Utah music teachers want greater focus on secondary music programs

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Music teacher Shauna Smith made this comment to her class one day: “Maybe this doesn’t matter. Maybe orchestra doesn’t really matter too much.”

Ben McKee, the guitarist for Imagine Dragons, entertained the audience with one guitar solo after another during the concert. (Photo by Chris Bunker)
Imagine Dragons guitarist Daniel Wayne Sermon plays during a concert. Sermon took cello classes at American Fork High School. Other popular artists who got their start in school music programs include Lindsey Stirling. (Chris Bunker)

Two kids in the orchestra class then raised their hands to contradict and one said, “Mrs. Smith, if we hadn’t had orchestra, we wouldn’t be in school. I would have dropped out.”

The American Fork Junior and High School teacher said this experience hit her pretty hard because “these kids were successful seniors, but they struggled all the way through school.” Eighty minutes of orchestra class made a difference in these students’ lives.

“If nothing else, it helped them to stay in school,” Smith said.

According to the Public School Review, music programs have shown a decrease in funds as education focus is shifted toward core requirements, such as math and English.

Possible factors for the decrease include ineffective teaching in public schools and the narrow curriculum required by government oversight, which makes private schools sometimes a better option for music programs.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) has fought to address the problem of the narrowing curriculum changes under the No Child Left Behind Act for more than a decade.

“No Child Left Behind, in theory, was a great idea, but in practicality it hasn’t worked,” said former Alta High School music teacher Bill Mattingly.

To change the current situation, Congress passed the Every Child Achieves Act with a vote of 81–17 on July 16, 2015, re-instituting music as a core subject in the school system. NAfME expressed pleasure at the political move. “Music energizes and elevates, it makes schools better, and it creates better employees and citizens, later on in life,” said executive director and CEO Michael Butera in a press release.

BYU student Kaitlin O’Connor experienced the lack of music-oriented funds at Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley, California before she came to Utah. Only one band class was available to students.

“To go from a middle school where many students were involved in music classes to a high school where they no longer had that option made a difference in (students’) lives,” O’Connor said. “I think a lot more kids would have stuck with it if it had been more available to them.”

O’Connor had many friends who wanted to implement outside programs in their low-income community, but it was very difficult for students who were passionate about music to find a way to express their creativity.

Lehi Junior High School currently has three bands and 200 students in its music program.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Mattingly said as he described his experience retrieving funds from the district. “With the marching band I started at Alta, I was given more funding than the entire district budget for music. Just for the marching band.”

But, over the past years, Utah has seen curriculum narrow to the point where music programs aren’t inspiring and motivating students.

Mattingly said a few years ago the district was considering removing music education in elementary schools. “I was fine with it … because these kids were getting exposed to music, but in a terrible way,” Mattingly said. He said the teachers were not great musicians and prevented kids from having a positive perception of music.

“A quality teacher makes more difference than a blanket teacher,” Mattingly said.

Music teachers with passion, dedication and love for the students represent that quality kind of teacher.

Smith taught Daniel Wayne Sermon in her American Fork High School cello class. Today, Sermon is the guitarist for Imagine Dragons and plays cello on their record albums.

“I start them on their way,” Smith said. Though she makes less than her student now, Smith feels proud as she watches Sermon grow as a professional musician she helped him become.

“Lindsey Sterling started off in her school music program,” Smith said. “It needs to stay in the schools.”

Smith has many students return to express gratitude to her and the music program that made a difference in their lives. Teachers wouldn’t be able to help these students if public school music education disappeared.

Richard Lyman, a BYU student studying secondary instrumental music education, said the programs have a lot to do with the teacher. He said the music department can either thrive or die. “Some places have good directors that are growing, not shrinking everywhere, but overall there’s a gradual decline,” Lyman said.

Greg Hansen teaches commercial music at both Pioneer Charter School and American Heritage School in American Fork. Though he received his degree in education, he didn’t use it until he started teaching high school. Hansen worked in the Hollywood music industry, producing and arranging over 400 albums for clients and arranging and composing over 900 songs in print.

Hansen said one of the factors for the ineffective teaching is the certification required for public school teachers. “You can’t be a certified music teacher in the public schools unless you’ve taken an academic path and not been in the real world,” Hansen said.

Another way teachers are fighting for music education is through private schools, where government plays a smaller role. Private school music teachers are able to provide more knowledge about the music industry for students that are serious about making music a career.

Hansen said the only reason music is a hard career path is because “nobody knows where to go to find out how to do it.” At private schools, there’s an opportunity to receive this education.

Music education will be a continuing cause for teachers, musicians and talent students. The Every Child Achieves Act is just the beginning. Others are thinking of new ways to change music education for the better.

Lyman said music education could change its structure to benefit the students. “We don’t need to throw out ensembles, but we need to incorporate music into their daily lives,” Lyman said. “Having both, (students) will keep music in the school systems.”

Many music associations efforts are fighting for effective arts programs that will help the students gain well-rounded educations.

“Music education is tied closely to public education,” Mattingly said. “I think music education will always be there in some form or another, and it needs to be.”

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