No Art Left Behind
Despite a maddening mix of fact and fiction about music and our children’s interest in it, local music education is thrumming along. In the past six years, San Diego Unified School District has actually grown their music offerings, the pool of teachers, and partnership programs with music foundations of all stripes. The power behind the program resides in an old, unlovely Mission Beach office, a converted grade school, the Visual and Performing Arts, or VAPA. The department umbrellas visual arts, theater, dance, music, and the newest addition, media. Its three-person staff, augmented by three resource teachers, answers the fickle state mandate: arts curricula is required in California schools K–6, even though districts reserve ways to not offer it. What is and is not required is a maze made for district manipulators. While federal law requires arts instruction, the California education code, which takes precedent, states that grades 1–6 “shall include” arts, theater, music, and dance instruction; grade 7–12 “shall offer” such courses. At least one or more arts courses, which continue to be given in most high schools, are required for admission to the University of California and the California State universities.
At the helm of the department is director Karen Childress-Evans. She’s been six years at the top, bringing degrees in performance (viola) and education, classroom instruction in dance, theater, and music (the Suzuki method), plus administrative chops to her job. Nowadays, most administrators must be advocates, not only to blunt the budget hatchet but to find private donors. Dressed in a black turtleneck and plaid wool skirt — there’s a workman vacuuming her office after the January deluge — Childress-Evans is a lioness, a nonstop talker whose enthusiasm for the arts is infectious. She tells me she’s always “infused” the arts into her teaching. “That made it more interesting for the kids — and certainly more interesting for me. I was a better teacher for it, but my kids learned better that way, too.”
In 2004, Childress-Evans inherited a San Diego elementary-school arts program that was depleted, unbudgeted, moribund. At best, grade-school teachers who could carry a tune might lead their charges in the occasional sing-along. In 2006 — the last fat year for funding — the California legislature gave a generous Arts Block Grant to all state schools. Every district got one-time and ongoing money for “arts, music, and physical education equipment and supplies,” as well as a budget “to hire additional staff to support standards-aligned instruction in arts and music.” The amount expended by the end of 2007 in San Diego unified was almost $1 million. The one-time money was much higher than the ongoing funds.
“Luckily, they gave every single penny to me,” she says. Childress-Evans created a five-year strategic plan, budgeting for fat and lean times. She divided the money according to student population at each site. Only when the principal gave her an arts plan did she fund that school’s program. The grant bought musical instruments ($250,000 worth annually), digital equipment, and textbooks. Steadily, arts and music instructors were hired — all are itinerant — until their number is now 28 and their salary some 80 percent of the visual and performing arts budget. “Peoplewise, we’ve grown because we’ve built programs,” Childress-Evans says. “Moneywise, we’ve decreased.” Ever mindful of the axe waiting to fall, she says that she’s already cut down to the “bare bones. If we don’t get funds next year, we’ll be lopping off arms and legs.”
According to Mark Nicholson, the instrumental music specialist who also has an office at the Mission Beach headquarters, once kids heard the array of instruments that students might study with the block grant — instruments and instruction which hadn’t been offered for years — they leapt at the chance to play them. Nicholson says that not until 2007 did the visual and performing arts program reach all 123 elementary schools in the district and 11,100 students in grades 4–8. There are 202 schools in the district, serving 135,000 students. Music is either required or offered at every one. “The hardest thing to change,” Nicholson said, “is the perception of the public. They think music and arts aren’t in the schools. People can’t get their minds around that.”
Childress-Evans is quick to praise the school board, whose members by and large, she says, support her efforts. In fact, the district is “an anomaly,” the only one in California that has “100 percent of our elementaries with instrumental music.”
Childress-Evans and her staff, however, have discovered that district money isn’t enough to build and sustain the program they feel kids deserve. They are constantly looking for new outside funds, finding sources organized in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which, themselves, countered the then-widespread cuts in music programs. Perhaps the best known is VH1’s “Save the Music” foundation — money given, often by millionaire rock stars, to train teachers, to fund existing programs, and to bring musicians into schools. Each year, San Diego unified gets some $70,000 from Save the Music. Other benefactors include the California Music Project, and its $20,000 annual gift; free lessons for teachers on recorder and guitar, the latter instruments donated by Taylor Guitars; and a generous bequest of $75,000 worth of band instruments from the U.S. Marines.
For Childress-Evans the key to keeping music and the arts alive has been “leadership.” Hers, that of her small staff, and school principals. On the job, she learned to listen “to what principals wanted.” She asked questions. What is your schedule? How and when could music fit in? “We looked at articulation, what the middle schools need from the elementary schools,” so that students are adequately prepared for the next level of instruction. The district could not be served, she says, with “one size fits all. Trying to push the same program on every school didn’t work.”
