Why does Instrumental Music have more instructional time?

This is perhaps the most common and central question to the current elementary scheduling dialog. PE, Art, Library, Social Studies, Science, Math, Reading, Writing. These are all extremely important to all of us. We do not view music as being more important than any one of these. When you look simply at the number of hours allocated, it most definitely raises a question that must be addressed: Why is instrumental music allotted more instructional time than the other special subjects, PE, library, and art?

Answer: There are numerous factors to consider beyond a simplistic comparison of number of hours.

  • Look at more than just the numbers.
  • Imbalance of Opportunity (There is no Little League for band!)
  • Complexity and Divergence of Skills
  • Learn from history: We must competitively attract and retain students and quality teachers.
  • Compete by Teaching to Standards
  • Music is the Most Multi-Disciplinary Subject

Look at more than just the numbers.

In order to seek a balanced and logical solution, you cannot just look at a comparison of hours, identify the item that has more, then slice it back to match the others. You first must understand why the allocation was that way in the first place. You must understand the difference in instructional complexity, student-teacher ratios, and educational standards. And, you must understand the value added by each item and what would lost by cutting blindly.

Dumb Analogy: Here's an absurd analogy to show how illogical it is to use a simplistic numbers (i.e. time, dollars, etc.) as a justification to equalize via blind cuts. K-12 is by far the largest line item in the state budget. That budget is currently not just in crisis, it is in chaos on the brink of catastrophe. There are those who say: "Hey, look at how many more dollars K-12 is getting than public safety, social services, roads, etc. Let's just cut K-12 back until its equal with those!!!" That would be a ludicrous, mindless, and stupidly short sighted approach. It can easily be argued that of all the line items in the state budget, the one with BY FAR the greatest return on investment is K-12 education. Does that mean that other state endeavors such as public safety and economic development don't matter? Of course they matter. But, the best long term investment we can make in public safety, economic development, and a long list of other state endeavors is a renewed commitment to K-12 education. Why does K-12 have more dollars? Because that is what it takes to do an effective job and the results we get from K-12 matter! Just because K-12 has more hours than DPS, should we just blindly cut it down to par with no consideration for the consequences? No!

The relative cost-benefit of music to other subjects is certainly different than comparing K-12 with the rest of the state budget. But, the lesson in logical and thorough decision making is the same. Don't just compare numbers and cut to par! Music education is complex at a level not widely understood and brings educational benefits at a level not widely understood. Dig into those two questions then decide what cuts are appropriate. 

Imbalance of Opportunity (There is no Little League for band!)

As we have said, we do not view music as being more important than PE, art, library, or any of the subjects taught by the classroom teachers. However, there is an imbalance of access outside of the school curriculum that does need to be taken into consideration. When you look at the complete life experience of students, they do not enjoy the same level of access to active group music participation that they do with the other subject areas.

Physical Education

Students absolutely need extensive physical education and activity. They should receive this as part of the standardized elementary curriculum. However, in our community there are numerous additional opportunities for students to actively participate in athletics and physical activity. In Gilbert there are numerous basketball, soccer, football, and other sports leagues consuming weekends and hours after school. Many kids take gymnastics or dance for 10-20 hours a week after school. Most neighborhoods have sport courts where kids regularly play all kinds of sports. During recess, elementary students are able to play hard and receive much needed exercise. Scout troops go on regular hikes and bike trips. Should any of these be considered a substitute for structured education by professional PE teachers? Absolutely not! But, does music enjoy the same alternate participation opportunities in Gilbert? No! There is no Little League for band! There is not Pop Warner for orchestra! Gilbert's zoning code does not require home builders to install music rehearsal halls in our neighborhoods the way it does require sport courts, open space, trails, and parks. The Town of Gilbert has spent millions of dollars building and/or subsidizing ball fields and athletic services in its dozens of parks. There is no comparable infrastructure, facility, or support for music in our community outside of the public school experience. It would be great if the community offered a comparable level of opportunity, but it does not.

Yes, students can attend private music lessons, but that does not replace one of the most critical and beneficial aspects of music education: Group Interaction. And, because private lessons are by definition one-on-one, they are considerably more cost prohibitive than league sports thus widening the gap of accessibility. There are some non-school organizations such as East Valley Youth Symphony. But, access to those is limited because there are so few and they tend to for students past the beginning level. The educational, social, and developmental benefits of music education and group music participation are vast and exhaustively documented. However, unlike sports and physical activity, the only opportunity for most students to enjoy those GROUP benefits are within the elementary school curriculum. Is music more important than PE? No! But given the overall imbalance of access to opportunity, does it make sense to allot more time to group music instruction in elementary school? With all respect and appreciation for PE teachers and the critical value they provide, we suggest that these bigger pictures factors should be considered.

Art and Library

Is art and library critical to the holistic educational experience? Absolutely! Are they less important than music? Of course not! The primary source of inspiration for millennia of composers has been great art and literature. All are so tightly intertwined that perhaps any one could not exist in a viable state without the others. Should art and library instruction suffer to the advancement of music? Absolutely not!

