a graduate of the PHS orchestra progam. Even 35 years ago, in 1975, things were competitive. However, everyone was included. And, we had a first-rate program at that time.

    I continue to perform and teach privately. I believe that any child that continues playing music in the 9th grade should have a private or semi-private lesson once/week. I would like to see the schools provide this for all continuing students, starting in the 9th grade.

    And, in this age of competition and limited funding for schools, exclusive groups (if they remain so) should raise their own funds. "Pay to Play" so to speak. The money saved can go into programs where all students can benefit.

    If the high school offers a program for aspiring students (which I believe all are in 9th grade!) then the playing field could be leveled.

    On another note, I basically concur with Lim's sentiment that Ann Arbor parents and students can be very competitive and elitist. I know firsthand -- I have lived in AA for 52 years. I would like to see the focus on traveling group competition lessened and instead focus on educating all students in music. You know what? Even the expert players can learn new skills. Perhaps by coaching the aspiring players, perhaps by leading a sectional. How about composing a piece for the aspiring players and have them perform it. There are different ways everyone can learn. I am tired of the argument that "my bright student should not be held back by the other (read: less bright/even dumb) students. Go get additional resources for your bright student then. But ask yourself this: How can I encourage my son/daughter to give back to others and, at the same time, learn life-long, valuable skills that will lift everyone up. Goodness knows, in these times, our nation is sorely in need of this kind of humanity--along with the Kuman and AP classes.