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San Diego schools treat music as an expendable addendum

Why no one don’t know nuthin about music around here

In the San Diego Unified School District there are thirteen music teachers at the elementary level, working with 126 elementary schools.
  • In the San Diego Unified School District there are thirteen music teachers at the elementary level, working with 126 elementary schools.

The art of serious music involves three distinct groups of people (one might almost say three social classes) — those who compose music, those who perform it, and those who listen to it. (A case might be made for adding to this list the entrepreneurs who arrange concerts and raise money for them, and — if it is not too audacious a suggestion — one might even accord some importance to critics.) The extreme importance of the audience — its existence, its nature, its taste, its understanding — is something we tend to overlook, but we do so at our peril. The creative musician may sometimes be at odds with the consumers of his product (if we want to think of things in commercial terms), but his need for them is overwhelming and undeniable. This is so because art is a form of communication and must communicate to somebody; but there is a more practical reason as well, since composers and performers have to eat, and therefore someone has to be willing to pay them for what they do.

Musical life in America today has no lack of richness in the first two of the three crucial groups. We have a great many excellent contemporary composers, as well as all the great — and not so great — music of the past to draw upon. As to artists, we are blessed with several of the world’s greatest orchestras, along with a phenomenal number of brilliant instrumental soloists, singers and chamber groups, and the best European performers make frequent visits to our shores. It is only in the matter of audiences that American musical life is defective--but there it is very defective indeed. Organizations devoted to the performance of serious music — orchestras, opera companies, chamber music societies, and the like — spend a good part of their energies scrounging for funds, attempting to persuade reluctant communities that good music deserves their support. Contemporary composers go begging for opportunities to have their music performed. Record companies withdraw recordings that ought to be permanently available, because they do not sell. Serious music in our country — the only music of permanent value, because it is the only music that fully embodies the expressive and formal possibilities of the art — limps along, while commercialized pop music, almost always of far lower artistic value, is an ebullient, successful, billion-dollar business. For a great majority of Americans, serious music is elitist, obscure, boring stuff — the sort of thing one may respect from a distance, but which has nothing to say except to a few.

Since those of us who enjoy Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky generally take it for granted that music of this sort is intensely exciting, moving and inspiring, we might ask why it is that so many of our fellow-countrymen seem deaf to its virtues. One answer might be that the enjoyment of serious music requires a special, inherent talent for listening, a talent that most people are simply lacking in from birth. But there is another reason, considerably more down-to-earth, which does not require any dubious assumptions about inherent talents and special elites. That reason is that most Americans have had virtually no contact with serious music in their whole lives; they don’t experience it, they don’t listen to it, they don’t learn about it, and they scarcely know what it is. No wonder if they ignore it and prefer to spend their money and their listening time on the kind of music radio, dance-halls, popular performances and the commercial record business have made them so thoroughly acquainted with. That they are missing something wonderful, that they are accepting shoddy merchandise when first-rate goods are available just around the corner, is something they do not worry about, because they don’t even realize that it is happening. And the one institution that could have set their musical values straight and opened the door to great music for them — the school system — has failed them from the earliest grades on up.

San Diego is no worse and no better than most American school systems in this regard. There are a number of dedicated music administrators and teachers in both the city and the county, but their numbers are pitiably small. So far as systematic instruction in music goes, the San Diego schools are doing practically nothing. Music is treated not as one of our great cultural heritages, not as a vital element in our lives, not as a potential source of some of our most meaningful experiences, but rather as a luxury, a small addendum to the curriculum, which is always in danger of being eliminated at the first overall budget cut. And what music instruction there is is devoted almost exclusively to the training of musicians. With their own programs of instruction and out of their own resources, the San Diego schools contribute an absolute minimum to the creation of informed audiences for serious music. And the conditions of musical life in this country are such that, if they do not have access to good music during their twelve years of primary and secondary schooling, most people will never experience it at all.

Consider some of the statistics. In the San Diego Unified School District (in the city of San Diego), there are thirteen music teachers at the elementary level, working with 126 elementary schools. In San Diego County, where there are 48 autonomous school systems, sixty instrumental teachers handle 212 elementary schools. Elementary school teachers in the County who are not music specialists do receive some in-service education in music instruction, coordinated by the County Department of Education. But the number of teachers with professional music training, although considerably better than in the City, remains dismally low.

The statistics are — or at least seem — somewhat better at the Junior and Senior High School level. For the nineteen Junior High Schools and seventeen Senior High Schools in the City, there are approximately eighty full or part time music instructors, an average of a little over two per school. In the County, there are about 108 music teachers in the thirty-one Junior High Schools and 77 teachers in the 35 Senior Highs.

If we are concerned with the development of audiences for serious music, however, even these statistics are deceptive. Almost all music instruction at the Junior and Senior High School levels is instruction in performance — often enough performance of music that could hardly be called serious. In the County, the typical situation is for each of the schools to have two music instructors, one conducting choral performances and one giving instruction in instrumental performance and sometimes conducting the school band. There is very little in the way of acquainting students who are not themselves musicians with the nature and history of good music — what used to be called “music appreciation.” Courses directed specifically at future audiences have, in fact, been greatly cut down in the past few years, to the point where in most schools they no longer exist. At both the Junior and Senior levels the number of students participating in any way in some form of musical education is less than twenty percent (as estimated by the Music Curriculum Coordinator for the County), and most of those students are performers (in bands, orchestras and choirs).

