The Cocktail Party Contrarian: Kill the Music (Class)

Once words like ‘state’ and ‘government’ entered into the conversation, I knew why our music program was so lifeless and devoid of joy.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Not every kid is moved by Mozart. Via Wikimedia Commons

Parents have to put up with a lot, but living with the tortured sounds of their seventh-graders practicing the recorder for music class is pure pain. Who decided that music class meant teaching our children to make the opposite of music on an “instrument” no one will ever play past the age of 12? 

When my kids went through it, I honestly thought that school administrators had plotted this punishment as payback for all the times moms and dads had called them after school hours to complain about the lack of protein offerings on the lunch menu or too many pages of math homework. It was sweet revenge, I was convinced, thinking of those same parents pounding the aspirin as their kids blew inhuman sounds across the kitchen table.

A girlfriend who serves on the board of our school set me straight. She laughed when I asked her why she was letting this happen. She twitched a bit recalling her own run-in with her daughter and the recorder, but assured me that the school was simply abiding by Department of Education rules about hours of “arts” education.

I checked. In fact, the New York City education department website clearly states that seventh- and eighth-graders must receive one full unit (108 hours) of arts education comprising at least two disciplines over the course of middle school. Music class counts as one discipline, so that is 54 hours of music instruction over the two-year middle school experience. Broken down over the life of seventh and eighth grades, that is actually not much music education at all, but it sure feels like an eternity when your child is playing “Happy Birthday” on the recorder. 

I realized music class wasn’t a plot to irritate parents, but a ploy to check a bureaucratic box on the governmental list of must-haves. Once words like “state” and “government” entered into the conversation, I knew why our music program was so lifeless and devoid of joy.

One of the most often cited rationales for mandated music education in schools is the data that indicate it correlates with great student outcomes like brain plasticity and higher SAT scores. That sounds reasonable. However, the same benefits are realized via other approaches that schools have happily abandoned, such as phonics and gifted-and-talented programs. 

The argument that music education should be mandatory because it contributes to academic achievement would be better received if the government and our schools were already doing everything possible to support academic achievement — but they aren’t. 

There is also the assertion that the arts are simply a meaningful and enriching part of anyone’s education, and life. If this is true, then why aren’t we spending more on it and increasing instruction time? An hour a week with a $3 instrument made in China doesn’t sound like a great life-enrichment strategy. 

If the solution to that problem is to hire better, more passionate music teachers, please explain how schools will recruit them when music instruction is so clearly a third-rate priority designed to satisfy a government requirement. The best of the best might not be drawn to that job description. 

Also, what of the kids who aren’t moved by Mozart? Not everyone is. Why are they being mandated to participate? Perhaps they are better served by an accelerated science program or an additional writing skills workshop. Not every inner-city youth is just one violin away from a scholarship to a renowned conservatory. Some want to be aerospace engineers or welders. Can’t they enjoy music without being graded on it? 

Movies like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” convinced an entire generation that we should be mandating music in school. If we just made it a requirement, masterful teenage orchestras would perform to thunderous applause in packed auditoriums. Underserved kids would realize untapped potential and literal and figurative harmony would ensue.

We actually might be able to realize some of these dreams, but not via government mandate. I think we all understand by now that the state is uniquely bad at excellence and uniquely good and turning well-intentioned ideas into bad policy. 

Arts programs at schools should be high-quality, well-funded electives. The students for whom it is meaningful would get something actually worth having, and everyone else would get a pass, which is worth something as well. Music teachers would get the respect they deserve, and parents would never have to hear the recorder again. Everybody wins. We could redirect all the money we spend on DEI officers and anti-racism curricula, which hurt our kids, toward top-quality, voluntary arts and music programs that help them. 

If we really meant it when we said arts education is important, we would treat it that way. Talking about the enriching value of music education and demonstrating it are two different things. 

Government is the last place we should be looking for direction, and mandates, as we have learned all too well, can do more harm than good.


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