I just came from listening to a keynote at the Iowa Music Educators Conf. By NAfME President Scott Shuler and in many ways was blown away by what I heard... And a little scared too. It brought up something that I have noticed more and more in doing my research for the tech articles in Teaching Music. The reality is that traditional music education is changing, and perhaps now more than ever it needs to. At the same time it seems as though we music teachers are doing the profession a disservice by resisting that change. In any given school you have a choir, a band, and/or an orchestra. The problem is that society and students have changed so much that these ensembles no longer attract students the way they once did. You want to play guitar? OK, here's a trumpet!
I read about and talk to teachers all over the United States that tell me of their district's guitar programs or mariachi ensembles that complement their own bands or other music technology classes and it seems so foreign to me, yet also so very logical. The thing is that as a band director I am personally scared a little about the idea of guitar classes or mariachi bands becoming a curricular subject. Thanks to budget cuts band directors and music teachers no longer feel the strong sense of job security that we had grown to take for granted. Now, all that many band directors can think of is that if their band enrollment drops as a result of these alternative ensembles pulling away their students then there are even fewer reasons to keep the band guy around.
The reality as I have read and slowly begun to accept is that this fear, while very real, also seems to be misplaced in most cases. According to Shuler high school participation in music classes is down to around 20% nationally. That means that 4 out of every 5 kids in your high school never sing or play a note of music. From the anecdotal evidence I have heard from teachers in schools like Huntington Beach High School Music Program where guitar, rock ensembles, and other alternatives are embraced, participation and enrollment in band has not suffered significantly and instead serves as a compliment to it. At the same time other schools have taken to using bold new methods to incorporate more popular styles and ensembles into their existing programs. Things like electrified marching bands with full scale guitar and rhythm sections on the field playing the music that the crowd really wants to hear. Don't doubt for a second that part of Drum Corps International's decision to allow amplification was not partially because they forsaw what would happen to the popularity of their organization if they didn't.
If the most important thing is that kids get involved with music and stay in it throughout their lives then this embracing of alternative methods and ensembles is a good idea. As Shuler said in his keynote making this kind of fundamental change in the way we teach music is almost essential if we want to stop the declines in enrollment and start them back in the other direction. His plan for a 21st Century Music Program is one of many ways we could begin to stem the tide. To use another phrase from his message, in times of rapid change like is happening now in our society any group that does not change finds themselves whithering on the vine. That is why you see organizations like the boy and girl scouts updating their programs, changing many of the traditional aspects of it in order to have a chance at drawing in new members against the onslaught of all the other alternatives they have to choose from. The old timers in those organizations don't always like it, some make a big stink about it or wind up quitting over it, but in the long run those who stick with it realize that making the change was the correct thing to do.
The same thing has to happen in music education. Take a long, hard look at your program as a whole from K-12. You may say that your enrollment has stayed basically unchanged over the last few years. But then look again and see if the school's overall enrollment has increased during that same time. If it has, then you are really loosing students. If a school is growing then your program should be growing as well. Stop, take a long hard look, and open your mind to new ideas and help us all to save music education for our grandkids before music in our schools dies off forever.