But, there are some distinctions. All three rely on a combination of group instruction and individual practice or execution. The art teacher must have time to teach and students must have time to learn by seeing what his or her peers are creating. Then, the student ought to go home and practice the act of creation alone in order to reinforce the skills as well as developmental benefits. The librarian must have time with students to inspire a sense of awe at how much knowledge is contained in a library as well as the skills to sift through and find what is of most interest to that individual student. Then, the student must take time on his own exploring the library in order to become an independent seeker of knowledge.

The formula for music has a similar pattern as art and library, but, there are some key differences as well. First, while art and library rely on the group experience, music does so at a much larger degree. Band and orchestra are by definition group activities. Without the group element, there is no band and orchestra. Art and and library can be experienced outside of the group. Band and orchestra cannot. Students can visit the library alone or work on art projects outside of instructional time. Students cannot participate in a music group alone or outside of instructional time! The allotted band and strings time are the ONLY time students have to participate with a music group.

What about opportunities outside of school? Just like sports leagues are not a replacement for PE class, public libraries are not a replacement for library instruction. But, Gilbert has one of the finest public libraries in the state subsidized by the local community and is heavily used by students across the district. This is just an additional example of how the community outside the schools provides opportunities for the other special areas that it does not provide for music.

So, is this imbalance of access to opportunity in our community right? Is it really the school district's responsibility to rectify this imbalance? Of course it is not the districts' burden alone. But, does mitigating the imbalance, even if only in small ways, contribute to an overall better educational experience and academic performance for Gilbert students? Yes! For that reason, should this imbalance be taken into consideration as justification for music getting a larger allotment of instructional time? Yes!

Complexity and Divergence of Skills

Another key distinction is complexity and divergence of skill instruction. PE, library, and art teachers are generally teaching one skill at a time to the entire class. Band and strings teachers are teaching divergent skill to multiple sub-groups simultaneously. Teaching flute is quite different than teaching a tuba. Try teaching both at the same time! Each section is playing a different part with different notes and different rhythms. Half the group is reading bass clef, the other half is reading treble clef. Some need to figure out how to keep their reed the correct moisture while others are figuring out how buzzing different produces different notes. Strings teachers have three clefs, bow technique, multiple parts, and let's talk about pitch! If a saxophone player puts his fingers in the right place, he'll generally land in the right ballpark of pitch (give or take). But a violin player has no keys, just an unfretted finger board. The strings teacher has to balance reading clefs, notes, rhythms, bow holds, and so much more with helping a few dozen kids put that finger in just the right spot using the ear as a guide all in a way that helps them remember how to do that again the next time. Music teachers are required to teach more skills at a highly complex level and need more time to do it.

Learn from history: We must competitively attract and retain students and quality teachers.

In 1979, Dr. Barrett, then Assistant Superintendent, realized that a large number of Gilbert students were boundary exempting into Mesa for their outstanding music program. In 1981, he hired three Nationally respected music educators to come to Gilbert and evaluate the music program and make recommendations.

Among their recommendations were:

  1. scheduling music three times per week.
  2. having instrumental classes meet in like-instrument groupings and in large ensembles.
  3. class lengths of 45 minutes.
  4. not pulling students out of classroom instruction to teach instrumental music.
  5. hiring only highly qualified music educators who were specialists in their discipline.

These recommendations were implemented beginning in 1981. In 1986, Patterson became the first school to try the 6-Day cycle, which went district wide the following year.

Compete by Teaching to Standards

Before we had a superior music program, we were loosing students to Mesa. If we cut back, that can happen again. We cannot continue to compete if we do not at least teach to the standards.

Gilbert's current program teaches the Arizona Music Standards:

  • Based on 90 minutes of music instruction per week, with instrumental music classes meeting daily.
  • GPS Music Curriculum based on current instruction time of 140 minutes every six days
  • The recommendations presented to Gilbert in 1981 align with the National Standards for Arts Education and the Arizona Music Standards.
  • Gilbert rewrote the music curriculum two years ago to align with Arizona Music Standards.

Going backwards not only damages our music programs, it damages Gilbert's overall competitive edge.

The proposed 38% cut to elementary band and strings is only 80 minutes, twice a week. Gilbert would be teaching BELOW the standard.   

Music is the Most Multi-Disciplinary Subject

This topic addressed in more detail in our February report to the Board and can be downloaded here. In summary, music instruction needs more time because it teaches students in all the learning domains simultaneously. This is not to diminish the importance or value of the other subjects or to say other subjects do not also enhance all the learning domains. It is just a matter of balance and emphasis. PE by definition puts a primary emphasis on motor skills with secondary emphasis on analytical and emotional skills. Art puts a primary emphasis on creative or emotional skills with a secondary emphasis on motor skills or cognitive skills. Music requires all three domains, cognitive, affective, and psychomotor to be given primary emphasis simultaneously at all times. This requires additional time in order to be affective. It also produce the benefit of students who can more fluidly think and act across all three domains contributing to a  more whole person.