What Percentage of Students are “Meant” to be Playing a Musical Instrument in School?

IMG_4672If we take a moment to look at school music programs around our nation, we may be inclined to believe that music instrument instruction is a luxury reserved for a select few.  We may also be holding on to an archaic belief that only a small percentage of students are capable of learning an instrument, or are “naturally talented” in the arts.  But what is the truth of the matter?  Under all the right circumstances, what percentage of children in school are “meant” to stick with a musical instrument?

The fact is, all students would be better served if they learned an instrument as part of school curricula, and I would argue that schools are denying the opportunity for most students to realize a passion and desire to play an instrument throughout their K-12 education.  There are many who argue that there is a large percentage of students who aren’t musically talented or don’t have the desire to play, but I contest that conditions in schools and the way music is valued by our system (and therefore our communities) creates that lack of “desire”.

So how do we level the playing field?  What are some of the “right” circumstances that will allow music to be an essential component of every school day?  Here are some ways that schools can create an appropriate environment for students to enjoy music as part of their core education:

Our communities must declare that creativity is as the heart of education.  Even though a policy for creativity in education needs to be about everybody, not just a few, we don’t need to wait for this to happen at the federal level.  Local school systems can have an open dialogue about how all students are born creative and how our systems have been stifling that creativity as the school years progress.  Learning to be creative is not an extra-curricular or a “special” activity; education for creativity is about the whole curriculum, not just part of it.

Schools must schedule musical instrument instruction 5 days a week for all students.   Elementary and middle school music scheduling is one of the primary reasons for the massive attrition rate in young musicians we have in this country.  Whereas many high schools have bands/orchestras/choruses that meet 5 days a week, elementary school instruction is 1 day a week, and middle school instruction is 2 to 3 days, on average.  How can we possibly expect students to be successful with such a small amount of contact time?  As much as I am committed to helping parents assist their children in practicing at home, five days a week of instruction during the school day would alleviate the need for parents to “make up” that missed time.  Any academic subject that only meets 1 or 2 days a week in school requires students (and parents) to ensure they learn the subject matter on their own, while diminishing the chances of that subject “sticking” in each child’s life.

Schools must identify and support great music teachers.  Schools with thriving music programs all have one thing in common: a great music teacher at the helm.  Obviously, there is a higher student retention rate when there is great teaching accompanied by administrative support for the program.  Any argument against music as part of every school day is seriously diminished when there is great teaching — we have all seen students involved in programs we never would have imagined simply because there is a wonderful teacher leading the way.  Of course, these great teachers must be supported once they are hired — I have seen too many teachers fail due to a lack of support on the administrative level.

Instrumental music instruction must begin at the youngest ages.  In the school district where I worked as a music supervisor, music instrument instruction began in 5th grade.  There is no doubt that this is way too late to begin students on instruments — they are capable of reaping enormous benefits from music so much earlier. So we launched a K-4 Suzuki-inspired violin program that was wildly popular — hundreds of students take part in it to this day.  But why should this instruction not be part of every school day instead of after school?  Even something as simple as a “push-in” model where every student takes a 20-30 minute break during the day to receive violin instruction could have incredible benefits and a profound impact on school and community culture.  One day a week of general music class is not enough for our youngest children — we must do more.

Schools must increase musical offerings.  Band, orchestra, and chorus are great.  But there are more opportunities than that to accommodate all types of learner and students from all walks of life.  Mariachi, world drumming, and electronic music are a few offerings that speak to different subsets of our student population.  The more offerings there are in school curricula, the higher chance there is of all students being involved and reaping the benefits of a life immersed in the arts.

Passion and play must be supported by schools.  Not all young students will become professional musicians or music majors in college, but let’s be clear:  all young children are musical and have music inside them.  Parents and educators who encourage and create time for students to find and pursue a passion know that it may be more important than mere academic achievement.  School leaders who encourage time in every school day for students to find and pursue an intellectual or artistic passion have better schools.  And it’s not always music that becomes the child’s passion — their passions morph and evolve into a deeper sense of purpose over time — and that’s what school should be all about.

All students should learn to play a musical instrument as an essential part of their K-12 schooling — 100% of children are “meant” to play an instrument.  The only reason it isn’t happening now is due to the climate, culture, and curricula in our schools.  In our world, problems can no longer be solved or even understood within the narrow academic disciplines we are used to seeing on our children’s school schedule.  This is a crucial time for our society to embrace arts instruction in schools.

Are our children really better off plowing through days of mind-numbing, low-level tasks?  I dream of the day when schools choose to make music a non-negotiable cornerstone of their curricula and we all not only watch test scores go up as a result, but are witness to a new generation of “complete” human beings grow up with the tools to experience a fulfilling life.


