How to make an elementary/middle/high school music program awsome

May 17, 2016 at 01:30 PM · I would like to open a discussion about how to make music programs in schools great. What are the key factors in improving a schools music program? Looking back to your own elementary/middle/high school music path, what did you take from your experience?

My daughter has been playing violin for 2 years now. Since there is no string program at the school I sought out a private teacher. Also, I located a private youth orchestra program 30min away that has a young string program as well as a youth symphony paid through membership fees.

This year my daughter is in 4th grade and was able to pick an instrument to play in the band. I encouraged her to pick something because she has so much fun playing violin in the other orchestra. Even though she tried a few team sports, she didn't really like them, so I thought band was the perfect place to be a "team" and show school spirit. So she picked clarinet.

Over the year she has made some interesting comments about practice schedules (the lack of) and how few kids actually show up for rehersals etc... The school concert was last Wednesday. I was so dissapointed at how the concert was managed. My husband, who grew up in the area, was shocked at the state of the schools band. He said when he was a student at the school there were at least 60 members and the band went to compititions. Retention is the biggest factor being that there were about 20 4th graders and only 12 in the high school band.

My daughters youth string ensemble comprised of elementary school students play better then the senior band in my school district. I even dug out of my attic a recording of my own 4th grade concert and it too, was better then the high school band.

I'm really passionate about this topic and feel that some fault is to blame on the teacher, but I think there is some other issues going on. I have made an appointment to speak with the school superindendant to voice my concerns later this week. I want to go armed with facts and ideas that can be implemented. I'm so pissed, that I have to do something - just, I'm not sure where to start exactly.

Thanks for listening.


Replies (29)

May 17, 2016 at 02:52 PM · The "teacher" must work 3 "tracks":

1. goals

2. knowledge

3. motivation

If any of these is missing the program will be weak.

How about starting out with a parents' meeting to discuss the situation and see if others agree with you.

I, and several other musicians in my orchestra, have been having a loose association with a local after-school (and Saturday) music program centered an elementary=school in the hispanic section of our city. It starts kids on singing and simple sound-making "instruments" and ends up with an orchestra of close to 100 players from grade through (at least) middle school age. The leader of this ELM (Enriching Lives through Music: ) organization is a volunteer, but the various coaches of the different instruments are college graduate music majors (who get paid what and when the program can afford). The conductor of the 3 final rehearsal and orchestra concert performances I have been associated with is one of the assistant directors of the LA Philharmonic who makes the 450 mile trip to our small city for the events.

It pretty much brings tears to my eyes to know and share what this program is bringing to the lives of these young people.

The county also has a youth orchestra program that is loosely sponsred by the local regional orchestra (Marin Symphony). My granddaughter (who started violin at age 6) played in the beginner levels of this activity for a few years from age 8. Competence of the staff was key to its success, and bringing a really top-notch conductor for the concerts mad a big difference. The top level - the Youth Orchestra is high school level and by that stage the players are very, very good.


May 17, 2016 at 02:54 PM · I don't know about enough band/orchestra programs to feel authoritative, but I think commitment of school officials (and resource allocation) is important based on what I've seen in the school district in which I live. When my older son entered fifth grade his district overhauled the music program.

Previously, fifth graders chose an instrument and received a group lesson once a week in their elementary school. But my son and his classmates instead were incorporated immediately into the daily band program at the junior high/middle school. (To me this seems logical. After all you wouldn't expect kids to become proficient in mathematics if they had only one maths lesson per week.) District officials budgeted bus transportation every morning for the fifth graders to go to group lessons and band practice at the middle school so that they had supervised practice at least five days a week from the get go. Then they were transported back to the elementary school for the rest of their academic routine.

Now they play noticeably better than the band that is a year ahead, and I think the difference is because the increased investment in the music program. My son's cohort in fact just received the top score in a festival.

But unfortunately I think that many districts prioritize sports when resources are limited, and I don't imagine that districts will have more resources going forward.

