Instruments of Learning
Oberlin graduates are poised on the front line in the battle to preserve music instruction for
our nation’s children.

by Heidi Waleson

Photo by John Seyfried

In 1988, when Bill Wagner ’85 arrived at Nordhoff High School in Ojai, California, as director of ensembles, he faced a program struggling for life. “The band had 11 kids, and the choir had eight or nine—in a school with 875 students,” he recalls. He set out to change that. Today, thanks to Wagner’s energy and entrepreneurship, Nordhoff’s symphonic band has 70 members, the choir 100.

With the music department bursting out of its tiny room behind the gym, the school district was persuaded to build a new, dedicated building. At a cost of $1 million, it opened last year. A dynamic parent booster group, with deep roots in the community, raises 90 percent of the music program’s funds and advocates for it at the government level. A fledgling string program is growing in the elementary and middle schools. “In two years, we’ll get those kids,” Wagner says, visions of an orchestra forming in the back of his mind. His idea for an after-school enrichment program has already grown into a budding community performing arts academy, serving students beyond the high school.

All of this is happening in California, which is notorious for its minimal support of arts education. The state ranks 50th in the ratio of music teachers to students, and, as of fall 2004, California had no dedicated funding for arts education. According to the Sound of Silence, a study published by the Music for All Foundation, the number of music students in California schools declined by 50 percent in the five years between 1999 and 2004, with the greatest decrease in general music. The number of music teachers decreased by 26.7 percent.

Wagner and educators like him, many of them Oberlin graduates, have placed themselves on the front lines of the battle for music education, deploying their artistic, pedagogical, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills to make a difference. Decades of wrangling at the local, state, and national levels about the value of music education—particularly now, when new high-stakes testing programs and budget constraints tempt administrators and school districts to slight the arts in favor of more reading and math instruction—have forced advocates to come up with new strategies and alliances.

Music educators have joined with others who have a stake in the outcome, such as manufacturers of musical instruments, recording companies, and arts organizations, to lobby for their subject. Studies that correlate arts education with better results in academic subjects, higher SAT scores, and lower dropout rates have become powerful ammunition in the effort.

At the same time, the system for the delivery of music education has expanded to include new partners. Community music schools and performing ensembles have become an important part of the mix. Charter schools with arts themes and arts magnet schools have sprung up around the country. Individual artists have taken on the challenge of music education, with the profession of “teaching artist” acquiring new resonance. Indeed, Jody Kerchner, who heads the Department of Music Education at Oberlin, sees pedagogical skills as an essential skill set for Conservatory graduates, and, increasingly, the students agree. “We prepare students to be high-caliber artist-educators,” Kerchner says. “The reality is that most performers will be teaching in some form.”

Alexis Rainbow '82 poses with students and Oberlin-educated teachers at the Arts Academy of Lorain, a K-8 grade charter school.
Photo by Mike Wilkes

For music educators, the intrinsic value of their discipline is the bottom line. “Every child should have access to a quality music education, should grow up culturally literate, and should study music just as he or she studies any other basic subject,” says Carolynn Lindeman ’62. “Music is not just for the talented few.” Lindeman, who retired this year from her teaching post at San Francisco State University, has spent the last 15 years as an advocate for music education at the state and national levels. As one of the authors of the National Standards for Music adopted in 1994, which established music as a core subject area, and as president of the National Association for Music Education (MENC) from 1996 to 1998, she has seen music education cycle through periods of boom and bust. “The very best is yet to come,” she insists.

“It has always been a struggle, and we have to advocate. In the 1990s, when the big budget cuts hit California, music teachers were out of work. Five or six years later, school districts realized this was a problem and started to reinstate the programs. The issues are different today, but budget is still foremost.” With public education in the U.S. under state and local control, any hot new issue can grab a bigger slice of the pie and push others out. “Take the new spotlight on obesity—districts are starting to say the kids have to have physical education every day to combat it,” Lindeman says. “The No Child Left Behind law has caused districts to put pressure on programs for reading and math. There is always something out there that threatens funding for the arts.”

Persuading those in power that music is not a frill is the essence of the struggle. The very detailed National Standards, although voluntary, supplies music teachers with ammunition to demonstrate that their subject has defined content with established, valuable, and testable learning outcomes, just like reading, math, and science. Arts teachers have also gotten creative about integrating the arts with other subject areas, creating interdisciplinary strengths. Advocates have used statistics indicating that students who study the arts do better in academic studies and are less likely to drop out. Bill Wagner points out, “The kids in our program have an incredibly strong connection to the school, and as a result, they don’t mind being here.” Such possible ancillary benefits represent a means to an end. Lindeman says, “We believe it’s important to teach music for its own sake. It doesn’t have to be taught because it helps people learn math. But teachers have to be creative and figure out how to be sure music stays on the front burner, not the back.”

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