A sour note at back-to-school night

October 07, 2005|By ANN MEIER BAKER

WASHINGTON -- Like most parents of school-age children, I recently attended back-to-school night, when teachers are peppered with parents' questions on school behavior expectations, specific goals for academic achievement and everything in between.

Delighted with my daughter's school and the quality of her teachers, I came away with a good sense of their plans to ensure that she will come out with a solid understanding of integers, will never split an infinitive and will surely be enriched by the 20-plus pounds of books and homework in the backpack my 11-year-old will be required to lug home from school each day for the next nine months.

After I got home, though, something struck me because I run an organization of choral groups. Not one parent asked about the school's music program.

In fact, the slow but steady trimming of school music programs in this region is rarely a topic at back-to-school nights. Schools that previously engaged music specialists with advanced degrees are now hiring teachers with limited expertise in music and/or teaching. Perhaps the most revealing statistics concern class time for music, which has dwindled to where nothing meaningful can really happen. Frequently, music programs are being cut altogether.

Here's the real head-scratcher: Study after reputable study shows that the public believes music education is a good thing for young people. And parents are confident that music - in addition to its beauty and its unique capacity to integrate intellect, emotions and physical skills in creating meaning in our lives - actually makes their kids smarter. Existing and emerging neurological research studies reinforce this belief. Even the federal No Child Left Behind law provides increased recognition for the arts as part of the core curriculum.

So why don't school leaders respond by ensuring that music is a rigorous part of the school curriculum and a meaningful part of a student's school experience? And - perhaps more important - why don't parents insist on it?

Inexplicably, the first music program to hit a school board's cutting room floor is often the chorus. Even though choral music programs can be the most flexible to deliver, are easily inclusive of all students and can provide the cornerstone for developing a comprehensive set of important life skills for young people, these programs are frequently the first to go and the last to be restored.

To be a choral singer takes patience, commitment, attention to detail, cooperation with others and acceptance of leadership in order to reach a desired common goal. It requires creativity and expressive nuance, yet one must subordinate one's ego in order to make the enterprise succeed. It involves a serious investment of time and energy, discipline and a high level of communication skills.

According to a national study by Chorus America, my association which represents hundreds of North American choruses, 70 percent of adults who sing in choruses today had their first experience singing in a school chorus.

Perhaps back-to-school night has a way of bringing on amnesia among parents who really meant for their children to have a first-rate music experience. After all, understanding integers and infinitives is important, but participating in a chorus - an activity that involves kids artistically, enhances their skills, builds community and results in a product of great beauty - is life-changing. It's time to insist.

Ann Meier Baker is president and CEO of Chorus America.

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