May 17, 2016 at 05:51 PM · In addition to what is already stated here, another important thing is workable instruments. At the outreach program I taught through in the Colburn pre-college division, the instruments given to the students were just about unplayable. They were impossible to tune, the right sizes were rarely available ( my student ended up with a full-size when he needed a half-size ), and they literally fell apart ( I remember one cellist's fingerboard fell off during a concert ). There was also no reliable luthier associated with the program and the students had to wait months for even minor repairs or for a new string to replace a broken one. No one ever progressed beyond twinkle, even after several years. I am sure those instruments were quite discouraging. Another thing that is important is some form of individualization, though this may be hard to accomplish depending on the number of students and staff, or else you will easily lose both ends of the bell curve, and it will be impossible to close the income gap between those who become pros and those who don't. Also, practice space at school to use during free periods, breaks, and after school is a good idea, especially for those who may not have a quiet practice space at home. Teachers also need to be made aware of any disabilities and/or giftedness that has been identified or under investigation. I had a big shock once teaching an upper-elementary students who didn't know the alphabet.

May 17, 2016 at 06:16 PM · parental investment.

it's easy to blame the teacher, but 'band' doesn't happen by rehearsal once a week any more than community orchestra does. The kids need to practice when at home, and that usually involves (a)being allowed to and (b) being encouraged to, and seeing band as important - most of which needs to come from the parents.

May 17, 2016 at 08:31 PM · My son is finishing up his 1st year playing viola. In his elementary school, all 5th and 6th grade students MUST either play a strings instrument, a band instrument, join choir, or take music appreciation. They have their music class every other day (I am not sure how long it is, but I think the one hour or so of music is divided up this way). In 4th grade, the students are all able to 'visit' each kind of class to see what they do, and there is a meeting of parents and students in April where each different music teacher talks about their class. The school takes this seriously, and is one of 7 (out of 34) elementary schools in the district to offer strings.

My son's strings teacher has introduced him to 2Cellos videos, other ensembles like that, and just today sent home information about Rachel Barton Pine, including that the kids thought her playing heavy metal was pretty cool. This motivates the kids...they see 'cool' examples of strings playing!

May 17, 2016 at 09:16 PM · @Kelly Hamilton: It is a shame that instruments are only offered in 5th and 6th grade where your son attends school. Perhaps it is a funding issue. Although it is certainly possible to do well starting at this point,and nothing is thought of it in the wind/brass world, string students who decide to/have resources to get serious will have to deal with the stigma of starting "late".

May 18, 2016 at 05:14 PM · Lieschen,

Oh, they have them for 7th and 8th grades too...but the kids are not required to take music at that point. They can choose another elective, like advanced art. In 5th and 6th, they have to take both art and music, but later on, they pick one or the other.

Lower than 5th grade, and they take a general music class. This is posing some problems for my daughter, who would like to take cello, but if I let her do it now, then she would be a whole year higher than her peers, and she would be bored out of her mind. I'm going to start her with piano, so at least she will have experience with the bass clef, then she can start cello in 5th grade.

May 18, 2016 at 05:45 PM · I'm not sure how they do it in various schools these days, but when I was in grade school in New York City (up through 6th grade) we always had music appreciation classes. They were no conflict with the mind I had developed with violin lessons since age 4 (including the last 2 years of both violin lessons and a weekly hour of "theory" at the MSM) I got to hear lots of other music at PS 106. My Jr. High did not have music.

I moved to Maryland in the middle of 7th grade and and our music classes were enjoyable and I learned things that I had not learned in my violin lessons and just confirmed my "theory." And I liked the other kids a lot - don't forget that part of it.

There is nothing wrong with being ahead of your peers - someone always has to be the ahead, might as well have a shot at it. Believe me, starting a year earlier does not guarantee anything.


May 19, 2016 at 11:37 AM · As a high school music teacher for 20 years, my "secret weapon" was my my practical skills and great interest in arranging. Sure, I played my instruments with the classes, and often in band rehearsals (while I was directing), but it was putting a new arrangement in front of the students every week, a TV theme, a pop song, a standard, a selection of classical themes (that the students knew, somehow) that drew the students into the program.

In short, bring popular culture into the band's repertoire in a challenging but playable arrangement that makes them sound "like the real thing", and they will take their parts to their instrumental teachers for help, practice at home, attend on time, come to concerts and play, etc.

It is a lot of work for the teacher (I always had a chart "in preparation" so that I could meet my weekly deadline, but it was my interest, and I enjoyed the results, too, so I did the work.

Once the ensemble is cooking, you can vary the styles and genres you ask them to play.

But use music they hear every day to light the fuse.

May 19, 2016 at 06:21 PM · Chamber music would also be a good idea for these programs, but it seems to be rare.

May 19, 2016 at 06:34 PM · I think chamber music would be difficult for an academic school program because it would be difficult to find the essential environment for each group.