In the City of San Diego, Junior High Schools require that each student take one semester of music or art, in the seventh grade. Of the students who elect the music option, a large number satisfy the requirement by playing in the band or singing in the chorus. The rest take more academic courses designed to prepare them as listeners; and for many students this is the only time in their school career when they will hear the music of — or even the name of — Mozart.

If I appear to be painting too bleak a picture, let me illustrate with a brief description of a Junior High School in which conditions are abnormally good, in terms of finances, curriculum and personnel. Pershing Junior High School has no fewer than four music teachers (one part-time); one is in charge of the band and orchestra, one is in charge of the chorus, and the other two teach the music appreciation course called “Music Seven.” Of 793 seventh graders, 436 (just over half) this year chose Music Seven; the rest are in the band, the orchestra or the chorus. Music Seven itself consists of a study of the orchestral instruments and of the principles of sound, and a history of music up through the Romantic period. Barbara Bush, the full-time teacher of Music Seven at Pershing, arouses a great deal of enthusiasm in the type of course that many school administrators brand as outmoded. She is so successful (and my telephone talk with this dynamic, intelligent and delightful woman demonstrated why) that in the eighth grade, 130 students (out of a total of 770) have currently chosen to continue the music history course on a purely elective basis. Pershing’s music program is one of the largest and most successful among the city’s Junior Highs, a success Barbara Bush attributes in great part to strong parental support. Even so, we are dealing with only one semester of music appreciation for half of the students in the school, plus a second semester for a sixth of them.

The picture in the Junior High Schools — not only in such an outstanding school as Pershing — is extremely encouraging, however, in comparison with what goes on in the High Schools. There is no required music course in the San Diego High Schools, and virtually no course in the nature and history of serious music, even as an elective. Madison High School may be taken as typical. Music instruction is divided between various choral groups, devoted mainly to the performance of serious music, and the school band. There are no music classes for those who do not sing or play instruments. Altogether only 300 students, out of a student body of 3200, participate in any musical activity. At Clairemont High, much the same situation prevails. There is a jazz ensemble, a sixty-five piece band (the only absolute musical necessity in the High Schools, apparently, is the band), and several choruses. Unlike Madison, however, Clairemont does have a music appreciation course: a semester study of jazz, rock and country-western music.

Since a large proportion of current High School students graduate unable to speak or write correct English, and with no effective knowledge of history, it may sound like nit-picking to complain that almost all of these students graduate as musical illiterates. But the complaint is a trivial one only if you believe that music is a trivial activity, and that being able to understand and enjoy it is a more or less superfluous achievement. This is certainly not the opinion of the hard-working teachers who are fighting against odds to maintain the tenuous hold their art has in the schools; but it apparently is the opinion of a majority of taxpayers and parents, who after all are the ultimate motivating force for the shape of their children’s education. Yet how could one expect more of the parents, since they too are for the most part musically untutored; like their children, they have learned about music mainly from the pop songs that fill the airwaves, and their schools did not prepare them to participate in the serious musical life of the country any more than today’s schools are preparing their children. When parents realize the importance of music in the curriculum — as at Pershing Junior High, or in a number of Country school systems such as Poway — then the courses are taught and the children learn.

If the schools have, by and large, failed to prepare any significant number of young people to become tomorrow’s audiences, their function has been filled by a number of institutions outside the schools. In San Diego, virtually all the creation of new audiences of serious music is the work of these other institutions. The Young Audiences program, the Young People’s Concerts of the San Diego Symphony and their series of in-school concerts, a number of programs run by the San Diego Opera, student discounts--all of these offer opportunities for young people to become acquainted with serious music and to learn something about it. But although the City and County school systems make financial contributions to some of the programs (Young Audiences, the Symphony’s in-school concerts, and the Opera’s touring show), their main source of support is outside the schools, in COMBO, the Musicians’ Trust Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and most significantly — the operating budgets of the musical institutions themselves. The school systems may not offer much music instruction on their own, but they are not reluctant to participate in programs administered — and largely funded — by others. Furthermore, the events sponsored by the Symphony, the Opera and the other organizations come along relatively infrequently; they are special events, and therefore specially exciting (to those students lucky enough to attend them), but they can scarcely take the place of a systematic exposure to good music, term after term and year after year.

What, then, do we make of this picture of music education in San Diego? The schools themselves are doing a minimum of systematic instruction, and a large number of students receive no education whatever that might prepare them to be the audiences of the future. At the same time, the schools cooperate willingly--even expending a certain amount of money, though an extremely small part of the total school budget--when independent, outside organizations put on musical events of an educational nature. Nevertheless, the programs of these outside organizations, excellent as they are, consist mainly of isolated events--a concert, a lecture-demonstration, a visit to an opera performance--which are not generally integrated into an ongoing educational process. It would be absurd to expect musical organizations outside the schools to take over the entire job of music education, with all of its importance for creating new audiences and thus enhancing the musical life of the country. What would we think if the schools gave up on teaching arithmetic, and instead depended on occasional visiting lectures sponsored by private organizations of accountants and engineers, anxious that at least a few people in the coming generation would have some knowledge of their fields? It would be preposterous, of course, yet that is just what happens so far as music is concerned. And until the people of San Diego — particularly the parents whose children are in San Diego schools — start treating serious music as an important element in education and in life, the third vital component of the art of music, the audience, is going to go on being small, weak, and unable to play its part the way composers and performers play theirs.

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