The Role of the School Music Program

Cory NevilleUncategorized

Now that we are entering Week 10 of the school year, while most aspects of the year are becoming more busy, one aspect is settling down (at least for now).  Scheduling.  Even up until two or three weeks ago, I was both gaining and losing students in my classes as students and parents negotiated scheduling priorities.  I am always happy to see new faces in any music class, and am sad to see students have to leave for whatever reason they may choose.  While music is for everybody, the ensemble experience in band or orchestra, or the classroom experience in music theory may not be every student’s cup of tea.  When a student at least tries band or orchestra or theory, and then can honestly say “hey, it’s just not my thing!” I can accept it and go back to the drawing board to see how I can make those classes more appealing to a wider range of students.  Also, while a student may love band or orchestra or theory, if they are lucky enough to know their future college major or their ideal career while still in high school, it’s understandable to see students prioritize classes that relate to their personal goals over music if they need to.

However, these students are rare.  Most students who walk into a high school ensemble room do not choose to walk away from it because it is not their “thing.”  They walk in the doors not knowing what to expect, and once they realize how good of an experience they’re having, they don’t want to leave.  This is why retention from middle school programs into high school programs is so important; it is the idea of “if I can get them in the door, I can keep them in the group!”  And the number of high school students who really know what they want to do after high school is small.  AND…even among those students who DO know what they want to do, scheduling music is still possible (I’d concede it is more difficult than if their options are wide open.  Difficult, but yet far from impossible…More on that some other time!).

So for the majority of students who never walk through the doors of a high school ensemble room and/or do not know what they want to do after high school, it is fair to ask what case can be made for prioritizing music study in school.  We all know music education is important–a quick Google search for “benefits of music education” yields 321 million results.  The world gets it!  Music is important, it helps your kids, it teaches 21st century skills–yadda, yadda, yadda.  Let’s get more specific because you know all of this already.  How specifically does the music program at Quaker Valley help students?  Why is it worth their while? I’ll give you two lesser-heard reasons–these are not necessarily what I think are the best reasons for music education at QV–but these are two of the reasons that I think deserve more recognition out of the many reasons QV’s music program is valuable to our students:

1. Students are overloaded and need respite from “regular” classwork.  I’m not saying music classes are easier–in fact, the tasks at hand both physically and mentally involved in playing an instrument, making music, and collaborating with other musicians are quite challenging.  I’m just saying those challenges look and feel different than the challenges faced by students in their other classes.   Some students will actually experience less success in music than in any other class due to the difficulty and challenge, but they will enjoy exploring those difficulties more due to the nature of those challenges.  When a student struggles in any other subject, they discover what they are good at and what they are not good at in that subject.  When a student struggles in music, they discover things about themselves that may or may not have anything to do with music whatsoever.  This is invaluable–and as today’s high school students are overloaded with mountains of homework, the stress of being in every AP or Honors level course known to man (or feeling like they are less of a student if they are not in those classes), and with a mind-spinning reliance on technology, they need this kind of education more than ever.

Bottom line–are your kids more or less stressed out than you were when you were in high school?  I didn’t ask whether or not they have more to do–they should have more to do.  Education needs to evolve and change with the times!  But having more to do should not coincide with more stress and anxiety.  What are students missing in their lives if they do not have a bit of educational respite in their day?  What do you miss in your life when you don’t make time for yourself as an adult?  Are these answers really any different?!?  Do we expect that a cohort of over-worked, stressed out students will magically become college students and adults who are productive, happy and understand balance?  They need something extra–they need exactly what music education has to offer them.


2. Other musical activities are just one piece of a larger puzzle.  A lot of well-intentioned students and parents depart from the school music program because they feel like as long as they’re getting a musical experience of some sort, that it constitutes music education and it doesn’t matter where or how they get it.  I’m surprised and bothered by this trend here.  Private lessons, youth orchestras, and music festivals are all great things that I would recommend for every student.  But each of those things gets you something a little different:

Private lessons: Allows students to acquire basic, intermediate and advanced musical skills specific to their instrument, and allows them to apply those skills on their own.

Youth orchestras/Festivals: Gives students opportunities to apply advanced musical skills in a group.


There are a few holes here.  Every activity in music–solo and ensemble, using basic, intermediate and advanced skills needs to be considered from two perspectives:  What skills are acquired and what skills are applied?

If you’re taking lessons, but you’re not in a youth orchestra or attending festivals, how do you apply your musical skills in a group setting?  And if you are in a youth orchestra, where are you getting opportunities to reinforce the application of basic and intermediate skills in a group setting?

If you’re in a youth orchestra, but are not taking lessons, where are you acquiring the skills you need in the first place?!?   And while you may be able to work well in the group and pick up on some skills through osmosis, how are you certain that you’re on the right track with what you’re doing on your own unless you’re taking private lessons and developing a good grounding in the basics?


In our community, we’re very fortunate that the students have a greater than average number of available opportunities for them to play music outside of school.  But these are best used as supplements to what they’re getting in school–basic and intermediate skills specific to their instrument that can be applied both on their own and in a group.

Private lessons definitely give students a leg up (and again, are recommended for everyone!), and festivals and youth ensembles are often prestigious groups where membership is through hard-won auditions.  However, that does not make either of these things a substitute for the skill acquisition and reinforcement students get in the in-school ensembles at Quaker Valley.   Students are understandably eager to play music that is “professional” or “standard repertoire” and it’s awesome when they get the opportunities to do so both in and out of school.  Yet, a friendly reminder that even Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Bell practice their scales and arpeggios is sometimes needed to put these things in perspective.   We not only want to provide students with a lot of opportunities through music, but we want to make sure that they approach these opportunities competently and not relying solely on the talent or instinct that may have earned them membership in a festival or youth ensemble.  Skill acquisition and mastery, not talent, are the crux of good music programs both in and out of school.


In conclusion, your school’s music program has a very important role to play in a student’s music education, in their school day, and in their life.  In our tightly-scheduled, high-stakes, technology-crazy, high-stress, overworked, fast-paced world, there has never been a more important time for students to take an hour out of their day to do something for themselves that cannot be duplicated through technology, or in any other setting either in or out of school.  Every adult I have ever met who has told me “I dropped out of *insert band, orchestra or chorus here* when I was in school” has followed up with some version of “I really wish I had stuck with it.”  How true will this be for this generation of high school students 10, 20 or 30 years from now?


Until next time,