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Keeping the (Heart)Beat

Music education fuels student growth and success - and so much more

By Amy Korst  |  Photo by Thomas Patterson

Most educators today beg for smaller class sizes. Not Josh Rist, choir director at McNary High School in Salem. “I want 100 kids in my class,” he says, describing a time when he did indeed have 100 students in his women’s choir class. “For our choral program, we love that,” he says, explaining that, where huge class sizes are a detriment to most programs, this is not the case for music education. He jokes that in an area of education suffering from cost-cutting measures, placing 60 or more kids in a music class is not only desirable, but economical, too.

Managing large class loads is just one challenge today’s music teachers face. In an era rife with budget cuts, high-stakes testing and the Common Core, mu- sic education across the state has suffered.“It’s the first to go and the last to come back,” says Mary Lou Boderman, coordinator of music and drama for the Salem-Keizer School District. Yet, in the face of adversity such as shrinking budgets and staffing cuts, one would be hard-pressed to find a group of people as passionate about their profession as Oregon’s music teachers. 

The state of music education in Oregon today varies. Some districts, like Salem-Keizer, have thriving programs that successfully educate hundreds of K-12 students each year. Other districts, forced to make hard budget decisions, have slashed funding from music departments, leaving educators to build programs from practically nothing. Considering the vital nature of an arts education, this disparity is concerning. Jennifer Mohr Colett, who teaches general music at Fir Grove Elementary School in Beaverton, has made advocating for equal access to music education her focus over the past several years.

During the day, Colett teaches music skills and concepts to elementary students. She also serves as advocacy chair for the Oregon Music Education Association (OMEA), a nonprofit whose purpose is to provide professional development for music educators and music opportunities for students in the state. As advocacy chair, one of Colett’s main roles is to increase student access to music programs across Oregon. When OMEA asked her to step into the position, it had been vacant for a year. She jumped into action by pulling together a meeting of the minds with music coordinators from around the state. Immediately, the ideas began flying,“We started just really bubbling with excitement and connecting and strategizing about how to make sure that all students have access [to a quality music education program],” she says.

Out of this meeting, the Oregon Student Music Access Project (OSMAP) was born. Colett explains the project as essentially a census of all music programs in all Oregon schools, both public and private. Volunteers collected data from 2014-2015, and Colett anticipates releasing the OSMAP final report in early 2016. Data collection involved analysis of student enrollment compared to certified music instructor staffing in the areas of general music, band, choir, and orchestra. “It’s pretty easy to compare staffing levels versus enrollment,” she says. “If they’re adequately staffed or if it’s just sort of an on- paper music program that’s not really able to serve very many students. You can say you have a music teacher, but if they’re just somebody with a guitar that comes by every other week and takes whoever wants to stay after school, that’s not a music program.”

Once the OSMAP census is complete and data is available, OMEA’s goal is to “offer actionable guidance to stakeholders for remedying inequities where they exist,” according to the OMEA. In other words, data will be presented to school boards, administrators, and state legislators with the hope that more equitable funding can be secured to provide all students with access to a high-quality music program.

While the data will help to convince stakeholders holding the purse strings, educators in the trenches already know what the report will reveal: music programs across the state have suffered drastic cuts. Some districts, thanks to creative administrators and teachers, have maintained programs in spite of cuts. Some have even prioritized funding music education, choosing instead to cut elsewhere. Other schools, particularly in low-income areas, limp along with music programs that are mere phantoms of what they were before.

So, why is music education so important and what does a thriving program look like? 

The more students, the merrier for Josh Rist, choir teacher at McNary High School in Keizer, Ore. 

Why it’s important

A concern many music teachers share is that music is viewed by the general public, students, school boards, and even fellow teachers as supplemental. Encore classes, not core classes. Clubs. Specials. Fluff.

This could not be further from the truth.

The benefits of music education, and arts education in general, have been well-documented. According to an ever-growing body of studies, sustained involvement in arts education results in increased academic achievement, improved attendance and higher graduation rates. Additionally, involvement in a quality arts program is proven to have positive social outcomes for students, including citizenship and professionalism. What is of great interest to many stakeholders is the fact that these findings are particularly true for students at risk due to poverty.

