American Music Education: A Struggle for Time and Curriculum

Conrad, David

Music teachers are normally an optimistic and progressive group. Over the past few years, however, I have heard more and more of my public school music colleagues say that they feel worn-out and frustrated by recent developments affecting American music education.

In Illinois, where I teach, school districts have cut fine arts funding and even have eliminated music and fine arts programs altogether. Poorer and richer schools alike have experienced these cuts; few music programs have gone unhurt, including the district where I have taught music and currently serve as a middle school principal. During a two-year period, we cut one full-time staff position, eliminated our beginning band instruction, and canceled the school musicals and two performing groups. Our earned reputation as a school that supported music education did not stop these program cuts from becoming reality.

What is the current state of American music education? From my perspective as a public school practitioner, I believe that music education programs are in jeopardy nationwide. Aside from issues directly related to funding – issues that are vast, complex, and largely tied to the funding mechanisms provided by states and local school boards – I believe that music education must solve two lingering issues related to time and curriculum.


Was the American education system at risk of failure? In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its landmark report, A Nation at Risk, chronicling myriad problems in America’s schools. Among the findings, the report concluded that American children spend much less time in school than their international peers. For example, American students attend for approximately one hundred and eighty days for six or seven hours per day, while students in England may spend up to eight hours per day and twenty more days per year in school than their American counterparts. The report also questioned the elective curriculum philosophy whereby students would choose their own course schedule and individual curriculum path in junior high and high schools. The report advocated a more prescriptive curriculum that focused on language arts, math, and science.

A Nation at Risk spurred a decade of additional studies and reports attempting to address these issues. Music and fine arts education were not immune. In 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts released its own ambitious study of arts education in American schools, Toward Civilization. The study found that American music education focused mainly on performance ensembles and performance skills, while largely ignoring musical understanding. It appeared to the authors that music education programs were providing talent education for a few children, instead of reaching a broader audience by teaching musical understanding to all children.

The ultimate impact of these reports was to question the amount of time needed to provide children with a well-rounded education. They also sparked discussions of what kind of content should be taught by music educators.


In 2001, President George W. Bush successfully won reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a law first passed by President Lyndon Johnson to establish the role of the federal government in local schools. The reauthorization, which has become known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), established the new goals of high standards and achievement accountability for all children.

States were required to test all students in language arts, mathematics, and science. While most states were already testing their students, the law added new accountability standards that imposed sanctions upon schools which failed to meet prescribed benchmarks by the deadlines. These sanctions might include a reduction or cancellation of federal funding. Schools also risk closure, and entire school districts could face total dissolution or takeover.

In response to the mandates of NCLB, many schools felt the need to increase the number of instruction minutes for students in language arts, science, and mathematics, the three subjects with the highest testing accountability. Meanwhile, schools have reduced the amount of time available for music and arts education.

The widespread result of NCLB has been a time assault on the subjects that are untested, subjects such as music, foreign languages, arts, and physical education. Each of these disciplines has suffered massive cuts and, in some cases, elimination altogether. Accounts of these cuts were appearing in the mass media throughout the nation, which prompted then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige to respond in July 2004, In this letter to all of America’s school superintendents, he responded to criticisms of NCLB from fine arts advocates:

It’s disturbing not just because arts programs are being diminished or eliminated, but because NCLB is being interpreted so narrowly as to be considered the reason for these actions. The truth is that NCLB included the arts as a core academic subject because of their importance to a child’s education. No Child Left Behind expects teachers of the arts to be highly qualified, just as it does teachers of English, math, science, and history ( policy/elsec/guid/secletter/040701.html).

This letter did little to help music programs. The missing variable in school reform – time – was not changed by NCLB. Schools have cut music and other subjects to make more time for the tested subjects under NCLB, putting our nation’s arts education at risk.

“Although NCLB actually includes the arts in its definition of core subjects, the law doesn’t require testing in those areas,” states Carolyn Crowder, an Oklahoma music teacher and executive committee member for the National Education Association. “The law’s focus on reading and math doesn’t leave much time for students to be creative and develop a love for music and the arts in school” (personal interview with author).

Time continues to be a fixed variable in the school reform game because adding extra time to the school year requires increased funding for salaries and related expenses. American schools are still based on the same agrarian calendar criticized more than twenty years ago in A Nation at Risk. School reform efforts usually fall short of increasing the time available to teach, simply because the money is not there . . . and few politicians risk asking voters to pay for more.

“In times when school budgets are tight, fine arts programs are the first to be cut,” says Crowder.


Music education continues to struggle with the findings of Toward Civilization and whether music education should be primarily performance-based or understanding-based. With limited resources for time and budgets, should music teachers devote their time teaching students to perform or teaching students to understand?

