Music education hits the right notes

Nonprofit group ranks schools' programs among nation's top 100


When the county school system was hit with a $5 million budget cut in 1999, the school board compiled a list of "nonessential" programs that could be considered for elimination.

The elementary school music program was on the list, and although it was not considered to be in serious jeopardy of being cut, concerned parents filled the auditorium where the school board met to discuss the budget.

Teachers, parents and residents packed the hearing, recalled Robert Powers, a band instructor at Emmorton Elementary School who attended the meeting. Powers said the board quickly assured the crowd that the program was not likely to be cut.

"That tremendous show of parental support is just one example of how much music education means to Harford County families," said Powers, who has taught band in the county for 27 years. "It also helped to strengthen the support from the [school] administration, which is imperative to a strong program."

That kind of backing was one of several criteria considered in a survey that led to Harford's being named recently as one of the country's top 100 communities for music education by a national education association.

"I think being selected for this recognition shows that districts with a successful music program have a lot of support, and people in other communities and educators see that and it makes the program stand out," said Jim Boord, supervisor of music for the public schools.

The survey was conducted from January through March by the American Music Conference, a nonprofit organization based in Carlsbad, Calif., that promotes music education.

The lengthy questionnaire drew responses from thousands of public schools, teachers, school districts and administrators nationwide.

The 100 communities that were honored were selected based on answers to questions about topics that included funding, enrollment, student-teacher ratios, participation in music classes, instruction time and facilities.

Also on the list were Baltimore County - which was on it in 2004 - and Worcester County.

The recognition can have an impact, said Ann Marie Nieves, a spokeswoman for the American Music Conference.

"We have heard firsthand that when it comes down to budget meetings, the budgets of the top 100 increase or stay the same," said Nieves, adding that she frequently receives letters from music educators across the nation describing the results of receiving national recognition.

Making the list encourages more parents to get involved in music education and more students to get involved in playing music, Nieves said.

Duke Thompson, director of the Maryland Conservatory of Music in Bel Air, said he has seen that effect.

In 2002, Thompson started a test program in Harford that he wanted to be a smaller version of Baltimore's Peabody Institute. He said he raised $400,000 to start the program and has raised $200,000 since then, all of which came from Harford.

"I started with 30 students in 2002, and now we have 275," he said of the conservatory, a nonprofit organization that offers private lessons, classes, ensembles and concerts for children and adults. "Parents really support music education in this county."

Some students who have taken part in school music programs for years point to the early start encouraged by their parents and the nurturing by music teachers in the school system.

Patrick Carter, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, remembers his parents taking him to performances by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when he was a child. His interest in music was later developed at school.

"I have played the oboe for nine years now, and I have always had a teacher who shares my passionate love of music," the Bel Air resident said.

Leigh Ontiveros, a classmate of Carter's, also had high praise for her teachers, particularly Felisha Martin, the band director at Wright.

"She picks things that are challenging for us to play but that we are capable of doing," said Ontiveros, who plays the flute and piccolo.

Martin credits the success of the music programs to strong support by parents.

"Parents run all of our fundraisers, and whenever I have to call on someone for something, they help out," she said.

Areas of distinction in Harford noted by the American Music Conference AMC survey include degree of participation by students, student-teacher ratio, money budgeted for programs and a high percentage of schools offering music.

More than half of the district's 27,569 students in grades four through 12 are enrolled in school-based performing groups, Boord said.

There are 136 music educators in the district for a student-teacher ratio 294-to-1, which is considered ideal, Boord said.

Every school in the district offers band, orchestra and chorus, with the exception of Havre de Grace High School, which lacked orchestra but is adding it next year, he said.

Community support for music programs is most visible at performances, said Mary Jo Newman, a vocal music teacher at Jarrettsville Elementary.

"When we hold our winter and spring shows at the school, it's not unusual for 500 people to show up," she said.

Powers said parents often want to get their children involved in music education because research has shown that it improves their performance in other academic areas.

"Parents read the research, and they pay attention," Powers said.

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