Monday, February 22, 2010

The Band Industry is Killing Music Education

Ok, now that's I've got your attention, I'm not a choir director who hates bands.  I love a good concert band, symphonic band, or wind ensemble (have you heard Rich Fischer's Concordia Univeristy Chicago Wind Symphony?). I started playing clarinet in sixth grade and switched to bassoon in seventh.  I played bassoon in band though the rest of grade school, high school, and college.  If that isn't a textbook definition of a band geek, I don't know what is!

The title of this article is taken from a ChoralNet post from Feb 4 which details the writings of Stephen Budiansky, a parent with a musical, educational ax to grind. To quote the ChoralNet post:
Here is the outline of the story:
1.  On January 30, 2005, a parent wrote an article in the Washington Post that bemoaned instrumental music education in general and substandard literature in particular.  He also wrote a "follow on" article entitled "The Repertoire is the Curriculum:  Getting Back to Basics in Music Education" that elaborated on the original issue.
 2.  All of it caused quite a furor. (He "received more than 100 messages and phone calls from band directors, students, ex-students, elementary school teachers, church musicians") His mail ran about 7 to 1 in favor of what he had said.
3.  The parent was asked to write an article for the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles and he did (with Col. Timothy Foley, retired director of the U.S. Marine Band).
4.  He was about to publish another article, but the article was pulled at the last minute by a new president of the association.
 It is a fascinating story.  Click on the links and read about it.  Read more here on a page he calls "The Wonderful People who Killed School Music."
While reading these articles, I started to think about all the decisions that go into programming a concert, because, like it or not, concert repertoire is the music student's curriculum.  Unless the choir or band director is extremely disciplined in their short (45 min a day) rehearsal time to include music theory, history, or any of the National Standards for Music Education, the majority of what a band or choir student learns about music, and thereby takes forward into their lives, is based on the music that they perform for concerts (and how the director teaches it).

That's a frightening and immensely important responsibility for the choir and band director.  Pick trite music, screw up a child's future musical appreciation. Make a kid think that the best music is "easy" music and they will resist working on anything "hard".

There are so many things to consider when programming music for a choir or band concert. Here are just some of the things that go through my mind when I pick music for a concert:
  1. The student's musical background and how that relates to the rest of the choir/band.
  2. The time of school year (don't pull out the hardest, but "coolest" piece for the Fall Concert).
  3. The past concert themes.
  4. The audience's ability to be challenged vs. pleasing them with music they already know.
  5. The ceiling of the student's ability to be stretched (a.k.a. taught) for that concert based on the the time of year and other pieces that the student has worked on that year.
  6. How the pieces in the concert relate to each other.
  7. How an individual choir's or band's pieces give the opportunity to teach historical and stylistic variety.
  8. How long will that piece be around?  Will it stand the test of time?
  9. Does the director love the piece?  He or she won't be able to teach it well if they don't.
  10. Time to prepare (for both the director and students)
  11. Are there components of the piece of music which can be drawn out to form mini-lessons? Is the anything "teachable" about the piece?  If there isn't, is it worth doing?
  12. Availability of accompanist for the choir.  There's a lot of good music which should be taught and performed by choirs for which a really good accompanist is needed.  If the director is also the accompanist because there isn't a budget for paying an outside accompanist and there isn't a student in the choir who can play piano (or organ, or any other instrument to a sufficient degree), then will the choir perform its best if their director can't direct them because they have to accompany them?  
I program five major concerts every school year for my high school choirs: Fall, Christmas, Let's Celebrate, Hymn Festival, Spring.  Three are secular, two are sacred.  The expressed programming purpose of Let's Celebrate Day is to pick music that the audience knows because it's a cabaret type setting and there is talking and milling around in the gym during performances.  That evens out the concerts to two sacred and two secular where I can choose music to grow on, spiritually and aesthetically.  It's an awesome responsibility. I take it seriously because I want my students to grow in their musical knowledge and to continue to want to be in choir.


  1. It's a challenge in the church as well. It is easy to pick hymns and choir pieces everyone knows and likes. Yet it is our task to take the congregation (or choir) and expose them to different forms, introduce hymns that will stretch their comfort zone, expose them to theologically solid texts, etc.

    My choir was invited to sing at a multi-cultural concert a few years back. We sang a gospel song and a Mozart piece (Ave Verum Corpus). Both are part of the great musical heritage of our congregation.

  2. Oh, yeah! If you post the Hymn Festival on-line, I will be happy to feature it on my blog. For that matter, I will be happy to feature any of the concerts!