Friday, August 12, 2022

Sounding the alarm on the state of music education

By Dave Babbitt – Special to the Sydenham Current

This week I’m sounding the alarm, but I’m not an alarmist.

According to the Oxford dictionary, an alarmist is “someone who is considered to be exaggerating a danger and so causing needless worry or panic.”

I want to focus on the state of music education (both private and public) in our region, that I believe is in peril.

There can’t be too many people in the Wallaceburg area who aren’t aware of the fact that the instrumental music program at WDSS was sacked when I retired in 2015, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Has anyone tried to find a piano teacher in Wallaceburg for their child recently?

Wallaceburg used to have many great piano teachers but there are precious few remaining.

I’m frequently asked to recommend a piano instructor, but the only ones I know of currently in Wallaceburg are Kim Vancoillie and Meighan Lung, who are both very busy.

Do either have any more room for students?

You’d have to contact them.

If I’ve missed a piano teacher in Wallaceburg, please let me know so I can both correct my column as well as expand my listing for anyone looking for an instructor.

It used to be that seemingly every other kid I knew growing up took piano lessons.

I do not look down my nose at ANY instrument, but I’ve commented previously that I believe that the keyboard is the probably the best place to start a musical education for two key reasons.

Firstly, the keyboard is a great visual tool.

One can see the relationships between notes and how chords are built. (i.e., harmony)

Secondly, in learning to play the keyboard, one learns to read and understand music notation, providing transferrable skills to playing practically every other instrument.

A few years ago, the well-known Jack Kennedy Music Centre in Sarnia closed its doors.

Kennedys was one of the largest retailers of pianos and electronic keyboards in Southwestern Ontario at one point, but in asking Doug Kennedy why he was closing his doors, he simply said that “people aren’t taking piano lessons anymore”.

And that was in a much larger centre!

Now let’s look at the instrument we all carry around with us and used to exercise frequently in our elementary music classes, the human voice.

When was the last time you heard a school choir?

I’ve got to be somewhat careful here in my criticism because there are a few excellent teachers (ex. Meighan Lung) that still have their students sing regularly, but untrained, unskilled teachers are commonly required to teach their own music classes.

That is not a criticism of the teachers and let me be clear, there are some teachers who do have a music background and do an admirable job with their students, but quality music education is not system-wide, fair, or balanced.

Classroom teachers are told what they are going to teach, usually don’t have a choice, and it’s impossible to fake teaching music with no knowledge or experience in the area.

I know of cases in recent years where “music” teachers have told me “I don’t sing, so the kids don’t sing”.

Incredibly sad.

Last Christmas I posted a copy of the 1969 Public School Christmas extravaganza that was recorded at D.A. Gordon Public School on my YouTube channel and the part singing was fantastic! I long for those days.

School Boards should be required to hire itinerant (specialists) music teachers to provide students with qualified, skilled, experienced instruction.

To be fair, Jennifer Trinca of the SCCDSB is an itinerant music teacher who runs the amazing “Strings Are the Thing” string program here in Wallaceburg, but ALL students deserve an equal opportunity to experience quality music instruction.

Where are the Lucille Phairs, Bob Jacks’ and Barry Betts’ in our Public school system today?

Even the superb instrumental music program that was a staple of W.T. Laing for so many decades, has been dead for several years now.

It doesn’t matter whether the instruction is in singing, recorders, percussion instruments, ukulele, Boomwhackers, bells, keyboards, string or wind instruments, theory, composition, or the use of modern-day notation software, students deserve the best instruction available.

Music is part of the curriculum at every elementary grade level, but once students reach high school, they are only required to take one Arts credit over their four-year stay, making music at the elementary level even more important.

Until School Boards get serious about providing qualified itinerant music teachers things aren’t likely to change.

They will continue to provide lip-service to the curriculum requirements.

Parents and school Parent Councils need to advocate for high-quality music instruction for their children.

For those unaware, the Education Act (1990) Chapter E2, Part 11, Statute 21.2(e) of the Education Act Revised Statutes of Ontario states that “School attendance may be excused when the child is absent from school for the purpose of receiving instruction in music and the period of absence does not exceed one-half day in any week.”

If you care about your child’s music education, it may be worth pursuing this avenue.

I’m not going to delve into the politics of education and how things work, but I will tell you unequivocally that courses offered in schools are always tied to funding in some way whether it be capital investment in the materials needed to teach each course, or the staffing within a school.

Music education can be costly, but the greater cost is in not providing it.

When the WDSS music program was shuttered, our Wallaceburg Concert Band used the no-longer-needed instruments for 3 years to start a learn-to-play program hoping that one day, the school would see the error in its ways and eventually re-start the program.

That has not happened.

After three years, the school requested the instruments be returned and they now sit unused, locked-up in an empty classroom with slides freezing, pads drying out, and will likely one day end up in the Board auction where they will fetch pennies on the dollar.

The instruments could be given to us to use for our learn-to-play program or to re-start a music program at WDSS.

I’ve sounded the alarm but I’m not an alarmist because I’m not exaggerating the state of music education.

Let’s get back to providing kids as well as the rest of our community with the same music opportunities afforded many other places.

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