The Cure for Shrinking Music Programs in Schools? Great Teaching.

Kinhaven 2014-104I become very passionate when writing about school administrators’ lack of awareness of the benefits of instrumental music in school curricula, and how parents can help advocate for programs that their children are involved in.  There is no doubt that music programs all over our nation are constantly in danger of being reduced or cut every budget cycle; many times their fate is in the hands of myopic data-driven bean counters.  Until the pendulum swings away from high stakes testing and towards cultivating creativity in schools, maintaining healthy music programs will always be a battle.

As music advocacy and the pressure on administrators and boards of education to keep music programs alive roars on, there is still a ten thousand pound gorilla in the room:  There needs to be a great teacher in every classroom to carry out the mission of raising the musical bar for all children and creating enduring programs that become mainstays in our school system.  Without great teaching, music education in our schools doesn’t have a chance.

Many people get angry at me for saying this, but there simply are not enough great music teachers in our system.  As a matter of fact, there are too many mediocre and ineffective music teachers to allow for programs to grow in quality and quantity the way we all would like.  Music education advocates are, instead, busy rushing from one community to another trying to stop cuts instead of advocating for true growth.  Unlike any other subject, I believe a poor music program is worse than no music program– poor programs give our subject the “frill” label and often leave a bad taste in the mouth of subject area teachers, administrators and parents far beyond the music teacher’s tenure in the program.  It makes it that much more difficult to advocate for a mediocre music program as time progresses, and also makes it tricky to convince administrators to keep the program once a bad teacher moves on.

Having too many mediocre music teachers in our system creates a huge problem, and a problem that other subject area teachers do not have.  If a math teacher is ineffective, math class does not go away; if an instrumental music teacher is not outstanding, the program may wither away and die.  Is this fair?  Perhaps not, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need great music teachers now more than ever before.

A Major Challenge

Over the course of my professional playing and teaching life, I have met thousands of public and private school music teachers who are not competent musicians — they truly embody the “those who cannot do…teach” stigma.  However (and very startling to me), I have met just as many wonderful musicians who are extremely ineffective teachers — they would wilt like a delicate flower in front of a class of 50 middle school students (I was one of those, for a time).  It has been a failure of many of our higher education systems — both music education institutions and conservatories — that have allowed this disconnect of great teaching and playing to continue to exist, and the trickle down effect can be seen in our dwindling school programs.

Here are 3 critical attributes that music teachers must have in order to have a chance at creating (and maintaining) a successful school music program:

  1. The teacher must be a great musician.  A distinguished instrumental music teacher must have experienced greatness in their craft in some form.  If a teacher has never learned how to create a beautiful sound, how can they effectively train others to do it?  A great teacher is a lifelong student of the craft, and practices just as consistently as they ask their students to practice. A great music teacher is consistently modeling high levels of musicianship in every way, and sets the bar at a professional standard for their students.  I believe that the reason why many music programs are marginalized and/or cut is due to mediocre musicians at the head of the class who are content with mediocre results, simply because they can’t hear the difference.
  2. The teacher must be engaged in learning how they became a great musician and be passionate about delivering that information to children.  As I mentioned above, there are many great musicians who are ineffective teachers.  Anyone who has not been forced to think about how they do things will have a difficult time teaching it to others.  A great teacher must be able to keep concepts at a high level, but make the explanations simple based on the age of the group they teach.  They must be dedicated to developing themselves as a pedagogue; constantly searching for new ways to allow all students to reach their potential and become proficient at a musical instrument.  They must be able to break things down into their smallest part in order for every child to find success at musical skills.  This takes patience, planning and time to develop the “teaching muscle”.
  3. The teacher must have an undying vision of a great program.  A great music teacher has a crystal clear picture in his/her mind of every aspect of a great school music program; from what it looks like when one walks into the classroom to the sounds that every child should be producing from their instrument.  This vision is reflected on, revisited and revised constantly, but it is a musical vision primarily.  The teacher must be able to effectively communicate that vision to students, parents, teachers and school leaders.  The vision must be musical first — all the gritty details follow that musical vision thereafter.

These three attributes of a great music teacher are absolutely necessary, but it’s still just the beginning.  Incredible organizational skills and an ability to work with school leadership, teachers and parents is crucial to a program’s success in a school system. But without a great musical mind and a passion for lifelong learning on the part of the teacher, an instrumental music program is doomed to wallow in mediocrity, and all the music advocacy in the world will fall short of achieving its goal.

All said, I believe that we are about to enter a very exciting time in public education.  More students than ever are attending schools of music for college, yet there are less playing jobs than ever to be had, which means that there is a growing pool of potential great teachers.  Our nation is close to hitting a tipping point in education where over-testing will have been proven not to work, and a more creative approach to education will be embraced.  The music world needs to be ready for this — we will only get one chance to succeed.

A vast majority of our children are perfectly capable of being good musicians.  Most people do not want to admit it, but a constant culture of mediocrity throughout our education system keeps these children from a lifelong love of performing and appreciating music.  Current and potential teachers must continue to invest in their own musical growth, and institutions of music, school systems, teacher unions and arts organizations must partner up in order to assist these teachers with their vision, program building and development as musicians and professionals.

If music programs are going to survive and thrive, everyone needs to share in reflecting on and improving their performance.  It’s never too late to pick up our instrument and re-engage with what got us to this point.  We can all do better.


