President’s Report

Music Education and Us

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

Mary Landolfi

I returned from pension fund meetings in California this week to a stack of mail. One piece was of particular interest and it could be a catalyst for a new alliance in an area that has concerned our members for some time — music education. 

Since the 1970’s, draconian cuts have been made to arts programs in schools. Although this phenomenon is not limited to the New York City schools, it has been exacerbated here by the underfunding that city schools have suffered under the state budget system. Many members have come to believe that one of the factors influencing the changes in musical tastes that reduce demand for acoustic music is the lack of music education in the schools. 

A careful reading of an article published in the New York Times on March 7 reveals the severity of the problem. In that article, Mayor Bloomberg was quoted as saying that 98 percent of elementary schools have some instruction in the arts. That percentage sounds encouraging and might lead the casual reader to conclude that our concerns are overblown, but the high percentage cited by the mayor is misleading.

First, it is only instruction in “either dance, music, theatre or visual art”; there is no percentage provided for instruction in all four or even more than one. The percentage is also for “some instruction” — how much? Rather than regular classroom instruction, it could be an intermittent or short-term project. The anecdotal information available from members that work in education indicates that the latter is often the case.

Later in the article, a more ominous statistic is stated. A study by the Center for Arts Education concluded that “fewer than 30 percent of middle schools met the requirement of providing two half-unit art classes between the seventh and eighth grade.” This more nearly corresponds to the classroom reality that is reported to us on a regular basis; the consequent effect is the graying of the audience for symphonic music and an acceptance of synthesized and recorded substitutions for live music in many of the other venues in which Local 802 members work. 

As a result of this phenomenon, our members more and more frequently express the desire for the union to develop activities that will turn around the trend and make access to musical training — and exposure to visual and performance art, as well — a more substantive part of the public education curriculum with the hope that early exposure will lead to greater adult interest in live music performance.

It was against this backdrop that I read a flyer from the Music Educators Association of New York City, which is the local chapter of the New York State School Music Association and the Music Educators National Conference.

Prominent in the flyer was an article on mobilizing for a special day of lobbying in Albany on March 10. A phone call to Michael Pitt, the chair of the association’s advocacy committee, revealed that the primary focus of this effort was to support legislation to reduce outsourcing of music instruction in grades K-6 and to support a fast-track program for certification.

Fast track certification, which already exists in New Jersey, would create expanded employment opportunities for our members and remove the perennial excuse offered to MENC that music education is outsourced because there are not enough certified instructors available.

The fact that this lobbying effort is being undertaken at a point when the city’s public schools are about to receive a windfall because of the reformulation of the state educational allocation creates an opportunity to bring back music to its former level of prominence in the schools; achieving that goal is something of which we should be a part.

The Executive Board quickly agreed to commit financial resources to send people to Albany, even though we understand that it is hard to participate in an all-day excursion on such short notice. Staff representatives began calling a number of musicians who have previously expressed interest. By the time you read this, the lobby day will already have taken place, but that should just be the beginning of building a relationship with the professional education community. 

Clearly we need to be serious about rebuilding music education locally, regionally and nationally. Mr. Pitt vigorously expressed to me that numbers count when the MENC does lobbying, whether in City Council or in Albany.

If you are interesting in helping, please contact my office to participate in future activities. We need a coalition that can persuade City Council and Albany to take this issue seriously. We must not allow ourselves to be content to talk about the problem while appreciation for the art of music and the exposure necessary to nurture it is denied to our children.