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What's the Matter With Music Students Today?

Earlier this week, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion at a gathering of the Oakland County (MI) School Boards Association. The topic was education politics, and my co-panelists were Steve Norton, Executive Director of Michigan Parents for Schools, and Amber Arellano, Executive Director of Education Trust Midwest. It's worth mentioning that I am not executive director of anything, but did spend more than 30 years in an instrumental music classroom.

It was an interesting, engaging conversation, covering topics of interest to Board members from the 28 school districts represented. One of the issues raised was "local control," kicked off by this quote:

The worst thing that ever happened to education was the discovery by the politicians that the electorate believes the issue is a top priority. Hence to win votes, the pols stick their big legislative noses into all facets of the issue when the critics contend much of that should be left to the educators. So it may be only a matter of time before legislators address another issue sitting out there: Chairs.

Chairs? Band chairs, the writer means--the old-fashioned practice of seating instrumental music students in order of their teacher's estimation of their ability, best to worst.

The quote is from Tim Skubick, who is well-known in Michigan as a 40-year veteran of political reporting. Skubick prides himself on being a true journalist--broadcasting from the middle of the road about the action on either side. In this op-ed, he reports from the press box of the Vince Lombardi School of Youth Motivation. Got grit, student musicians? Skubick evidently thinks not.

He continues on in this vein for the entire piece, blasting weak-sister school music teachers who reject competition, suggesting that public ranking of ability is a fine old academic tradition, grumbling like your cranky old neighbor about giving every little Tom, Dick and Harriet an undeserved blue ribbon. You've read hundreds of columns like this, haven't you? Our Soft and Failing Youth, an evergreen theme for curmudgeons.

Skubick veers off course a bit to muse about MI Governor Rick Snyder who (in what must have been an unguarded moment) admitted that he liked playing second chair tenor saxophone, because he could avoid playing solos. (Sometimes, I think Snyder would avoid playing Governor, if he could.)

Skubick's grand finale goes like this:

Here's the harsh reality: The world is based on chairs. The CEO of the corporation sits in a nice cushy chair with a view while others sit on a folding chair in the basement. After all life is a competition. The child who gets an F today redoubles his or her efforts to get an A tomorrow.

Tim Skubick may be a fine political reporter, but he clearly didn't spend 30 years teaching middle and high school band. I did. And I can tell you that the child who gets an F today is unlikely to redouble his efforts, unless he's been fed a stream of reinforcing feedback until that point. What he will do, given an elective class that labels him a failure, is quit.

Let me just immodestly say that I was a very good music teacher, with a decades-long string of public successes. I stopped using the archaic chairs-and-challenges system about 15 years into that 30-year career. I tell the whole story here, but the ultimate outcomes of giving up chairs were: more kids in the program, more kids participating in solo and ensemble festivals, higher performance levels and more opportunities for all kinds of students to enjoy making music with their peers. Not to mention a more cost-effective student/teacher ratio and an increase in parent participation and enthusiasm.

Here's the real deal, Mr. Skubick:

  • Chairs are not the way of the "real world," where that cushy office is often the result of who you or your family knows, and how much investment capital came floating your way. If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.
  • Chairs are not an effective means to build students' musical skills or capacity. Hard work and engagement in a satisfying new task do that.
  • Musical talent is neither fixed nor easily determined. Learning to play an instrument well involves a broad range of human abilities, often things that aren't necessarily prized in other subject disciplines--and there are multiple paths to musical proficiency. Students learn at different rates. The goal is to keep them all moving forward, not measuring and comparing the speed of their learning.
  •  In traditional music education programs, we tend to privilege reading/symbolic interpretation skill--but the most expressive, creative and successful musicians use the visual tools of music theory in innovative, auditory ways.  Thus, the "best" musical performance is always determined by the ear of the listener, a subjective judgment if there ever was one.
  • Chairs and challenges run contrary to Daniel Pink's theory of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If your purpose is to remain first chair (rather than burnish and expand your own musical skills or contribute to communal music-making), you've got the wrong goal, and will lose any long-term motivation to become a life-long musician. A chair competition causes students to focus on a cheap, short-term goal. It's actually counter-productive. 

There were nearly 300 comments on Skubick's rant the last time I checked, and most of them were gratifying--thoughts from parents about how important band class had been to their own development, and the observation that we get plenty of competition in school athletics. And wasn't it Deming who said the best way to focus on quality and collaboration was to drive out all fear?

There are many excellent reasons to get as many kids into formal music instruction as possible. There's new research that demonstrates the influence of studying a musical instrument on auditory perception, leading researchers to believe that learning to play the trombone or violin sharpens focus on intellectual tasks. Why would we want to get in the way of something that important, just to perpetuate another contest?

A chair is just a chair.

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