  1. To my favorite overreaching musical education blogger. Once again you make some good points. Particularly about trying to make music education more available to all ages, as well as supporting the great music teachers. And I do agree that there should be a place for musical education if the communities wish there to be one.
    However you continue to overstep with the use of your version of facts, and thinking inside the music box when there could be other options out there. You said…
    “The fact is, all students would be better served if they learned an instrument as part of school curricula”. – You are pretty bold to use the word “all”, try saying “some”, or maybe even “a lot” if you are feeling frisky, but not “all”. It’s almost like you have never met a person that doesn’t care for playing musical instruments. Leave the band room every once in a while, they are out there, and yes, even as little kids. Kids can also learn to love to being in the military if they were forced to join at an early age, but that doesn’t make it appropriate to indoctrinate them.
    “I contest that conditions in schools and the way music is valued by our system (and therefore our communities) creates that lack of “desire”. – Maybe the lack of desire creates the lack of desire? Maybe the structure of band is the problem. Maybe what bands wear during performances is the problem. If you want to entice kids to check out a musical instrument, make it look more fun. The person on the street corner playing buckets makes music look fun, and they do it while wearing casual clothing. Bands/orchestras wear polyester nutcracker uniforms and penguin suits. The “uniform” alone can create disinterest for a child. And to follow along with the structure of the band enticing people you said, “Band, orchestra, and chorus are great. But there are more opportunities than that to accommodate all types of learner and students from all walks of life. Mariachi, world drumming, and electronic music are a few offerings that speak to different subsets of our student population.” Perhaps take this idea, and it’s not a bad want, and turn it into using what you have. Maybe in certain instances (low numbers) you can remove marching bands and add in classes teaching Mariachi or world drumming (to use your examples), you can even throw in garage band, or bluegrass. Start with what you have and build on that. There are places for all types of music, just realize that they may not be in every school.
    “100% of children are “meant” to play an instrument.” – ummmm, NO! (and I don’t even care that you used quotation “marks”). Unless you consider a bat hitting a ball, the squeak of gym shoes, or running spikes crunching through turn an instrument. Everyone MIGHT love listening to music, but quit lumping everyone together when it comes to playing and forcing to play.
    “This is a crucial time for our society to embrace arts instruction in schools.” – Why? This could also be a crucial time to follow sharia law, or follow strict Christian beliefs, or make everyone else become a team by playing sports, or going to work in the fields at an early age so that illegals can be sent back to their home countries without our food supply diminishing. Just because its said on a blog doesn’t make it true for everyone.
    “I dream of the day when schools choose to make music a non-negotiable cornerstone of their curricula and we all not only watch test scores go up as a result, but are witness to a new generation of “complete” human beings grow up with the tools to experience a fulfilling life.” – Once again implying that anyone else that doesn’t learn a musical instrument is incomplete. People “all” over the internet will be saying, ” Please take my money and support. Only complete people deserve funding. My life will never be fulfilling anyway.”
    Quit with the generalities, and quit saying 100%, and quit saying ALL when it doesn’t apply. (Scenarios where it is appropriate to use… we are all humans, we all live on earth, we were all born, we will all die (barring any medical advancements), and other similar circumstances. You may also “think” that all should, but that doesn’t make it a fact.

    • Steve, as is the case with your other comments: they speak for themselves; I have no words except these:

      You must have had the worst time in band than anyone in the history of band. I’m sorry for that.

      And a question:

      If we are only to schedule the school day based on childrens’ desires, what subjects will be taught?

      • Tony,
        I did not have a terrible time in band, except for the fact that I didn’t want to be there and practice. I made good friends while I was in band and I always felt welcomed. Band is not bad, forcing kids into band is. So don’t apologize for my time in band, it was my parents fault, not yours, (but at least they cared enough to make me do anything of substance and to support while doing it, unlike many parents), but if you actually are sorry and might want to make me feel better about my time in band, quit telling people that 100% of people should play an instrument and be in band. And please quit telling people they will be better because of band. That will make my time in band 100% worth it.

      • Steve says:

        Sorry, forgot to try to answer your added question.
        I wouldn’t base elementary education on children’s desires. But I also wouldn’t force them to take band or play baseball or take an art class like you are suggesting. However if they (and their parents) had a choice between options of band, a sport, art, a life skill (yes, even in elementary) as possible electives. In middle school it could be expanded to more age appropriate life skills (shop classes, home ec. , even expanding musical offerings). Then high school students can follow a career path that might not follow the typical educational standard (return to apprenticeships). Standard Test Scores would improve (politicians love test scores) because less interested students would have opportunity to leave school. Just a few quick thoughts

    • Michael says:

      I’m a music educator, so I’m sure you’ll count my opinion as biased too.
      From jasoncraig.org
      “Your child should study music because nothing in the world is like it. It opens up the mind and heart to new ways of looking at the world, and to an ability to think and feel and experience more deeply. Music is a universal language in a way few others things can ever be. If you know how to play an instrument, you’ll be part of a global community of people who realize that beauty is as essential to life as breathing. Your child should learn to play an instrument precisely because it doesn’t immediately have a practical value. It’s a quixotic campaign against the idea that everything they do has to prepare them for life as a worker and consumer. Making music is a revolutionary act. Learning to play and appreciate music is part of what it means to be human.”

      • Steve says:

        Yes, you might be biased, but this wording seems more appropriate, and less forceful. Aside from saying you have to play and appreciate music to be human. (and yes, I get that saying what it takes to be human is an opinion, but it’s also exclusionary, and music is about being part of a global community)

  2. You describe the perfect “alternate universe” for music educators. Where do I sign up?
    Bill Alpert recently posted…Evolutive A Major Performance and Practice TrackMy Profile

  3. Jessica says:

    Do you know of Waldorf schools? All that you say is part of their philosophy!
    You could never budget cut the arts out of them, you would not have a school left.

  4. I too agree that music education should move to the center because it compliments math and everything else in a way no other subject can.

    I think that “one day”, music education will receive an evaluation followed by an adjustment but am not sure if the USA will be a leader or follower?
    Never the less, it is good to see that the topic is being discussed and hopefully receives the attention it deserves rather sooner than later.


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