Many factors have led to the hollowing out of band programs across the country. Starting instrumental music in later years, spending less time during high school and having less commitment from administrators have led to diminished programs. How do we stop this downward spiral?
It was a familiar narrative—arts programs, especially band and music, were always the first on the budget cuts’ chopping block. Parents, teachers and advocates would join together to protest, complain and petition their school boards to save their bands and other arts programs.
But in recent years, the state of early music education has become much more nuanced. Bands are still in danger, but the threats now look a lot different. What’s happening now to hurt elementary and middle school instrumental music? How is it affecting high school bands? And what can we do to help?
In a testament to the hard work done by parents and music education advocates over the years, school districts now rarely flat-out eliminate instrumental music programs. Instead, when cuts are needed or other activities prioritized, administrators chip away their music programs, little by little.
“Cutting programs is what happened a few years ago; nowadays it seems to be more of what we call a ‘hollowing out’ of programs,” says Mike Blakeslee, deputy executive director and chief operating office of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). “So you have a program, but the effective amount of instructional time allotted to that program is restricted. The music programs become, to some extent, less effective for the kids, and so retention become a problem.”
It’s different in every community, and the exact reasons and reasoning vary from test prep to budget to scheduling problems. “I think that we have existed now for over a decade in an ecosystem that unfortunately hollows out music programs sometimes instead of even downright elimination of them,” says Chris Woodside, NAfME assistant executive director. “Reduction of resources in time, in instruments, in support—it creates areas that are untenable where teachers can’t teach and kids can’t learn.”
Perhaps the most harmful type of erosion, or at least the one with the biggest ripple effect, is pushing back the year in which students first pick up their instruments. Every community has a different tradition, but it follows logically that the more years a student has been playing their instrument, the more skilled and dedicated they will be.
“Traditionally in our school district, band started no later than fourth grade,” says John McAphee, Jr., coordinator of fine arts for the Birmingham (Alabama) City Schools district. “So they had been playing anywhere from four to five years before getting to high school because some directors even started the students in third grade.”
However, McAphee says that the school district had to drop all of the elementary band programs in more recent years. “We had a new superintendent who came in  from another state and did not believe that band should start until 6th grade,” he says.
These extreme cuts very quickly had a near-disastrous effect on the middle and high school bands. For nearly 25 years, the Birmingham high school bands had as many 120 to 220 students each, but last fall the average was 65 students—including auxiliary members—per high school band program
“When students get to sixth grade, they do not have the same interest level to join band as students in the younger grades,” McAphee says, citing iPads or other technology as desired purchases instead of instruments. “Many parents would then not buy the instruments, and this in turn had a domino effect on the high schools bands where they diminished in numbers and tone quality.”
In Middleburg, Florida, students aren’t exposed to band until middle school, and the program is primarily a “time filler” considered “just for fun,” according to Cary Byrd, assistant band director. “It’s just a beginning band class; they don’t really teach them how to read music,” Byrd says. “It’s mostly ‘Play this note, it sounds like this, play as close to this as you can.’ So there’s really no proper education or technique training. It’s very basic, very minimal.”
The fewer years that students have invested into their instrument, the less likely they are to continue in band when it starts to become challenging in high school. And when there are so many demands on their time, they may find that band is dispensable to them.
“By the time they filter into high school, and we get them as freshman, they’re just not that interested, or there’s just not time,” Byrd says. “We have a lot kids that come in [for either the first two or last two years only]. Very few kids anymore in our program stay four years.”
Also the corps director for the Racine Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps, Byrd has seen the effects of less music at school seep into drum corps as well.
“One of the biggest problems that we’ve had is because they are so behind on the high school level, we’re not getting the caliber of kids that the top 10 corps are getting,” Byrd says. “We’ve had some problems just simply because of them being so far behind. It makes it difficult to compete at our level or even against other Open Class corps.”
At the student level, scheduling is one of the biggest hurdles when trying to stay involved in band. In a recent study by NAfME, 96 percent of surveyed music teachers feel that lack of sufficient time with students is the greatest challenge.