May 20, 2016 at 03:43 PM · One of the key things I would say would be to make music fun and not seem like a chore; this was the killer for many of my peers when they were learning instruments at school or at home when they were younger, as their parents would treat practising and going to rehearsal as something unpleasant that had to be done. However, that is more up to the parents than teachers/communities at large.

Music also needs to be emphasized as just as important as sport and this is something that everyone needs to be educated about; it is often seen that doing school choir or band is 'not as sporting'as being in the school athletics or tennis teams.

May 20, 2016 at 08:17 PM · Here and in many places I believe that ukelele, "rock band"/guitar, world music, and boomwhackers have ruined many programs. I didn't come from the greatest program though was in the high level all city orchestra and band (and had principal seats), and I've seen talented piano students (I am a clarinetist and pianist, and teach them too) choose rock band when I feel their huge talent and excellent practice habits would be much better spent on challenging instruments like the oboe. I remember when I was in 8th grade clarinet players were expected to know from the lowest note to the written C above the staff; 20 years later I see students in the middle of high school who have been playing 5 years and don't know their second register notes, which my private students learn within 6 months. I played in a very small summer orchestra that lasted only one concert because we couldn't get enough string players to join, even with no membership fee, and this in a large city like Toronto, Canada. Even the standards for students in the music faculties is dropping and I saw a big drop in the expectations in the new syllabi for clarinet for the Royal Conservatory of Music Toronto compared to the last three especially in range expected.


May 20, 2016 at 10:00 PM · I don't think any instrument is more challenging than the others. If that were true, you would see huge variations in the amount of time spent training in each instrument. True some sound less pleasing than others at the very beginning, but mastery is ultimate very challenging. It is true that high-level classical musicians usually train a lot longer than most of the equivalent rock musicians, but one cannot say rock is inferior or less sophisticated because of this. I actually think classical musicians could shave off some of the training time, especially when strong technical fundamentals have been established and star pianist Alfred Brendel supports such a viewpoint, thinking it would allow students to develop more unique interpretations and musical personalities than they would going for DMAs, Masters, or even undergrad in some cases. I met a professional violinist in the European Union Youth Orchestra who stopped having a teacher after bachelors who felt this way and was doing just fine as a pro. I think students need to have access to the genres they are interested in, and a public school program with high expectations could do just that.

May 21, 2016 at 12:55 AM · Here's my opinion as a kid in a middle school orchestra right now. It's the last year of middle school orchestra, only two days before our concert, and everyone is just done, at least in the first row. We've been pretty tired of orchestra ever since 7th grade, but we liked it enough to stay. I think a big problem with the orchestra is motivation. One of our teachers enjoys showing off and never teaches, and the other is just very tired and lacks energy. That leaves us, the kids, feeling just as tired and not excited to play. Another large problem is the gap between levels of playing. There are the first row kids, almost all who have had private lessons for years. After that, all of the kids are playing at significantly lower levels. Somehow a teacher has to build a bridge between two very different playing levels, but my teacher has not done a very good job doing that. My teacher doesn't help people improve, only says good comments and only bad ones if playing is absolutely horrendous. Most students are trying, just they are practicing bad habits, they have no tools to be better players. I think what should happen is making sure there are teachers who are motivated and will inspire kids. Teachers who inspire kids will create a spark, a sort of chemistry on stage. Teachers need to work kids hard, and push them to the limits. When participating in non-school orchestras, it was so thrilling to end a performance and walk out proud knowing I had worked so hard to get the concert pieces performance ready. It is also good to have a music program with many opportunities in which to participate. Some middle schools have chamber orchestras, music clubs, and more, fostering a connection between the kids. The classroom should be a safe place to exchange ideas and learn. So overall, what would make middle school orchestra better would be inspiring, motivational teachers that push their students, music opportunities to create a stronger classroom community, pieces that fit every level of player, and a safe place for exchange of ideas.

May 21, 2016 at 04:09 AM · I totally get it. If there must be two significantly different levels (not a good idea) in one group, it would be better to veer towards the easier side but then the advanced kids would probably be bored.

May 21, 2016 at 04:14 AM · Exactly, I had this experience, when, after a year in my school orchestra, I started lessons, and along with a handful of others overtook everyone else by far within a matter of months. Not only do the more advanced students get bored, but the less advanced ones who cannot afford lessons and have aspirations are left bitter knowing that they can't do better in their financial situation only learning from public school orchestra. No one wins. It is even worse when a program is grouped by grade-level and seated by seniority without holding auditions.

