The field of music education has a market share problem.  It isn’t a new problem (we’ve been talking about this since the Tanglewood Symposium in 1967), but it is getting worse.  In 1982, 31% of high school seniors in the United States studied music. Our share dropped to 21% by 2002 (Elpus and Abril, 2011).  This trend, along with the fact that we reach only a minority of students beyond sixth grade, should be an issue of concern for all professional music educators.

In the corporate world, these numbers would precipitate a crisis.  While I don’t view education as a corporate venture, a corporate analogy is instructive.  Image that Coca Cola was facing this issue.  We don’t want to make the mistake of replacing old Coke with New Coke.  In this analogy, old Coke is band, choir, and orchestra. (I’m not suggesting that performance ensembles are highly processed sugary drinks that are bad for you, but rather that they are a tried and true brand that is much loved.) Instead of replacing the flagship brand (band, choir and orchestra), the answer is to diversify and also sell juices and bottled water. These offerings don’t draw from the existing customer base, but instead expand it by attracting new customers, which strengthens the company as a whole. In our case, adding new types of music classes will allow us to teach a greater percentage of the student body, which strengthens music’s place in the school.

Most educators are driven in part by idealistic beliefs. The fact that most students do not study music beyond mandated general music classes should bother us, as it conflicts with the idealistic belief that If music is important, it is important for everyone. All too often, our idealism fails, as we are content to just teach the students who self-select into our classes instead of questioning why most students don’t choose to study music. Since idealism alone obviously is not enough to carry the day (at least it hasn’t been for the past 40 years), I will offer a corollary that makes a more pragmatic appeal: The more students that study music, the more important music will be in the school.  If we wish for music to be a core offering in the school, we need more students to study music. In these tight economic times, higher enrollments can also equal higher job security.

Recently, while in the checkout line at a Trader Joe’s grocery store, I was struck by their job posting which listed three criteria for applicants (which I am paraphrasing): 1. Be able to work in a fast paced crazy environment, 2. Be able to joke and smile, and 3. Take responsibility for things that are not your responsibility.  (I would love to see these criteria included in all teacher job postings!). Often times, teachers feel that responsibility for reaching the ‘other 80%’ lies elsewhere – NAfME, state legislators, school administrators, etc. As the past 40 years indicate, waiting for others to address this problem is not a viable strategy, and therefore the responsibility lies with the individual music educator. If Trader Joe’s check out clerks can be held to a higher standard, so can we.

The encouraging news is that individual music educators across the county are taking responsibility and finding great success in reaching the broader population of students.  While these efforts are taking a number of different forms, technology-based music classes (TBMC) are a central part of this effort.  Over 2500 high schools in the United States, which is about 14% of our high schools, have these classes, over half of which were created in the past five years. Overwhelmingly, these classes are designed by individual teachers with the intent (and effect) of reaching the ‘other 80%’. (Dammers, 2010).

This raises the question “What can I do?”  The answer varies between teaching settings, but a common element is that the process of creating a new music class takes time and persistence. In my own experience, creating the Music Through Technology course at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in suburban St. Louis was an 18-month process that drew upon my prior seven years of teaching in the district. While conventional wisdom presumes that most TBMCs are taught by fresh college graduates, most are taught by late-career teachers in their third decade of teaching. This may be in part perhaps because it is easier for established teachers to initiate new courses, but has been achieved by teachers in the beginning of their careers as well.  Even if you feel that can’t create a class right now, persistence is often rewarded and opportunities may open in the future.

A central part of the process of creating a TBMC is enlisting technology personnel and administrators as allies.  While conventional wisdom might assume that administrators might be opposed, two-thirds of high school principals surveyed agree that TBMCs are or would be a valuable class in their schools, and 56% of principals of schools without TBMCs think it would be feasible to offer such a class. This indicates that administrators are generally ready to support efforts to reach more students through technology-based music classes. Bringing allies on board in your school may be easier than you think.

You and your allies will need to address three main issues when proposing a new class: 1. Where it will be taught? 2. How it will be scheduled? (for

students and the teacher), and 3. How will hardware and software be purchased?  The specific challenges vary by school, but are often surmountable over time with resilience and creative thinking.  With the availability of grants and separate school funds for technology, budget concerns are often easier to address than space and scheduling issues.

Once approved, you’ll have the unique experience of being able to think creatively in the process of developing a course from scratch. Across the spectrum of TBMC, classes vary widely in focus and activities.  Your development process should be guided by two principles:  designing a class that best meets the needs of the students in your school, and providing deep and meaningful musical experiences rather than focusing on teaching students how to use a specific program. (Software programs will change in five years; the fundamentals of music will not.)  The website provides profiles of classes (and other resources) that you may find useful for creating your own class. When your class is up and running, I hope that you will share a profile of your class as well.

Dr. Rick Dammers

Chairperson, Department of Music -Rowan University

Dammers, R. (2010). Technology-based music classes in high schools in the United States. Paper at the Association for Technology in Music Instruction Conference, Minneapolis, MN

Elpus, K. and Abril, C. (2011). High school music students in the United States: A demographic profile. Journal of Research in Music Education,  59(2), 128-145.

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