Voila, the arts — and music especially, the most popular program — have steamed back into port. And with their return, a vexing irony. The visual and performing arts budget during the past six years has slowly dwindled: its unrestricted funds (non-salary costs) in 2004–2005 were $474,140. The amount now is $188,921. Full-time equivalency (which pays for full- and part-time teachers) rose from 31.8 to 34.2 FTE. “It’s gone up,” Childress-Evans says, “because the number of students we serve has gone up.”
“Can We Play It Again?”
Serving those students is the job of the district’s 28 itinerant music teachers who instruct groups of up to 30 kids, some 400 in all, at five or more schools every week. Recently, I caught up with three: percussion instructor, April West; winds teacher, Harvey Tellinghuisen; and string man, Steve Luchs. Each wheels in their black bags and instrument case, teaches one or two ensembles for 50 minutes, packs up, and freeways on.
At Linda Vista elementary, a class of fifth-graders streams into the school auditorium. As they enter, West has her drum machine pulsing, an overhead projector ready to go. Dressed in black pants and a blue sweater, she carries a whistle, a plastic cowbell at her waist, and a constantly moving persona. Thirty kids arrange themselves in two parallel semicircles at drum stations, each with chair, drum pad, and sticks at the ready. West holds up a three-ring binder with musical terms that she asks them to demonstrate. She shouts, “Here’s the beat. One, two, three, rest.” On the overhead, she projects this rhythm in notation. Next she grabs her trombone (she’s a multitasker extraordinaire) and plays the one-two-three while she beats the cowbell. Three quarter notes and a rest. Symbol (reading music) and sound (making music) are joined from the get-go.
Before she starts, I ask, How do they take to percussion? “Everyone loves drums,” she says, speaking in measure-like snippets. “It’s incredibly innate. Immediate gratification. You hit the pad, you get the sound. This is an easy job as far as motivation goes.”
Learning is playing. Everyone’s involved. Total teamwork, although it’s clear that several kids still lack the knack for holding the sticks. This West tries to fix as she moves from kid to kid. In front of the 30 are three or four special-ed kids, whose job is to keep a steady beat on box drums with the drum machine. (Special-ed kids respond to playing a rhythm easier than they do to reading one.) As the children continue the beat (almost everyone wears jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers), West directs their eyes back to her visual cues. She whispers and shows the word “piano,” and they quiet the beat. She gets loud and shows “forte,” and they herald it back. Next, she shows a dotted half note and a quarter rest. They play the note, and she reminds them what a rest means: “Silence is not nothing.”
Every so often, West lets them “go,” that is, pound away on their own. The sound is tribal, cacophonous. Whistling to grab their attention, she refocuses on drills. She enforces discipline by alternating rest position, the kids standing one step back from the drum pad, and play position, the kids stepping forward and picking up sticks. She has them beat out “Jump, in the Mississippi,” a phrase, which is accented on the one, that builds a swarming sound. Which, of course, they speed up. “You can’t help it,” she says. “It’s human to speed up. So you have to fight your human nature.” Which brings about a quick lesson on “tempo.”
Later, West alternates “Jump, in the Mississippi” with three visual cues: “soli,” where a hand-picked few play; “tutti,” where all play; and “improvise.” What’s “improvise”? She stops to explain. “Something simple or something complicated, but it has to fit with the beat.” She illustrates by playing a dozen phrases, which, one by one, the students mimic (“shave and a haircut, two bits” is one), all in time with the beat. Back to the “soli” and the “tutti,” and then she lets them loose to “improvise.”
Fifty minutes soon rumble by, and my sense is that West has given them a group discipline that no other subject or activity, except, perhaps, sports and dance, allows them. Music helps kids access a learning mode the academic subjects do not allow. Maybe that’s why music is so popular. The kids know better than we do the vicissitudes of learning.
As part of the district’s “exploratory” program, West teaches at two schools a day, five schools a week, for nine weeks. Her cluster is followed or preceded by nine weeks with a wind, a brass, or a string instructor. Each unit exposes fifth-graders to hands-on music-making. Blow. Pluck. Pound. Bow. Plus the rudiments: tempo, dynamics, notation, rests, note values, meter, rhythm and beat (they are different), genres, and improvisation. The hope is that they’ll choose an instrument, join an ensemble, take lessons (the winning formula is an excited kid and a supportive parent), and enjoy a respite from the daily five hours spent on English, math, science, and social studies. And blossom artistically, which is just as important, every music teacher tells me, as blossoming academically. Maybe more so.