Often, a band period during the day is a “singleton” course, meaning it is only offered in one particular period.
“If scheduling isn’t done carefully, it can really tip the viability of that program,” Blakeslee says. “[When you schedule] the band class against the honors level or advance level classes, a lot of kids in band, orchestra and choir are among the most successful kids. So that affects them.”
For many, a band period during the instructional day becomes a luxury they can no longer afford.
“We wind up with kids that we actually don’t see at all during the day,” Byrd says. “They’re trying to make sure that their core classes are met as well as being a part of the program. But that 45 to 50 minutes of just playing music during the day makes a huge difference because in a once-a-week, three-hour [afterschool] rehearsal we’re trying to catch up music, marching and visual, and put it all together.”
The Faulkier County (Virginia) Schools cut middle school elective periods by six minutes to give more time to the other subjects. And for seventh graders, band and orchestra became part of an AB scheduling block, so that they no longer met every day. These two changes reduced the amount of music instructional time for seventh grader by 54 percent. The condensed schedule, coupled with snow days, hurt the seventh grade orchestra so much that they could not even play well enough to attend the local district assessment.
Faulkier has other problems as well. “Band and orchestra have [classes separated by] sections now,” says Wendy Martin-Shuma, a mother of three students involved in Faulkier’s instrumental music programs. “They only come together as a group right before the concert at two or three afterschool rehearsals. They’re losing that whole teamwork experience of playing together all year, which is so important for an instrumental group.”
Martin-Shuma and other parents protested the changes for two years even before they were approved and put into place. They continue to ask for a reversal but have been rejected. “There was a huge backlash against this when they [proposed] it, and it just didn’t help,” she says. “There were hundreds of people showing up at school board meetings contesting it, and they just didn’t want to hear it. People have just kind of given up because there was that huge outpouring of concern, and then nothing happened. They still went forward with the changes.”
With an increased focus on performance testing, some schools have sacrificed fine arts class time for testing prep. “Remember annual testing across the nation begins now in third grade,” Blakeslee says. “The testing started from the very good idea that we want to know what’s going on, and we want to hold ourselves accountable. But the fact that it’s high stakes, and principals and teachers and everybody could lose their jobs over it means that people tend to take knee-jerk reactions. Kids are being pulled out of music class in order to do more test prep.”
Ray of Hope
Despite the challenges in some communities, music and band are thriving in others, and there is always hope that things can be turned around. Currently, the Senate is working on a reauthorization bill to change the Senate Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind, which effectively increased the amounts of standardized tests to measure school progress. Woodside is working to promote the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015,” which will retain music as a core academic subject from “No Child Left Behind” but will give states more leeway in how they use federal testing.
“There is language in the current bill of No Child Left Behind that due to the arts core academic subject status legislation, it makes it very difficult and, in most cases, even impossible for young people in the remedial education to be pulled out of classes like music or art in order to have an extra study session or test prep,” Woodside says. “We feel it is so important because we want them to have those meaningful learning experiences and to have that complete education. Those students who really stand to gain the very most from access to music or art during the school day will be most at risk and vulnerable to lose them entirely.”
In Birmingham, the resignation of the superintendent and public outrage over the sad state of the marching bands led to action. “The city council decided to have a tax referendum because they were receiving a lot of pressure from citizens who wanted fine arts back in their schools,” says McAphee. “When they saw a band in a parade or at football games, the public became disturbed. They wanted to know why [the bands were so small]. When they would call me, I was very honest, told them why and gave them the facts.”
With a new interim superintendent in place and the extra money from the referendum, McAphee is trying to get things back up to speed. Elementary school band will again start in fourth grade, and each middle school will have a dedicated band director. The high schools have all-new band rooms and more than $130,000 in new instruments.
“It’s important for parents to become proactive and not reactive,” McAphee says. “Here we are, an urban school district, and all the tools have been provided for us to be successful. You must have vertical alignment for success, and we lost that.”