Dr. Charles Fowler, a noted arts educator and author, wrote that “when music education concentrates solely on performance, its educational potential is compromised and its impact is diluted” (p. 130). Performance education might provide training only for the talented few whose families will support instrument purchases, music lessons, and uniform expenses. By reaching only these select students, music education fails to reach a broader audience of learners.

American music education still remains a performance-based enterprise. Most high schools offer a band or chorus, but few offer course work in music history, music theory, or music appreciation. Why have music educators been slow to adopt Fowler’s perspective? Many fine music educators have developed successful performing groups. They have finetuned their skills in recruiting and training young musicians to perform in these groups, and they have established professional reputations built largely on their performance success. Changing to an understanding-based teaching philosophy is a difficult risk for many music educators.

However, many have found a compromise in bridging the gap between musical understanding and musical performance. One successful approach is known as comprehensive musicianship. The philosophy of comprehensive musicianship is entrenched in the belief that students can experience a rich and diverse music curriculum within the vehicle of a traditional performance group (such as the school band, choir, or orchestra).

What does a comprehensive musicianship classroom look like? When a school orchestra prepares for a performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland, you would expect the teacher to rehearse the correct notes and rhythms to help the group sound its very best. In a comprehensive musicianship classroom, however, students learn beyond the notes on the page; they experience a deeper and richer understanding of music and its context. A history lesson might teach students about the relationship between the music and the historical context of the American frontier. Students might study the relationship of rhythmic energy and Martha Graham’s choreographic design by creating body movements in rhythm with the music. Students also might write a reflective essay on how the chords and harmonies create an emotional impact in the work.


Wisconsin houses one of the nation’s most developed comprehensive musicianship training programs for teachers. Each summer, the Wisconsin Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP) program hosts week-long workshops to train teachers in the philosophy and to provide them hands-on support in the creation of new teaching materials. Teachers learn the techniques of teaching musical understanding within the performance classes by creating lessons that they will implement in their own schools back at home. Additional supports include in-service training and publications throughout the school year. The comprehensive musicianship model is a major change in music programs; having a structured training program helps teachers build confidence and success.

Another successful model is the BandQuest project spearheaded by the American Composers Forum. The project places accomplished American music composers in residencies with students in middle and high school bands. The selected composer composes a new work during this residency, rehearsing the students and involving them in the compositional process. At the conclusion of the residency, the composer prepares the students for a public premier of the new work.

BandQuest has been able to attract many first-rate composers into the residency. Michael Colgrass, Tania León, Libby Larson, and Michael Daugherty are among the thirteen composers who have published under the BandQuest program. In September 2006, BandQuest released its fourteenth title, Nature’s Way, a new work composed by Gunther Schuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, conductor, and musicologist.

According to Carey Nadeau of the American Composers Forum, both students and composers benefit from the program. “It’s a way to bring new music to the band music genre, and for established composers to challenge their writing and thinking by writing for young students just starting out who do not necessarily have the full grasp of music theory,” says Nadeau. “It becomes a learning experience for both parties” (personal interview with author).

The project shows how students can be immersed in the composition process within the context of a performance ensemble class. BandQuest benefits students in other schools by making these high quality compositions available for purchase from a commercial music publisher. The music includes ready-made instructional materials and lesson plans for teaching musical understanding.


If American music education can thrive, we must find answers to the dilemmas of time and curriculum. Policy-makers must weigh the costs and benefits of adding minutes and days to the American school calendar, with an eye toward accommodating all subjects and disciplines to be taught. This additional time resource might help schools meet the goals of NCLB while also strengthening the music and fine arts programs. Time no longer can be an excuse for excluding the arts from a child’s education.

Policy-makers and music educators also must decide whether to emphasize performance training, musical understanding, or both. By excluding a large segment of learners, we are limiting the reach and impact that music education can have.

Ultimately, why should music education programs exist? As Carolyn Crowder puts it, “Fine arts education – including music education – is fundamental for the social, intellectual, cognitive and emotional development of students.”


Fowler, C. Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling. Oxford University Press: New York, 1996

National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1983.

National Endowment for the Arts. Toward Civilization: A Report on Arts Education. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1988.

Paige, R. Letter to Superintendents Regarding the Arts as a Core Academic Subject Under No Child Left Behind. http://, July 2004.

David Conrad is principal of Manteno Middle School in Manteno, Illinois. A former music teacher, he has worked extensively in assessment, school marketing, and music advocacy. He serves as the Music Director for the River Valley Wind Ensemble. He can be reached by e-mail at

Copyright National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal Fall 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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