At the beginning of each school year winds-and-brass instructor Tellinghuisen and string instructor Luchs hold an assembly for fourth-graders. The pair lay the instruments out on tables — flute, clarinet, trumpet, sax, and trombone, as well as the violin family. They show off the wonders of each — the slide punch of the trombone, the exuberance of a fiddle tune — creating a sort of Young Person’s Guide to orchestra and band. “We bring the kids onstage, too,” Tellinghuisen notes, “and let them try to make a sound. They see that it’s not just us, but they can do it, too.” Whoever wants to play plays, and hundreds choose instruments, which typically they rent from a music store. In an ensemble, students meet twice a week, learning basic technique and group playing and performance.
I sat in with both teachers at Hickman elementary in Mira Mesa. Tellinghuisen, who’s been at this for a couple of decades, tells me he concentrates on a few notes at first, getting students to make a tone on a wind or brass instrument by “tonguing each note” on “Hot Cross Buns.” As we talk, the class sets up their chairs and music stands, moistens lips and reeds; in a flash they’re working into “Rock Star,” Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle,” renamed. “Clarinets, first measure, I want to hear you tongue the notes, one, two, ready, go.” “Flutes, make sure I hear that tongue go ‘tu.’” The lesson is regimented, a good thing for an ensemble with uneven strengths. Tellinghuisen conducts the class in one continuous meter, the steadily silent ticking of 4/4. It seems to pulse unheard even when he pauses. On occasion, he points at each of the four trumpet players to solo. From one, nothing comes out: “Got to oil your valves at least once a week.” From another, the tone is too low: “Faster air, Matthew. Tighten your lips.”
During Tellinghuisen’s second hour, a higher-level ensemble practices a set piece — in a minor key and Russian-sounding — for that evening’s Honor-band tryouts. He tells them with flat affect that they shouldn’t be nervous. Just breathe naturally and everything will be fine. You will survive. “Remember, in all the years I’ve been a judge,” he says, “at the end of the audition, I have never seen a dead body.”
In contrast is raffish Steve Luchs, who teaches the Suzuki violin method. The Suzuki method gets kids playing the weird-to-finger-and-hold violin before they learn to read music: bowing, standing, fingering, all have to be coordinated. (How easy the piano is in this regard: everything is in front of you; just put your fingers on the keys and play.) Luchs has his group of 15 stand in two lines. When the kids aren’t playing, they bob, energized by the activity. “Let’s do ‘Egg Roll,’” Luchs says, “which is also known as ‘Allegro.’” Once they begin, enthusiasm is concentrated in that rather pinched sound, not unlovely, of 15 violins searching for intonation. When they finish, one student asks, “Can we play it again?”
With a visitor in the room, Luchs shows off their repertoire. “French Folk Song” and “Song of the Wind” are two pieces they recently performed with players from the San Diego Symphony, who put on a workshop at Hickman. Getting loose, Luchs, who accompanies every tune on piano, notices one small boy with excellent bow technique, an unforced and fluid wrist. He has him play a solo and comments, “I’m going to call him ‘The Boy with the Golden Arm.’” Laughs all around. He stops, grabs the violin, and announces they’ll play “The Break,” from “Cripple Creek.” What this song is, he says, “is not Mozart,” and he plays a Mozartean snippet. “It’s not Bach,” he says, and plays a fugal snippet. “It’s fiddle music.” He saws away with Appalachian abandon. That loosens them up. No surprise, there’s a link between the teacher’s enthusiasm and the kids’ charging their batteries.
The most necessary trait of the grade-school music teacher is patience. Of the infinite kind. Patience for the years of hearing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sourly intoned. For that scratchy sound of a violin bow too near the bridge. For the squeak of a clarinet or the honk of the trumpet. Patience. And then ringing approval with “Good!” whenever the group gets some portion of the lesson right.
I ask Tellinghuisen how many practice. He laughs and shows me a method book that has a log inside the cover. He used to require “practice reports” but found “it was an exercise in creative writing.” He quit asking for the assignment after he noticed one too many kids marking in ten hours a day. He doesn’t need a log. “You can tell if they’re practicing.”
Music’s Effect on Learning
I ask each of the three itinerant teachers how music affects their pupils’ home life, learning, and development. April West says that teachers tell her often that during music class, “they see their kids in a whole different light.” Those that struggle in the classroom can be “the best ones” in music. For West, it may be that “their brains are wired that way.”
