Confessions of a Mid-Career Music Teacher: Seeking the Other 75 Percent
By Amelia Armstrong, WMEA Vice President – Northwest District
Do you know the music enrollment percentage at your school? Five years ago, neither did I, but knowing this number each year has taken me on a fantastic journey I never imagined. That journey has been to add secondary general music courses to our high school music curriculum.
At our 9-12 high school, 25 percent of students are enrolled in a music ensemble: band, orchestra or choir. With few exceptions, this had been the norm for decades, with little change in sight. Then along came a survey* asking for our music enrollment numbers, and we started to ask a difficult question: what can we do to get the other 75 percent of our school interested in a music course?
Anecdotally, we’re not the only school on this journey. There has been a steady increase in articles and discussion about secondary general music courses. WMEA has added a secondary general music chair in recent years, and schools like ours are seeking non-performance based courses that require less time or financial commitment than ensembles.
Time commitment was our first hurdle in thought. Traditional music ensembles ask for four to eight years or more of time commitment. If you’re going to learn to play the cello well, you’ll start in fourth or fifth grade, rent an instrument, and have orchestra in your schedule every year until you graduate. This is a tried-and true-model, but not all students and families are interested in this commitment, which requires years of practice and dedication. Our personal solution was to focus on one-semester courses, which could easily fit into any student’s schedule, and could be taken at any point during a high-school career. To build interest in the new courses, we offer short enrichment sessions during our RTI period, one-day summer workshops, or occasional after-school jam sessions and open studio time.
The second hurdle was cost: what type of a class is interesting to students, but doesn’t require instrument rental or a course fee? How could we make new courses accessible to everyone, without charging them for equipment, supplies or software? Our personal solution was to ask for funds via community grants and our music booster organization. Our district also shared our vision of accessibility regardless of socio-economic status, and earmarked funds to help us secure grants. This allows us to avoid a course fee to take a general music class, which removes a barrier for some students.
I was surprised at how much music-making students were doing on their own, independent of any music teacher or class. Since I’ve begun this journey, I’ve learned of students who are creating, composing, arranging, even marketing their own music. There are students asking to use practice rooms for guitar, drum set, ukulele, or piano, who are not enrolled in a music course. There are students creating Electronic Dance Music (EDM), students DJing using hip hop names, and students monetizing their own YouTube channels. I’m sure there are more music-makers that we haven’t learned about yet. How can we best serve these students? Is our job as music educators to teach the students who willingly come to us, or to seek out all students, discovering what they might like to know about music and how we could connect them with that knowledge?
Our first foray into secondary general music is a beginning guitar course, now in its fifth semester. Our target audience is students not currently being reached by music courses. Each school year, about half of the students in guitar haven’t had a music class since sixth grade general music. They are learning or relearning music terms, rhythms, notes on the treble clef, and how to keep a steady beat. To my surprise, I have found a new joy teaching students who’ve been away from formal music instruction for awhile.
It is a completely different experience than teaching high school choir, where I can assume that freshmen are coming in with skills in reading, writing, audiation, and solfege. I have to work harder to convince new guitar students that honing skills takes patience, and that the investment of time and persistence is worthwhile. I have to be very creative and flexible with lesson plans, because the first chair tuba and a student struggling with quarter notes are in the same class. Also, I have to reteach frequently, remembering to use different explanations and learning modalities each time. What I’ve discovered is that teaching secondary general music has reinvigorated my love for teaching. It hasn’t decreased my love for choir, but much like having a second child, it has deepened the capacity of my love for teaching.
I often ask other teachers what secondary general music courses are offered at their schools. I’m interested to know how they came to choose these courses, what their outcomes are, and what effect the classes have had on their student population. We did a school-wide survey a year ago about how students interact with music, in an effort to discover what new types of courses might best serve student interest. I’ve been casually asking more students how music fits into their daily lives, and what excites them about it. We have decided to pursue a digital audio and music production course, with the goal of building student interest in recording, mixing and editing.
From music technology, to music appreciation; from rock history to composition; and from guitar to hip-hop; there are new courses being offered at schools across the country, as we try to engage non-ensemble students with music in meaningful ways. At our school, adding guitar took us from 23 percent music participation to 28 percent. Our goal is to reach one-third music participation, as we look to add another general music elective. I’m sure there are schools in Wisconsin who are reaching 40-50 percent of their student body with music courses, and I would love to hear from you. You are daring to look beyond the wonderful foundation of music ensembles to see who isn’t enrolled, and figuring out how music educators can connect those students with music courses. Kudos to you, and your wisdom is welcomed as we all continue to learn and grow as music educators.
*The Best Community for Music Education survey, www.nammfoundation.org