By Edward R. Howe
Full self-disclosure — I’m a “bandie!”
In junior high school, band provided me with a safe haven during the challenging years of adolescence. Band was essential to my emerging identity and to building my self-confidence.
But wait, didn’t I become a physics teacher, and then a teacher educator in a teaching program focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)? Double yes.
Music helped me gain the confidence and grit to pursue my dreams and to reach my full potential. I came to realize that science and music are complementary, not contradictory.
Verge of extinction
But band is on the verge of extinction in many schools. Students, parents and administrators increasingly see band as a “frill.” Music education is being drastically cut and is not valued by many as it once was.
The trend can be traced to the “back to basics” movement fuelled by neoliberalism, and in particular the seminal 1983 U.S. report A Nation at Risk.
In Canada, we don’t have to look far to see the impact of misguided government policies framed by the rhetoric of “back to basics” movements in education. In many regions, the education pendulum has swung decidedly back to “traditional” ways of learning that in effect has narrowed the curriculum.
Amid a neoliberal/neoconservative climate of “practical” and “evidence-based” schooling, even The Royal Conservatory of Music highlights neuroscientific research demonstrating the many benefits of music.
But efforts to encourage music lessons may largely stand to benefit students from wealthier families whose parents can pay for extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, the recent changes to our British Columbia curriculum might not happen in time to save our music programs in schools.
‘There is nobody judging me’
That’s a shame. In Canada, we pride ourselves on providing excellent public education for all, regardless of socioeconomic status. A recent comprehensive meta-study clearly shows that fine arts education positively influences child development. If music is a “frill,” and not accessible to all income brackets, children from poorer families will not have the opportunity to benefit from what may be music’s boost to literacy, fine motor skills and spatial reasoning in the early years.
For youth, music contributes to development of an individual’s emerging self-identity, and can shape mental health and our future. This could be one reason the Coalition for Music Education says that as much as we learn to make music, music makes us.
Most importantly, as demonstrated in my research, music education has made a huge impact on the lives of many individuals. In an age of scrutiny, music offers a host of other benefits and a safe space for children.
A 10-year-old participant in our study said:
“[Going to music camp] is better than school. At school I am quiet and reserved because I get bullied for being different. When I am here, I can express myself easily because there is nobody judging me. We are all the same and share a love for music which makes it easy to interact with others.”
Another participant (aged 13) said:
“[Going to music camp] helped me to keep an open mind to trying new things and helped to build my confidence, especially as I navigated a new role for High School Musical where I was unsure my role…I think it will help me be a better student next year.”
Yet what I’ve seen in my own son’s school mirrors larger trends: A band program completely relegated to outside the regular timetable. Students are opting out of band because it is not offered during regular school hours and it is seen as a “frill.”
The rationale is that the fine arts are not as important as academic subjects such as English, math and the sciences. But without the social, psychological, cultural and self-regulatory benefits of music or other arts, what kind of students are we raising, and how to we expect them to thrive in the world?
Teaching to the test
British Columbia has only recently shown signs of holistic thinking with the introduction of a new K-12 curriculum. The focus is on core competencies like thinking and communication rather than an exhaustive list of learning outcomes.
While some Canadian provinces are mandating “teaching to the test,” B.C. is doing away with exams measuring a limited amount of knowledge and moving towards a more balanced approach to learning. These educational reforms are based on current educational research and best practices.
What can be done to support and encourage music education for all? I hope the discussion is not marginalized by STEM, but can develop alongside our concerns for STEM education. Because just like gaining digital skills, music matters.
I wish to thank my Research Assistant, Allysha Sorba, for her work on my music research project.
Edward R. Howe is an Associate Professor at the Thompson Rivers University.
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