A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts study examined four large-scale, longitudinal studies and came to the following significant conclusions: 

  • Teenagers and young adults of low socioeconomic status (SES) who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes than do low-SES youth who have less arts involvement.
  • Young adults who had intensive arts experiences in high school are more likely to show civic-minded behavior than young adults who did not. 

Again, educators don’t really need the data to observe the truth of this in their own classrooms. They cite a number of reasons why arts involvement makes children better students and, ultimately, better people. “If we’re offering public education to enrich our society, arts has to be at the center,” Rist says. In his advanced ensemble classes, 80 percent of his students have a GPA of 2.5 or higher. “Music requires that they do things over and over again until they get it right. It develops skills that I think are lost in today’s culture of instant gratification.” 

Many music teachers note that all students need to find their niche, their place to belong that gives them a reason to return to school day after day. For some, this is sports, for others it is yearbook or student government. For many, it’s music. “Every kid has got to have their thing,” says Dave DeRoest, orchestra director at Waldo Middle School in Salem-Keizer. “Every kid needs a place to belong, a community, a family, a subset of kids that care about them.” DeRoest notes that his students’ attendance rates and test scores beat the school average, which he attributes to their desire to be in school. Music provides a motivation for students to keep coming to school. And, music builds professional skills that students will need in college and the workplace.

Ken Graber, choir director at North Bend High School, compares his music program to an extended family. 

According to Jennifer Mohr Colett, the recipe for a successful music program includes both excellent teaching and a robustness in the diversity of classes offered. 

“You don’t get to choose who’s in your family, you just have to learn to live in this family,” he says. “The ability to think outside your own needs to what the needs of the large ensemble are — I think that’s an incredible skill.”

Students engaged in music are activating multiple parts of their brains, which is one reason it is so powerful. Musicians in a very real way are “speaking ” multiple languages at once: the languages of rhythm, pitch, volume, dynamics, and reading music, to list a few.

“It’s also very social,” Colett adds. “Research shows that some of the happiest cultures in the world are some of the most social. Music builds in that social element and it promotes not just the cognitive learning but also the affective and the kinesthetic, so it’s all three cognitive domains that are getting stimulated when students are in their music class. That’s helping them improve their emotional regulation, it’s helping them bond with others, it’s setting them up for success so they can be well-adjusted young adults.” 

Inside a thriving music program

The Salem-Keizer School District has what many educators believe to be the gold standard in music programs. “The community supports what we do,” says Boderman, the district’s music and drama coordinator. “It’s a badge of honor for them. The business community sees it as a selling point. It’s not unusual for parents and community members to advocate against cuts. The school board and administration understand what we have here. Multiple generations have gone through a relatively stable music program.” Boderman has been in education for 41 years. She coordinates about 100 music staff  for Salem-Keizer and has seen trends in education come and go. Along with Colett, she was instrumental in implementing the OSMAP census. She credits the district’s thriving music program to a number of attributes.

An exemplary group of teachers is the real key to a successful program, she says. This involves not only hiring the right staff  and placing them in the perfect position but also making sure they receive regular professional development. Boderman takes a unique approach to hiring and staffing her district, an approach she says is enormously successful. She explains that in many districts, the building principal hires a music teacher to fill an open position. Not so in Salem-Keizer. Boderman and district administrators hire teachers according to specialty area, assigning staff  and aligning schedules in vertical format. “It’s an enormous puzzle,” she says.

A music teacher’s training is intense, according to Boderman. Music students take classes in music history, music theory, and they must be proficient on all instruments. A vocal specialist still has to demonstrate proficiency with piano and woodwinds, for example. They need conducting and ensemble skills. “It is an enormous challenge for universities to get people to a place where they are remotely competent,” she says. “Music teachers are asked to do two different things at once. We teach individual technique to students on their various instruments but then we also teach ensemble techniques so they can do it together, and that is very, very difficult.” When new teachers start in the district, Boderman says she and other administrators are very aware that it’s going to take three to five years for a teacher to balance those skills with proficiency. In a field where each area is highly specialized, it is entirely possible for a teacher to be hired into a position having only taken a class or two in that specialty area. This is why, Boderman says, professional development is so important after a music educator’s collegiate training. OMEA can fill some of that role, says Colett, noting that sometimes districts overlook the fact that Title II dollars can be used to fund specialized professional development for music teachers. “Music teachers need their own professional development,” she says. “They shouldn’t just be lumped in with whatever math or reading professional development is happening that week.”

