From the President (Sept. 13, 2009)

Dear Colleagues,

The first week of school has passed, and I am sure that many of us are swamped with the initial organizational work that always accompanies these first few weeks of the school year. Community Choirs are having their first rehearsals, and other choirs are meeting and starting their concert seasons. It is indeed a very exciting time for all of us as we look forward to rehearsals and plan our repertoire for the year.

As I start to work with my choirs at school, I am confronted with many of the same problems that challenge all of us each year. However, the one that always concerns me the most is the issue of “music literacy.” By that I mean the ability of my students to read and interpret written musical notation. I have struggled with this my entire career, and to date I have not found a solution that I find acceptable to me as a music educator. I know this is a concern for all of us, and each of us have found our own individual solutions within the framework of the schools that we work in. But if we all were to look at the greater problem of teaching our students how to “read,” I think we would all agree that we are not doing the job we wished we were.

I find that many of the students that come into my Freshman Chorus are ill equipt to handle the challenges of the choral literature that I hope to do. I wish I could say that it is simply a matter of reading skills, but many times it is a more serious matter. Many students do not even know where to look on the music for their part! The most basic fundamental theory skills are just not present; note values, dynamic markings, names of the lines and spaces of the staff, rests, etc. The question is…..how do I train these students to read the printed language of music?

The answer is that I know HOW, but the school schedule does not allow me to do so. There is no mystery to any musician when it comes to music reading. It seems to me that a basic, coordinated and sequential course in solfeggio, combined with rhythmic studies and basic music theory would net us students that would be musically literate; yet the school gives me no contact time with students other than what I have in rehearsal, and seems to have no interest in doing so. I do try to do some training during chorus rehearsals, but even at its best it is not consistent enough to be of much value. It is a dilemma that is not unusual for many of us, and yet I do not see that we have made much progress in this arena.

I have been hearing from some of my colleagues these past few weeks, and another situation seems to be surfacing that also has me concerned for our programs. As you know, scheduling is becoming more of a problem for all of us; seniors are not in our programs that have been in previous years. AP and Honors courses are taking students from our programs as well, and increased graduation requirements are making it more difficult for students to stay in our performing groups through their four years in high school. Festival participation is becoming more problematic for students due to time constraints and a reluctance to miss too much class time during the year. Students are far too busy with far too many other activities to consider the kind of commitment that it takes to be a member of a select performing ensemble.

All legitimate concerns for sure, but how are we as educators coping with these situations? From what I can see, many of us are scheduling additional rehearsal times outside of the regular school day; before school and after school. Some us us let students take an “independent study” and we meet with them during a study hall, or during a lunch period? What we are trying to do is create situations that make our programs work as we search for ways to adapt to changing times. But what we end up doing is enabling the school to continue present practices instead of effectively working with us to establish a strong program that is educationally sound. I am concerned that we are looking at difficult time ahead, and I am not sure what the solutions are going to look like.

And so my article this week is not gloom and doom, but instead a launching point for discussion. I am very curious about what all of us in the public schools are experiencing in this arena. What problems are you experiencing? What solutions have you come up with that seem to work? A healthy discussion via this forum would be beneficial for all of us, and it might help me better understand our problems and inform me of ways that ACDA might be of service.

So if you are inclined, speak up and let us hear from you.

Have a great week!

Frank Whitcomb

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