Support music teachers: It’s instrumental to public education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The School District of Philadelphia’s music program has the power to impact the future of our city.

Music education can greatly reinforce the District’s “core beliefs.” However, in light of the recent cuts in education budgets in Philadelphia and nearby districts, instrumental music teachers are concerned about the possibility that music programs will be eradicated, and most importantly, they are concerned about the impact this will have on students.

Why music matters

Music matters because it is a human activity. Music is one of the few things that has existed in practically every culture throughout history. Howard Gardner, the educational philosopher and developmental psychologist, includes musical abilities as one of the eight categories in his theory of multiple intelligences.

What is the ultimate goal of our public education system?

Recently it seems that the focus has been to improve standardized test scores in fear of decreased funding. Many educational philosophers suggest that the goal is much broader and larger— to create higher functioning members of society. Music helps achieve this goal by fostering countless life skills that transcend the classroom. Music and art needs to be central to every school’s core curriculum.

Music is vital for school culture

Effective education requires the combination of rigor and relevancy.

In order for students to be engaged in school, lessons must be relevant and relateable—this results in connections to students’ everyday lives. Music teachers have a tremendous impact on a students’ life and the culture at schools. Philadelphia’s wired generation is vitally connected to music. Practically every student in the city constantly listens to music on mp3 players and cell phones. Music acts as a bridge between traditional classroom experiences and out-of-school community practices.

Impact of music and arts education

Music and art education are vital components of a balanced learning experience.

The proposed reductions in “core programs” such as music and arts and to “central allocations,” which include class instrumental music teachers (CIMTs/itinerant music teachers) will have a negative impact on true education reform. Music and art teachers have an enormous potential to impact and inspire youth and influence the future of our region’s creative economy. CIMTs like Jason Chuong, the co-author of this post, work in some of the most successful and challenging schools in the city.

CIMTs teach an extremely diverse population of students, ranging from 4th grade to 12th grade. Throughout each week, they serve multiple schools across the city. CIMTs either support pre-existing music programs or run entire programs that have no full-time instrumental music teacher. Chuong works with about 250 percussion students in nine different schools and directs several small-group jazz ensembles, percussion ensembles, drumlines, and bucket drum ensembles.

Chuong has witnessed student bodies at multiple schools become largely influenced by the music program. For some students, music lessons are the only positive outlet that they experience throughout the day. It’s not uncommon for a student to say, “I didn’t feel like coming to school today, but then I remembered we had music lessons.“ Many parents and teachers express gratitude for including their students in music programs, noting the dramatic improvement in the student’s behavior. We compiled a selection of quotations from students about how they feel about arts education.

Currently there are 76 CIMTs who teach woodwind, brass, percussion, and string lessons to over 10,000 students. These lessons are essential since typical music lessons outside of school cost around $40-$60/hr. Many CIMTs are professional musicians who devote their lives to spreading music through education and performance. They give students the opportunity to study with experts in their field who are also qualified to teach.

More advocates needed for music and arts programs

Parents, students, and the community-at-large need to lobby and advocate for music and art programs to remain central to every educational reform process. In particular parents and students need to sign petitions; write blogs, letters, and editorials; and attend events where elected and public officials can be persuaded to save music and art programs.

Attending student performances can be an effective way to demonstrate support for music and art programs.

Many CIMTs direct large ensembles within schools and these students often participate in “All-City” collaborative performances. These annual festivals allow students from every region of the city to come together to form an ensemble of developing music makers. These ensembles create unity of economically, socially, and geographically diverse populations that is rarely ever experienced in many students’ lives.

We are asking parents, teachers, and administrators to advocate that city council members, state legislators, public officials, and reformers remind themselves of the value of music education in our public schools.

We invite members of the public to sign the petition in support of music for Philadelphia students.

You can learn more about arts advocacy at PCCY’s website.

Save the date: May 10 at 7:00 p.m. is the All City Middle School Music Festival at Sameul Fels High School.

Please share your own advocacy ideas and experiences with arts and music education.

This collaborative post was written in concert with Jason Chuong, class instrumental music teacher (CIMT) in the School District of Philadelphia and senior lecturer at the University of the Arts.