What kind of music do they listen to at home? West says it’s “almost all hip-hop. That’s the culture. It’s totally their lives and their parents’. It’s everywhere. They heard it in the womb.” Her mantra for teaching music is to “tap into what kids already know.” Steve Luchs says they listen to the radio mostly. But if they hear “something classical or something they’ve played, it perks them up. They can’t wait to come back to class and tell us.” Once, his violinists learned to play a snippet from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” A few heard the work in performance by the San Diego Symphony, then told Luchs, who also attended the concert, about it. “And I say, ‘But they didn’t play it as good as you.’ ” The irony is not lost on these teachers that most classical music, and some jazz, are “new music” for their young musicians.
Some music teachers have become advocates for their programs, speaking at board meetings, especially during budgetary talks. Such self-interest comes with the territory. West says that as an undergraduate in music education, she wrote three different papers for three different teachers, “defending my music program.” Part of her training was to investigate how, if attacked by a scissors-wielding board, she might save the program she had developed. She also says that the board needs to hear from students and parents more than they do from teachers. Parents don’t realize, she notes, how effective they can be when extolling or demanding arts programs for their children.
This spring, music teachers are regularly testifying at the Tuesday board meetings about the visual and performing arts program. On occasion, they bring their students to play, underscoring the tactic. Their goal as a group is to keep lobbing shots across the board’s bow before they make hiring decisions. In January, elementary music teacher Lucille Park testified that she herself is a good example of music’s power: “I was an ADHD kid, and music really helped me with concentration, focus, and self-discipline.” Retired teacher Dean Hickman, an instructor for 33 years in San Diego, stated that without music in the schools we may see “our musical world become overpopulated with talent that is emblematic of the first round of American Idol.” First-year elementary-school music teacher Lydia Cooley asked the board: “In an age of abbreviated texting and Facebook posting, are we not worried that kids will not know how to respond to art and music, to ballet and poetry?” At the five-hour-plus meeting, Tellinghuisen and other colleagues sat in the front row, supporting their fellow musician-speakers with “Save VAPA” signs.
Apropos of such continued enrichment, Luchs has a little test he likes to administer, ad hoc. “Next time you see your doctor,” he’ll tell a skeptical parent, “ask if he or she ever played a musical instrument. Next time you meet a gangbanger, ask the same question.” Tellinghuisen agrees. He recently spoke with the father of a former student, a man who had nothing but praise for Tellinghuisen’s teaching. Tellinghuisen asked what the son was now doing. “‘He’s about to graduate from medical school,’ the man said. ‘He credits music with all of his success because that’s how he learned to discipline his time.’ ”
Band and orchestra teacher Matt Mulvaney is part of the success behind the creative performing media arts middle school, or CPMA. The magnet has had an astounding growth, beginning in 2002 with 216 grade 6 students; this year, having moved to a larger facility at what was Kroc Middle School in northeastern Clairemont, they now enroll more than 1100 students. In May 2009, when the visual and performing arts department was slated for severe cuts, Mulvaney and colleagues argued to the board in a letter that if districts want to be paid for student attendance, music and arts education is key. “Schools that offer more music education classes,” the letter states, “have higher daily attendance rates when compared to similar schools without these opportunities…. Over time, weakened attendance rates and fewer draws [of students] to the district will result in lower ADA figures, and subsequently, reduced funding.” In addition, because of the growth of magnets and private schools, if kids aren’t “drawn” to their neighborhood school nowadays, they go elsewhere: “private schools, charters, home schooling.”
The Eminently Cuttable Arts Budget
San Diego Unified’s budgetary nightmares — of the past two years, and the one upon us this spring — are all too familiar. When school expenditures are pinched, the board siphons money from wherever they can, often from unrestricted funds. In February, Childress-Evans tells me that the district “swept” away her unrestricted arts budget of $188,921. The heist was possible, she says — her tone rising with equal parts blame and shame — because “the state legislature gave flexibility to categorical spending.” The board takes Peter’s money to pay Paul. She says that had the district followed her five-year strategic plan, which included its own rainy-day fund, she “would have gotten the arts through this hard time.”
One bright light — the school board has, in recent years, Childress-Evans says, “refused to cut the VAPA department.” One board member, Shirly Jackson, did vote against the visual and performing arts program. The four others have not. For Childress-Evans, the way in which the arts are now classified is a major headache. Yes, she says, the board has “consistently supported VAPA.” But now district policy places the arts, no matter how successful or desirable they may be, into a “non-curricular” pool, or grouped priority. The board then ranks that priority lower than the non-cuttable curricular ones. Her program is dumped into the funnily titled, “rounded priority.” This strategy for making cuts identifies programs neither by name nor by relative success but, essentially, by stigmatizing a program’s usefulness as academic or not.
