Surviving a Tough Economy

Because of the economic crisis that our nation currently faces, many music teachers are anticipating unwanted changes in their job descriptions next year due to budget cuts at the school and district levels. In times like this, instrumental music programs are often the first to be impacted. What can we do in the face of such grim news? How can we survive? And more importantly, how can we ensure that our students continue to receive a high-quality music education?

Students and Families
When families face economic hardship, it becomes harder for them to afford supplemental experiences such as private lessons, and they have more difficulty providing and maintaining good quality instruments for their students to play. Teachers should be more aware of these circumstances, and it may be in order to scale back on our activities to reduce the fees that are assessed to families.

MENC member Karen Helseth, WMEA Orchestra Curriculum Officer and Orchestra Director at Edmonds Woodway High School in Edmonds, WA, has been able to do just this: “I recently took my students on a day trip to an orchestra festival, which we have always done as an overnight trip in the past. Although it made for a long day, students were able to reap all of the educational benefits of the festival, at a fraction of the cost of a trip involving a hotel stay.”

Cutting the Base
What some administrators fail to see is that the success of the entire secondary music program is dependent on this early training. The elementary program is the foundation of band and orchestra in the schools. In the words of Helseth’s district’s music coordinator, Scott Banes, to eliminate it is “the same as chopping a tree off at the trunk with the expectation that it will still bear fruit.” Instrumental music simply will not thrive without a solid foundation.

Limiting Students’ Choices
Students and parents are often conditioned to believe that colleges evaluate candidates for admission based solely on their academic achievements. We must emphasize the fact that colleges value experiences in music as well, and that students who are educated in the arts have a competitive advantage in the admission process over those who focus strictly on academics.

Being Proactive

  • Make sure that a representative of your music program is present at school board meetings, superintendent round-table discussions, and community forums where budget issues are discussed.
  • Contact legislators and community leaders to make sure they understand how important music education is to your community. Download and print MENC’s The Power of Music Advocacy brochuresto help you.
  • Work together with other music teachers to make sure that your voices are heard.
  • Above all, stay positive and convey a message of hope, especially in the classroom.

Are you getting ready to start an instrumental program next year? Read Building a High School Instrumental Program from Scratch 5-part series.

This article has been adapted from an article of the same name by Karen Helseth, which was originally published in Voice of Washington Music Educators, May 2009, Vol. LIV, No. 4.

— Nicole Springer, June 10, 2009. © National Association for Music Education.