A Sour Note In Education Music Being Taught Less And Less

Posted: February 17, 1991

South Philadelphia High School, located five subway stops south of the Academy of Music, used to think of itself as the farm system for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Today it doesn't even offer a band class.

"Southern" canned its orchestra six years ago. It no longer sends a marching band prancing onto the football field at halftime. These days no one would dare attempt a musical.

"There isn't a drumstick in the building," said William Yeats, the only music teacher for the school's 1,600 students, and the last remnant of a great musical tradition.

This is the school that gave us Marian Anderson and Mario Lanza, Chubby Checker and the Twist, Fabian and Frankie Avalon, Al Alberts and the Four Aces, Eddie Fisher and Buddy Greco - not to mention at least 30 Philadelphia Orchestra musicians.

Southern may have a more illustrious musical legacy than most schools, but the demise of its instrumental programs reflects a nationwide trend. In public and private schools across America, music education is going the way of one- room schoolhouses, slide rules and other pedagogical relics.

Robert Capanna, executive director of the nonprofit Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, said many schools had stopped teaching music as a serious subject like math or history. "It's basically drop-the-needle classes," he said, referring to the kind of instruction where students listen to recordings, rather than make their own music. "In most people's minds, a school music program is an orchestra, a marching band. Fewer and fewer schools have that."

Many districts began downsizing their music programs in the 1980s so more teachers could be mobilized for the campaign to raise reading literacy and academic standards. But the side effect may be another form of illiteracy: musical illiteracy.

Camden's Methodist ministers find that younger church members don't have the musical skills to replace aging choir singers or church organists. Around the country, orchestras are in serious financial trouble because the audience for symphonic music - a fairly knowledgeable bunch - is disappearing. The music directors blame the schools. They say that unless students try their hand at playing classical music, however briefly, they will never learn to enjoy it as listeners.

Since the time of Aristotle, music has been part of a liberal arts education. There is also a growing body of research to suggest that learning an instrument can do everything from raising a child's IQ scores to boosting self-esteem. For academic underachievers, music is another opportunity to succeed.

But the most basic argument for teaching music may be the oldest: Music enriches a child's life.

The most telling evidence of the decline in music education comes from the Music Educators National Conference. According to the group's most recent study, the percentage of students enrolled in music courses fell from 30 percent in the 1950s to 21.6 percent in the 1980s.

Students must fulfill so many academic requirements now, they have little room in their schedules for electives such as band or music theory. Because so many students work at part-time jobs, they can't stay after school for band practice, either. All that, plus the expense of equipping orchestras with instruments, or outfitting marching bands in gold braid, makes them easy targets for cost-conscious administrators.


The money issue has hit urban districts particularly hard. Last week, a New York City Board of Education task force reported that two-thirds of the city's elementary schools no longer had music or art teachers because of budget cuts dating to the '70s.

Schools in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Tucson, Ariz., have drastically reduced their music programs. Since California adopted the Proposition 13 tax-cutting measure in 1978, the number of students participating in instrumental music classes has fallen by nearly half.

Now, suburban schools are also jettisoning their music programs. This year, for example, the Central Bucks school district eliminated the orchestra at both its high schools. The North Penn district was set this year to dissolve its marching band, one of the finest in Pennsylvania, until parents packed a school board meeting to protest the plan. "Not having the marching band at football games would have just been unacceptable," said Bill Naydan, president of the local Music Educators Association.

These school music programs are being axed at the same time that music is disappearing from the home. The family piano, once the centerpiece of the middle-class living room, has been supplanted by the big-screen television. Fewer families are giving their children private music lessons of any kind,

because they lack either the inclination or the means to pay for them.


William Yeats, who joined the teaching staff at Southern 33 years ago, fresh from the Curtis Institute of Music, has been around long enough to see the rise and fall of music education. When Yeats was hired, the school had three music teachers for 4,800 students, but wanted a fourth to strengthen its vocal program.

That year, 1958, Southern had an orchestra, marching band, wind ensemble, two choirs and various smaller groups. The students produced an annual musical, usually a glitzy Broadway production. They could major in music and take college-level music courses.


But when enrollment started to decline, the school began whittling at its music program. In Philadelphia, each school is allotted a certain number of teachers based on the student population. Since there must always be enough teachers for the required courses, the only way to reduce staff is to shed instructors in the electives. Along with music classes, South Philly eliminated such courses as auto shop and printing.

"The day they did away with the instrumental program, me and a supervisor

sent all the equipment to another school," recalled Yeats, now two years away

from retirement age. The band room was turned over to the physical education department.

Very likely, he said, South Philly's instruments went to the city's magnet schools for the arts, which offer a small number of select students an excellent music education. Meanwhile, Yeats said, the bulk of the city's students receive only bare-bones music instruction.

By concentrating music education on a career-minded few, the district denies ordinary students an important cultural experience, one that can enrich their lives, said Capanna of the Settlement Music School.

Edwin Gordon, a Temple University music psychologist who has developed a respected method for teaching music to young children, says, "Music gives you insights into yourself."

And Joan Policastro, president of the Alliance for Arts Education in New Jersey, says music and art are "an outlet for students who don't succeed academically in other disciplines."

At the furthest extreme is Anthony Mecoli, a music professor at Gloucester County College. He maintains that schools are obligated to teach music in the same way they are obligated to teach civics.

"I think everyone in a public school system should be entitled to basics of being able to read music, so they can join a church choir or a barbershop quartet. They should have the rudiments so they can participate as a citizen," he said.

Mecoli advocates a music program designed to make every student musically literate. There is much debate about how to define this condition. Some say musical literacy is the ability to read music. If that's so, does that make Bing Crosby or any number of jazz greats, who never learned to read a note, illiterate?

Other educators prefer looser definitions of musical literacy. Some say literacy is the ability to participate in musical activities or to make informed musical choices or, in the broadest sense, to recognize different music styles and periods.

Participation is the key word for Capanna. "The great danger of pop culture," he argued, "is not that it is something other than a Western art medium. The danger is that it is such a passive experience. . . . Someone else makes it and you listen to it."


Even in pop music, standards may be falling because of a lack of musical savvy, some educators believe. Why, they ask, do fans shell out big bucks for concerts where pop stars lip-sync the lyrics? Would Milli Vanilli have fooled listeners with more finely tuned musical tastes? Why doesn't anyone complain when a club singer uses a taped accompaniment, a development that is causing many musicians to consider changing careers?

In Camden, church leaders say a generation of children is growing up musically illiterate. A decade ago, when the schools fell into financial problems, all their elementary music teachers were fired.

Classes were restored in 1987, but so far that hasn't helped the churches.

"When we need a musician, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack," said the Rev. Joseph Scott, of John Wesley United Methodist Church. Public schools in America actually first began teaching music in 1838 to improve the quality of church singing.

Mr. Scott began talking about the lack of school music instruction with other church leaders, who were also having trouble keeping their choirs at full strength. Two years ago, the ministers formed the Camden School of Musical Arts. Like the Settlement Music School, it offers children and adults individual music instruction for as little as $2 a lesson.

On a recent evening, every classroom in the Asbury United Methodist Church resonated with the clipped notes of young musicians. Doris B. Brooks, a retired city music teacher, was showing fourth grader Ingrid Johnson how to place her fingers across the piano keys. Ingrid quickly grasped the lesson and played a fluid melody.

"That sounds much better. Do you practice at home?" asked an excited Brooks. Ingrid nodded solemnly. "On the kitchen table," she answered. Her mother still cannot afford to buy a piano.

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