The sound of seventh grade choir practice drifting down the hallway. Instrument cases in students’ hands. Sheet music stuffed into students’ backpacks along with English and math homework. When you walk into a school with a thriving music program, there’s often a special energy in the air. Students are getting that creative outlet, and it shows—research demonstrates that kids involved in a K–12 school music program have better attendance and do better in school than their peers who are not involved.
In an era of tight budgets, it can be challenging to make the case for investing in the arts. And with so many activities competing for kids’ time, it takes some creativity to attract them to music. That’s why we asked educators across the country about what it takes for a school music program to thrive. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Think beyond the traditional music curriculum.
Band, orchestra, and choir have been the cornerstones of music programs for decades. But music programs need to expand what they offer to appeal to kids today, says V. Keith Mason, coordinator of commercial music and music technology at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Schools need to focus on more options … like a show choir or rock ensembles—more commercial-type of musical experiences,” he says.
Indeed, with the popularity of apps like YouTube and Musical.ly, kids are singing and performing more than ever. The key is to bring some of that flavor into your curriculum. In an article for the NAMM Foundation, educator Randi Levy recommends an “inclusive, not exclusive” approach. “We have seen that the classical and contemporary genres do not have to be taught at the exclusion of one another,” she writes.
2. Bring your laptops to music class.
We used to give kids recorders so that everyone could have a chance at learning and playing an instrument. But these days, that “instrument” could just as easily be a laptop or tablet. That’s good news for schools that have invested in 1:1 technology.
Music software programs can allow students to create their own orchestral mockups or their own hip-hop beats. GarageBand can turn an iPad into a virtual recording studio. With an interactive whiteboard in the classroom, you can project music for sight reading and have students notate on the board to make learning more engaging.
Need to know how to keep things organized and together? Consider digital audio workstations that let students record themselves and their friends singing or playing, says Mason.
3. Understand your acoustical environment.
“You want to put the best environment out there for the students to perform, and to be heard, and to enhance their sound,” says Shawn Chastain, executive coordinator of fine arts at Wichita County Schools, who hired an acoustician to collaborate with architects, teachers, and staff during recent fine arts facilities upgrades in the district. Look for the right acoustical treatments to sound-isolate and enhance rooms according to how they will be used, while protecting student hearing. What works for a wind ensemble might not be right for a choir.
If you are trying to make the most out of your space, modular practice rooms, made by companies like Wenger Corporation, might be the answer, says Mason. And when it comes to performance and rehearsal spaces, there is new technology, also produced by Wenger Corporation, that allows even basic classrooms or auditoriums to simulate the acoustics of venues such as cathedrals or baroque environments. The acoustics can easily be switched for different types of rehearsals and performances, too. If you’re interested, you can check it out for yourself at one of Wenger Corporation’s demonstrations in cities across the country.
4. Go beyond the walls of your school to perform.
Taking student musical groups on trips can be life changing, says Chastain, who has led groups on trips to Branson, Missouri; Dallas; and Chicago. “It’s a chance to experience other environments and an opportunity [for a student] to be a representative of their school,” he says “It’s a win-win for the students and the program and can be a powerful recruiting tool, too.”
If you’re new to touring or competing, you might check out some of the opportunities offered by Music for All, a national music education organization that offers local and national honors ensembles and festivals. We also love the opportunities available through Disney Youth Programs and Universal Orlando Youth Programs, both of which allow students to experience and perform at their various parks in Florida and California.
5. Keep ergonomics in mind.
Good posture is the key to a good sound, says Mark Propst, a performing arts specialist who supervises the K–12 music programs at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. The district’s standard has been Wenger Music Posture Chairs, seats that are configured to encourage students to sit with proper alignment. “That helps with breathing that drives making a musical sound, whether it be singing or playing an instrument. It’s all about the breath control,” says Propst.
Adrian Maclin, director of choirs and piano at Cordova High School in Cordova, Tennessee, says his school recently purchased music posture chairs for its music program. Maclin noticed an immediate end to slouching. “I don’t have to keep reminding students to sit up and correct their posture,” he says.
6. Design a more flexible classroom.
As any music educator can attest, space is tight in most schools. That often means we use rooms for multiple purposes. Determining where to store risers, stands, furniture, and instruments is a challenge for most. Reconfiguring space can take time and cut into instruction, too.
The good news? There’s a solution in adjustable, smart equipment.
“The more portable things can be, the more flexibility you have,” suggests Propst. That means having items on rollers and carts to expedite set up and enlisting students to help with set up and take down. When schools were recently remodeled in Colfax, Morgan says lockers were included to make sure students had secure places to store their instruments.
Check out some of the other flexible storage options available from Wenger Corporation here.
7. Stay on top of your own teaching equipment.
Personal organization might be the last thing on your list, but you know that when you feel organized, you also feel on top of your teaching game. Fortunately, there are now many items available that help music teachers manage their own equipment and supplies.
To inventory equipment, for example, Propst’s district is moving to a bar-coding system to create more accountability and streamline the process. In Chastain’s district, they’re using cabinets with pull-out shelves to access music and conductor stands with built-in storage to help teachers manage all of their materials for multiple classes. Goodbye, overstuffed closets of yesteryear!
We’d love to hear from you: What innovative things are happening in your school music program? Please feel free to share in the comments. And check out the acoustic, ergonomic, and storage solutions offered by Wenger Corporation. All of the music educators we spoke to raved about the Wenger Corporation items they had in their classrooms.