Moving From Survival to Vision

Cory NevilleUncategorized

Catchy title isn’t it?  I regret I can’t take credit for it!  The title comes from a book written by music education advocacy guru, Dr. John Benham.  The book is a culmination of Dr. Benham’s 30 years of research regarding what works in music education, how to guide a program through difficult circumstances, and how to take the music program to the next level once you’ve “survived” those difficult circumstances.  I spent two days last week at Penn State Main to hear Dr. Benham present for six hours (!) at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association summer conference (Yes, yes…it’s true–I actually think that attending music teaching conferences is part of what I like to call “summer fun…”).  Anyway, Benham is a legend in our field and it was an amazing experience to get to see and hear him present the sum of his research.


In a way, the instrumental program at the high school has experienced this “survival” mode several times, most recently from about 2006-2011: a five-year period that saw five different music teachers running the program in five different ways in both the band and the orchestra.  Since then, I’m really pleased with how quickly the students and their parents have come together with me to get everyone on the same page with how the program functions–it’s definitely a difficult task to even come close to reconciling five different visions of a high school instrumental music program among school, students and parents/community within such a short time!


Our program is not only surviving but thriving–morale is great, enrollment is up significantly, and the quality of everything we do has increased steadily–both musically and non-musically.  Our students have had some phenomenal performances and there are more to come:  I’m really pleased to announce that this year, we will make great strides in the goal of increasing the exposure of the high school program to the middle school students by both the high school band and orchestra rehearsing and performing along side their middle school counterparts in the spring.  We’ll not only play for them, but we’ll be playing with them as well–and in the beautiful new middle school auditorium to boot!  On top of this, every elementary student in the district will also see a high school instrumental ensemble performance this year–meaning that all students in grades 1-5, and all instrumental students in grades 6-8 will get to spend some time this year seeing and hearing why sticking with music through high school is something they and their parents should seriously consider.  Finally, starting in 2014, the only mandatory cost that will be associated with any part of the high school instrumental music program will be a $35 requirement for Marching Band members to buy shoes and gloves–allowing us to now say that being a part of that ensemble is something that is reasonably affordable for every student who wishes to join.


My question at this point is simple:  How many people really know of these good things that are happening in the high school music program, and what are we doing about it? (Consider this quick scenario from earlier this month: At the recent July 4 parade in Leetsdale, a paltry 19 members of the high school Marching Band made their commitment to participate.  Yet, this year’s 2013-14 QVHS Marching Band is the largest marching band the Quaker Valley community has had in almost 20 years.  Do spectators/community members present at that parade know this–or will most who do not attend football games or concerts simply judge us on that small group of 19 they saw earlier this month all year?  I think you know the answer…) My PMEA colleague Rich Victor, who is our statewide advocacy chair, has a famous saying:  “Good advocacy is not crisis management.”  We’ve managed the crises that were inherent with five high school music teachers running the program five different ways in a five year time span.  Now that we’re moving past that more quickly with each passing year, it’s time to move on to focusing on good advocacy practices for our shared vision of the program.


Dr. Benham would urge us to answer these important advocacy questions:

-Are all parents who value their child’s music education at QV coming together around common goals, or do most of the parent activities in music relate to jobs that we need parents to do through Chorus (uniforms), Orchestra (uniforms), and Marching Band (too many things to list!!!)

-How intimidating does the HS music program appear to new students and parents?  The reality of how intimidating it actually is to be involved in the HS music program is quite a bit different than the perception of reality of new students and parents–how can we change that?

-How good is our communication?  Hopefully it’s better every year, but what are the bigger things we can do to make it better?

-What is the music program’s role in the school and community?  How do we know when there is educational value for students versus when they are simply functioning as entertainment?  (There’s room for both of these things in a good music program, but students, parents, school and community need to know the difference!)

-What data do we have about our program?  What data should we have about our program?  How can we get this data and use it to inform decisions about our program, and inform the school and community about the value of what we’re doing?  Remember, good advocacy is not crisis management.  We’re not battling a crisis here–but we want to advocate well so that our program is as well-known by those outside the program as it is by those who are in it.

-What’s our shared philosophy?  What do we agree is the value of music education at Quaker Valley, and how do we better get the message out to everyone about this value?


This year, we’ll be working more closely than ever before with our parents to answer these questions together.  Working toward answers to these questions will help us to ensure that as many students as possible get the benefit of the high school music experience.  A successful music program not only provides a quality experience to the students in the program (as we do), but also recognizes that every student deserves that quality experience.   At the high school, we cannot provide that experience to students unless they and their families choose to allow us to provide it.  Now is the time for us to take a bigger step forward–by heavily advocating to school and community for parents and students to make the right choice when it comes to whether or not they should participate in the high school music program, we will move from survival to vision.


All the best,