May 22, 2016 at 12:09 AM · Without banging on too much about my own history, when you prepare the music yourself, you can tailor parts for every level of skill in the same ensemble, each and every piece.

More generally, it is easier to cater for the highly proficient players with solos and small groups.

Some excellent points have been made in the foregoing posts. All instruments are equally demanding, and require every second that can be devoted to them.

And teaching can be absolutely exhausting, especially with all the work that is needed to build and keep an excellent large ensemble. But even the administrators who understand this cannot provide the time and rewards to sustain the teachers with a reasonable work load (and not over-load). Budgets and politics are very real things in schools.

********************************************************************* Work hard, please. We must strengthen all school music programs. *


May 24, 2016 at 12:36 AM · Hmmm.

OK. So is there a point in lobbying for a cultural grant (cultural grants in a range of countries) from both government and industries for skilled people to write, publish and distribute "funky" arrangements of several grade-levels that might stimulate student engagement in ensemble programs?

Is there a point in asking for tertiary music schools to provide courses on preparing music for the primary and secondary schools, to set assignments that might lead to music being made available to school ensemble directors, and to provide mentors to primary and secondary school staff in building ensembles that students find attractive to attend?

Could schools be lobbied to provide music ensemble classes within the school day instead of as after-hours electives?


May 24, 2016 at 04:20 AM · There could be school ensemble rehearsals during academic hours, but students will miss class time. Another choice could be during a long recess break.

May 24, 2016 at 09:31 AM · I'm not looking for a "State" curriculum, just resources that can "compensate" for teachers who have different skill sets.

The students shouldn't miss other subjects: this "Ensemble" is a subject, placed on a line with Art or Dance, two "half-subjects" sharing a slot in a line Timetable, and no core subjects are missed. The trade off would be that parents would have to ensure their students played sport "out of hours", or chose not to do Nutrition and Fashion, for example.

There's more, but this is manageable, I assure you.

May 24, 2016 at 10:43 AM · I see. When I was in middle school in New Jersey (half a year) I actually failed in home economics..... I think I burned the omlette, or something :) hehe

May 24, 2016 at 10:56 AM · It actually works if you make the school day a little longer, by maybe an hour or so. Therein lies the debate about which subjects are supposed to be "more important" or "core subjects". Deciding whether to make music instruction part of the school day might make schools have to rethink what they want to force students to learn or whether they want students to have to learn the traditional arbitrary selection of things we have chosen or take more responsibility for their learning. It will be like pulling teeth to get politicians and parents to rethink the idea of compulsory subjects, because STEM is supposed to "make money" and kids are seen as either "innocent and ignorant" or " a raging sack of hormones" incapable of such decisions.

May 25, 2016 at 12:37 AM · Yeah, true. It depends on whether music is an available elective (everyone has to take electives) or an extracurricular club. This could very from district to district or school to school.

May 26, 2016 at 08:58 AM · This topic is clearly about to go "belly up in the sun."

And we all know what will continue rolling over in the surf, almost without stirring a flipper, belly slowly showing white to the sun, predators circling ...

This partly because those of us who enjoy our instruments choose easier, more personally urgent "questions".

May 26, 2016 at 09:01 AM ·

May 26, 2016 at 09:01 AM ·

May 26, 2016 at 09:01 AM · It's always a balancing act between the teachers fault and the students.

May 26, 2016 at 05:08 PM · Thank you all for your replies.

I was really worked up over this issue last week. I still am, but accept that some things aren't possible to change. Tenure is not doing us any favors.

On the bright side, the Superintendant is in 100% agreement with my concerns (I really laid it on him) and has been wanting to make changes for many years. Unfortunatly, the recession hit right at the time he was to implement change , so that project was put on hold. Now that the district is in economical recovery, he can put forward plans for the music department in another year.

His vision was to install a much needed director to over see the music department and to incorporate a choir as the school's music program (as there is nothing after elementary). While these are good ideas, and good changes for the kids at the school, I'm just sad that the instrumental part will be put aside for many years.

I live in a rural small town USA. The school is small (1000 total k-12) so you have to pick and choose extracurricular activities due to population density. There isn't alot of funding either. My community is not wealthy so resources are limited. There is also small town politics and local egos to contend with. Everyone wants a piece ofthe pie, so to speak.

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