Oberlin Professor of Music Education Peggy Bennett teaches a preschool program called Music Play, just one of the classes offered by the Conservatory's Community Music School.
Photo by John Seyfried

Carol Erion ’65, supervisor since 2000 of arts education in the Arlington, Virginia, public schools, has the good fortune to work in a school district that values the arts. Named one of the “100 Best Communities for Music Education in America” in a 2005 survey conducted by a consortium of music advocacy organizations, this affluent Washington, DC, suburb with 19,000 students provides 60 minutes per week of general music instruction for all elementary school students. In third grade, all children study recorder; in fourth grade, violin; and in fifth grade, they may choose any instrument. In the high school, music electives are offered. The district is well staffed and owns a large collection of musical instruments. Three of the five school board members play instruments.

“While I don’t believe support will go away, it would be unwise not to be continuously advocating for the arts,” Erion says. “We have community committees for every subject taught in the schools, and since the school board is elected, they listen to the citizens.” Erion speaks of the strong belief in the community that the arts are intrinsically important, a belief reflected in a recent national Harris poll in which 93 percent of respondents agreed that the arts are vital to providing a well-rounded education for children. Pressure over testing has not changed the community’s attitude. Erion reports that “our superintendent, in every venue where he speaks, says, ‘in Arlington, we have not reduced what we teach to what is tested.’”

Such an unusual level of local control over education makes Arlington atypical. MENC estimates that although 90 percent of all K-12 public school students in the U.S. (a total of 54.3 million in 2003) have some music in their schools, only 40 to 50 percent actually receive music education that is solid in content, sequential, and completely standards based. Ten percent of American students receive music instruction “less than once a week,” which could mean, says Mike Blakesley, deputy executive director of MENC, “that they get such instruction once or twice a year, as we know to be the case in some rural districts.”

This state of affairs leads Carolyn Foulkes, a 1975 graduate in music education and trumpet performance, to describe the Baltimore School for the Arts where she teaches trumpet, brass ensemble, music history, theory, and keyboard class as “an oasis in a desert.” Baltimore City, an urban district with all the usual problems, is not rich in arts programs. “The district will get some money and hire new music teachers, and in two years they are all gone, because there is no money for instruments—or the teachers won’t let the kids attend music classes because they are worried about preparing them for reading tests,” Foulkes says. “Baltimore has all the problems of a huge, inefficient bureaucratic system. One hand doesn’t know what other is doing.”

Although it is a public school, the 300-student School for the Arts, founded in 1982 as an admission-by-audition magnet high school with programs in music, theater, dance, and visual arts, has managed to insulate itself from the city school system through success (90 percent of its students go to college) and outside fundraising. The school has its own foundation with a $4.5 million endowment and is now engaged in a campaign to expand its building. The large music department accepts a wide variety of students, including “kids who have been studying the violin since they were 3, and kids who are still in Suzuki Book 2,” Foulkes says. “There’s great variety in ability, socioeconomic status, and race. It’s a challenge to teach all of them, yet wonderful to see them interact so positively.” Academic underachievers get a lot of special help. “I love students at this age,” Foulkes adds. “I love seeing them grow up and get excited about music. Some, voice majors, for instance, arrive with no experience of classical music; my job in the music history and literature class is to expose them to it. That’s my greatest joy.”

Urban school districts were among the hardest hit in the first major round of arts cuts in the 1970s. New York City, for example, lost most of its arts teachers, sacrificing sequential arts education for two decades. Recently, with infusions of outside funding, the arts have made their way piecemeal back into New York’s public schools. Help has also come from the city’s arts institutions, which work in collaboration with arts specialists and classroom teachers. The New York Philharmonic, for instance, fields an intensive program that sends teaching artists into schools on a regular basis, and the Metropolitan Opera’s Creating Original Opera program integrates core curriculum areas with arts learning.

Lee Koonce, a 1982 Oberlin graduate in piano and Spanish literature, is now the executive director of one of the most visible of these programs: Opus 118 Harlem School of Music. Founded in 1991 by Roberta Guaspari, who taught violin in several inner city elementary schools, Opus 118 enlisted major figures in the music world, including Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma, to save the program from the budgetary ax through benefit concerts. Immortalized in two films, the documentary Small Wonders and Music of the Heart with Meryl Streep, Opus 118 has expanded beyond its in-school focus, creating a community music school that reaches children and adults outside school hours.

This year, Opus 118 has 350 string students in five elementary schools and 300 students in the after-school program. Music proves critical for many of these children and provides a haven in East Harlem, which, Koonce points out, “is a pretty rough-and-tumble place.” Koonce says that many of the students continue to play even after they leave Opus 118 schools; indeed, a number of them have gone on to teach music in the New York City public schools.

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