  1. Elizabeth Blake says:

    no argument at all with the overall premise!!! Three thoughts as I read: 1) assuming that the large number of music students will want to teach instead of perform, and that they will have the instincts for it, could be iffy. 2). Great teachers are cut too. Witness several of LA’s iconic high school programs. And 3) those who are truly passionate about their teaching often face burnout fairly quickly through the constant fight for survival. These points are not pro or con arguments, just thoughts. I am in complete agreement with the need for qualified musicians to teach. It is even more rare in the orchestra world (my area) where most string classes are taught by band teachers.

    • Elizabeth, although great teachers/programs are cut sometimes, it is the exception, certainly not the rule — but your point is duly noted. As far as burnout, I agree. I was a victim of it after a decade, and I had a good situation. Like you say, your own passion can drain your energy. And finally, we need great string teachers and we need to advocate for string programs to start earlier than the 4th or 5th grade. As an administrator in a school district, I started a K-4 suzuki violin program and boy, did it work! Thanks for your comment.

  2. A very well articulated discussion/opinion of the most important qualifications a music teacher in the public schools should have. I can’t disagree with any of them. Primary in my mind is the first – that music teachers have to be excellent musicians in order to teach music well. Anything less – leads to less than excellent music teaching/learning. I’m not sure that such teachers need to be actively performing, but they need to have been successful performers at one point.

    Here is the problem from my perspective as a university teacher – not all faculty have the freedom to develop a students’ musicianship well before the administrators deem the student qualified for a degree. Those faculty, usually the applied teaching faculty, who give Bs and Cs to students who achieve no more than that level, are often vilified by their administrators – overruled, pressured to change the grades, or threatened with disciplinary action by same administrators for asking that students meet specific levels of musical achievement prior to being awarded a degree. Why? The administrators associated with such behavior are more interested in how they are viewed by their own boss than they are with excellency in what they do. As a result, the music program at the university level becomes less effective in teaching students to become great musicians. I have witnessed this first hand – and it is a sad thing.

    When I taught in the public schools, I won an audition as a utility clarinetist in a major symphony orchestra. Not only did my principal let me pursue this passion (as long as I paid my substitutes), my students came alive at the prospect of working with a person qualified to play at such a level.

    Keep thinking the way that you are! Music education will eventually come around – as long as strong thinkers like you are educating the public!

    • Thank you for this great and unique perspective, Roger! I, too, had an incredible Principal who supported my professional pursuits — she knew that the trickle down effect to the students was worth its weight in gold. Luckily, I do not have any of the problems at my University that you write about. That is a loaded issue!

  3. Danny Cruz says:

    I agree completely! I feel like this echos my professors words from undergrad. I Also feel like the circumstances/work atmosphere for elementary music teachers makes it difficult to stay in the job. Even in the best environment I had 900 different students and kept a file for each one…its hard to maintain a playing carrier when I was always at school. I did manage to create this youtube channel for my students check out the recorder intro video here

    • You know, I usually don’t allow links on my blog in the comments section, but this was a fun video to watch. Bravo!

  4. I think that we need to raise the financial value of music teaching businesses to the consumers. All of us, musicians and music teachers, are taught to play their instruments well, follow directions, and we are teaching our students to sheep. Instead, we should be entrepreneurs, listen to our business instincts and self initiate in making a living through what we do best and make people paying for it. We should generate that skills to our music students so that they also learn to lead their own lives without depending on public/private schools’ salary. Music education should include training of finances and what they are expertise are worth. Consumers need to see and value that. After all, wouldn’t you want to see your own child to succeed and grow with their musical skills that you invested on rather than to just barely survive financially? I believe that this is the only way to find great and dedicated teachers.

  5. Okay, yes, totally! But we have to get our heads on straight about what constitutes great instruction. Are students given a safe space where they are valued? Are students taught to interact with one another in positive, prosocial ways? Do students feel connected to something beyond themselves? Are students taught good musical fundamentals? Are students taught to listen deeply, think about music, and have profound aesthetic experiences? Are students given repertoire that is nourishing, challenging (in appropriate amounts), and representative of a variety of musical traditions? Is the daily process challenging, inspiring, positive, and (dare I say) enjoyable? Are students put in position to perform at some standard of achievement (not every high school orchestra needs to perform Brahms 4 to be “successful”)? Are students inspired to keep making or even just loving music once they are out of school (or has some teacher hellbent on “excellence” squeezed all of the joy out of this endeavor for them)? The truly great music teacher is not only a great musician (although she is definitely that!), but a deeply caring person committed to transforming minds and souls.

  6. Absolutely on target! Fantastic article. Thank you!
    Patty Thayer
    Music Educator

  7. Agree with all three points. A very large factor that was not mentioned was the lack of evolution in our discipline: Choir, band, marching band, and orchestra. What about the 90% of the student population who loves music, but is not interested in traditional performing ensembles? I teach non-performers, and non-traditional music classes, and am hoping to see more teachers reaching the students who aspire to be great song writers, music producers, guitar and ukulele players, and musicologists (alongside traditional ensembles), in order to maintain strong, and relevant music programs.

  8. Andy Johnston says:

    Thank you! I have been trying to preach this for some time. I have found that a huge obstacle is college professors who actively discourage good players from majoring in music ed. They want their studios filled with prrformance majors, and music ed is assigned to players who don’t play well enough to hold their own professionally. The playing standards for an ed degree are significantly lower. My solution is for students to major in ed but hold themselves to the higher standards required of the performance degree. Thanks again for this article.

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