Thursday, September 18, 2008

Consequences of Music Education

There will be alarming consequences to the long term lack of quality music education in our schools, and these consequences are not what the educational community expects. As a music educator and active performer that holds two graduate degrees in music education, I am well aware of the ignorance that keeps today's high school graduates from going to classical or jazz concerts, opera, etc. The future for the previously staple disciplines of opera, classical performance and even jazz is dim, as their audience passes on, taking their love and appreciation for established music with them. But that is not the consequence I speak of. Those circumstances are a logical consequence of what we are doing to music education.

My concern lies with students that no longer possess a passion for anything strong enough to spend years working toward a skilled ability. My concern lies with students that have become alienated by genuine discipline, and foreign to skill expressed through a talent that took years to develop, skills that that cannot be easily and immediately understood or reproduced.

As a teacher I used to paraphrase a quote by Arthur C. Clarke that "Any sufficiently developed discipline is indistinguishable from magic". There is no longer a desire in our students for that kind of magic. Not in art, not in science, not in mathematics. Literature is abandoned as too difficult, and simple reading for pleasure is now beyond the effort level devoted to other of life's activities. However, our schools are obsessed with the immediate gratification of "winning" some contest or other, or getting a higher test score, generally at the expense of a "rival" school or school district. We now concern ourselves with superficial test scores, sports games and activities that are pure entertainment, rather than personal development, with the "joy" coming from the loss of whomever has been bested.

Academics have become exercises that are quickly fixed, transient and ephemeral, with little if any actual permanent gains. Nothing requires focused personal insight or effective self- analysis, for fear of criticism or failure. Little is understood well enough to be reproduced, few things are consistent and all means nothing a week or a month after it happens. Avoiding this dire situation in the character of our students is exactly what music education, particularly band programs, worked hard to address and develop.

In today's educational environment everything must come with an ability to quickly turn things around. We lost this week, we can win next. Next year's annual yearly progress must go up by 2 points and then all will be alright. Long term academic discipline in the arts or any other devotion threatens being able to always start with a clean slate. Nobody gathers knowledge beyond what they can use for an immediate assessment.

When practicing a half hour a day for a middle or high school student can be exchanged for soccer or basketball practice with friends that require no homework, combined with the promise of attention from an audience at a sports game, the musical instrument always loses. Which means the student always loses. For a win at an sports game never stays with you. By contrast, the prepared for performance of a piece of music never leaves you.

I am not against sports or athletics. There will always be students best suited by a fine athletics program, many of whom may have no interest in playing an instrument. However, all students do not gain from sports participation, and many are harmed by being forced to participate in competitive sports when arts programs are not available or of poor quality. The argument that students today are overweight and unhealthy is simply not solved by the simplest, cheapest solution- more sports, and in many situations, sports causes far more harm than good.

I tell my students that a commitment to a musical instrument will put a look in your eye that can never be erased, that you are someone of substance, someone that must be taken seriously. And there is no way to earn that look without years of careful, focused effort on improving your playing, physically and academically, and thus, yourself.

-- Greg Sage is a performer (trumpet) having toured with many national bands, as well as an arranger, a teacher for over 20 years, K-12 principal and writer. He is currently performing with the Catfish Kray blues band and the High Country Brass Drum and Bugle corps. He can be reached at, and is currently opening a fine arts center for home school and public school students looking to get more from their band program offerings. He hopes to contribute occasionally to this blog, and would enjoy hearing from anyone in the music community on any aspect of music education, performance, learning to play an instrument, writing and arranging.