Many music educators point out that music education is a serious academic pursuit, though it is often overlooked as “just” an elective. Music teachers base their instruction on standards, just like any other curriculum or subject area. A rigorous music program should be sequential, sustained, and standards-based. 

Dave DeRoest is proud of the middle school orchestra program, one of the cornerstones of Salem-Keizer's music education program. 

Quality administrators who value music education are not to be overlooked, says DeRoest. He sings the praises of his principal who, he says, has not missed a single evening event since he started at Waldo Middle School. The recipe for a successful music program involves more than just excellent teachers and supportive administrators, however. There must be a robustness in the diversity of classes offered as well as in the classroom.

Colett believes that music education should be compulsory in elementary school, when young students soak up music instruction like a sponge, just as they would any other second language. Then, in the secondary level when music becomes an elective, the participation in these programs should look like the population of the schools.

Rebecca Nederhiser, previously the band director at Hood River Middle School, was the recipient of a $250,000 grant called Band Together to implement this philosophy into her own program. “The whole initiative of the grant was that our eighth grade band would be a reflection of the diversity of our school,” she says. Nederhiser, who enrolled at Central Washington University this year to pursue a college teaching career, started nominating sixth grade students into band, focusing particularly on Latino students. And that’s when the program exploded. “We found that they didn’t feel welcome in the program, even though I was trying,” she says. “They didn’t know band was an option. They looked at it as this thing that was expensive and only for the rich white kids.” Nederhiser offered scholarships for students who couldn’t afford instruments. Suddenly, Latino parents were coming to band concerts. Band friendships were extending beyond the classroom and onto the playground. Self-esteem sky-rocketed. She also started a Latino advisory committee. “We hired a translator who called the families. We offered food and free childcare because we found out that was a barrier. And they came and we said, ‘We’d like to know your ideas. Here’s our goal, we want to engage your kids in the arts, and especially in band. How can we better serve you?’”

One particular difficulty is access to instruments, a common problem for many band programs. Instrument access is an issue of equity. Schools in wealthy areas have families that can afford both instruments and private lessons, whereas students in high-poverty areas don’t have that luxury. Schools solve this equity problem in various ways. For the Beaverton School District, this means making sure every elementary school has the same access to the same instruments and equipment. Other districts may opt to front-load poorer schools with more instruments, understanding that students from high SES areas in the district will bridge the gap by purchasing their own instruments. “The biggest issue for us in terms of equity is having great teachers,” Boderman says. “If I can get a great teacher and put them in our Title schools, that’s most important.” 

Music education begins at an early age in the Beaverton School District. 

Music education's future

There are many concrete steps that fellow teachers and community members can take to advocate for strong music programs in Oregon schools.

The OMEA hopes to raise awareness about a hopeful sign. The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that replaced No Child Left Behind specifically enumerates music as an essential component of a well-rounded education. This does not mean that districts suddenly receive more funding for music programs. Rather, it means that districts can use new Title IV funds to support music programs in their schools if they so choose. This means convincing districts of the importance of music programs – which shouldn’t be a hard sell, given the data that shows how impactful arts education can be.

“Our ideal would be to see every school district in Oregon commit to music in a way that Beaverton has, in the way that Salem has,” says Colett. “Ultimately we have to foster community value for music and we have to teach communities how to keep their programs and promote their programs and save their programs should they ever come under threat.” That aside, music educators note that there is something to be said about producing art for its own sake. 

“There is something about connecting with other people and connecting to the ancient sound of voices in harmony with one another that makes you feel really alive and electrified,” Rist says about why he loves teaching choir. “It’s powerful, even transcendent at times. It goes deep to the soul for me.”

Classroom teachers outside of the music disciplines can help support their colleagues in this noble pursuit. Music educators battle the perception that they aren’t “real” teachers and that they are “only” teaching electives. Some argue that it’s time to end the divide and band together to ensure students have the well- rounded education they need to succeed. Perhaps Graber says it best. We know conclusively that music helps students succeed in school and in life. "If it’s valuable, then we need to invest in it,” he says. Indeed. And there are many passionate educators working tirelessly in Oregon to see to it that we do. 

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