One bargaining chip for the visual and performing arts program is that if the board cuts their $3.4 million annual budget, the schools will lose some $5 million in materials, money, and programs that the students receive from donors and music do-gooders, which funds Childress-Evans and staff have already hustled up. “People think,” she says defiantly, “that if they can get rid of this central office, VAPA, then the programs will continue to bloom and hold their own — no, they won’t. Because if elementary goes, in three years you won’t have [programs] in middle school, and you won’t have [programs] in high school. Simple as that.”
By March 15 of each year, school districts are required to tell teachers whether they’ll be back in the fall. Of VAPA’s 33 itinerant elementary music instructors, five were given a pink slip. The VAPA department notes that in years past they have been able to “rehire” those teachers by using discretionary money — as long as they are allocated some.
A Generational Problem
In the parking lot of Clairemont Mesa East’s Madison High School, following an evening of tryouts for Honor band and orchestra — a program in which those who make it are placed, practice, and perform a spring concert within six weeks — Mark Nicholson tells me that he believes we are cresting a near 30-year wave, bringing music back to the schools. A former band leader at Madison, Nicholson has seen the photos and heard the stories from colleagues about the great era of marching bands in the 1960s, when uniforms, instruments, and daily rehearsals were a given at nearly every high school. Earlier, he and I visit all the tryout rooms — percussion, wind, string, brass. First stop is his old band room at Madison, where we watch percussionist Randy Parks audition kids on the xylophone. Above the instrument lockers that run along three sides of the high-windowed room are hundreds of trophies. These were won over a 50-year period of music competitions by various incarnations of the Madison high school band. It’s not just sports that grab kids’ competitive interests.
Today, with more than three times as many high schools as in the 1960s, there are only ten schools in the district with marching bands.
And yet Nicholson says that despite the historical decline and the current cutbacks, he can barely keep up with all the concerts and competitions, the tryouts and instrument repairs, the board meetings and the innovations in teaching that young teachers bring from their college programs. He tells me of a drum line, a percussion group, that went to the district office one day recently and “tore it up.” He agrees with April West that the best advocates for keeping music in the schools are parents and students. “It’s the parents’ tax money that’s paying for everything.”
Most parents don’t realize the quantity of music instruction they’re paying for: Honor orchestra and band; a K–5 Suzuki school 5 at Crown Point elementary, a music magnet school; Oak Park Music Conservatory, another magnet elementary; the solo ensemble festival; the elementary Honor choral group; the Recorder Festival, the Improv Fest, Classics for Kids. Outside resources for music-making include the San Diego Youth Symphony, which recruits from and gives concerts in the schools. There are free school-based concerts offered by the choirs of Pacific Coast Harmony and San Diego Master Chorale, by Mainly Mozart, Orchestra Nova, and the Metropolitan Opera. And there’s the just-launched Little Kids Rock program. This national group brings in musical instruments, mostly guitars, and instruction to schools, which, according to their website, focuses on the kids’ “favorite popular musical styles, including rock, blues, rap, and hip-hop.” Little Kids Rock is providing 400 guitars to teachers and students, valued at $170,000.
The abundance of these in- and out-of-school programs is impressive. But Nicholson complains that district higher-ups still seem unfazed, unwilling to identify music as a core subject. Nicholson, who sports a Zen-like attitude toward the ups and downs of his administrator-advocate role, is flummoxed with music’s lowered priority. Sure, he understands that he’s motivated by the self-interest of his job. “But,” he says, “the small amount of the pie that we do get makes such a huge impact on all 135,000 students in our district.”
Nicholson and I watch dozens of kids go through the knee-knocking shakes of playing one-on-one for a teacher. Oh, the perils of sight-reading a new piece cold: when the piece your eyes see is nothing like what your fingers play! One father of a young girl, who is auditioning on violin, sits patiently in the back while his sixth-grader timorously bows “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Quietly reading Newsweek, his calm may lessen the girl’s nervousness, though she seems assuaged only when her kindly inquisitor intones, “That’s enough, dear. Thank you.”
Afterward, the father says that it’s his daughter’s decision entirely whether to play. There’s no pressure at home, though he offers a quiet time and private space if she wants to practice. She doesn’t take lessons. It may be the cost. It may be his reluctance to regiment her spark too soon. He hopes that just this small exposure to the violin will turn on the switch for her, the music gene he believes is set to unlock. Perhaps that’s why he tells me that his father was a violinist, and that he has just died. “It’s something,” he says with a trace of sadness in his eyes, “he would have liked her to do.” Maybe the girl’s grandfather’s wish will come true, as long as her school keeps paying a music instructor to guide her.
— Thomas Larson