Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Importance of Band for our School and Students

Our high school band at Montgomery Catholic, less than two years old, recently competed at the state music festival and received a “superior” rating. On the heels of this magnificent achievement for such a young band, it’s worth reflecting on the difference our band program has made in our school in such a short time. I write this partly because so many schools in our state of Alabama are increasingly compelled to give short shrift to their music programs, focusing instead on improving test performances for graduation exams. What a tragedy for state and our students if we allow this trend to continue!

This is my 21st year at Montgomery Catholic as either a teacher, principal or president. For the first 19 of those years, we didn’t have a band, mostly because we didn’t have a place on the campus where a band could practice without disturbing other classes—simply putting them in a room in the hallways wouldn’t work for the band or their nearest neighbors! But when we opened a new middle school on our campus in 2004, we made a large room for our band and immediately hired a band director.

It’s been a wonderful two years for our school since. Here’s what I think our band program has done for our school and why band programs should be considered as co-curricular to other subjects, and not extra-curricular burdens:

Music, if taught correctly, is a discipline, requiring students to be precise, to listen carefully, to be attentive to nuance, to put aside one’s own interests to those of the team and to work hard. Even from a narrow, utilitarian view of education (education understood merely as a means to a job), these are essential skills for successful employment and for success in other subject areas such as math and science. Partly because of the training in these skills that band provides, our band members tend to be among the most academically successful students in our school.

Broadening the issue, music elevates the soul and fosters an appreciation of beauty. In a world that could charitably be described as fixated on the functional and the banal, to create an appreciation of the good in our students is surely among our goals as educators! I remember the peculiar but telling words of my son, who after beating on pots and pans for two years as a budding percussionist, received a Tama drum set on his tenth birthday. “I’m free!” he said joyously. Since we began our band program, I have witnessed first hand its liberating effect on even the most sullen of our students, who smile more, laugh more and who are frankly happier. In addition, the joy and spirit that music can convey to the broader school community is palpably felt at football games, pep rallies, and even during the ordinary school day, as lively, jubilant music reverberates around campus.

Finally, our experience indicates that a band program brings a whole new set of parents and students “under the tent” of our school—those actively engaged in its life. In our school as in many others, our athletic booster parents were typically the most involved volunteers. As educators, we have a tendency to bemoan this fact—“where are the other parents?” we may ask. But parents of athletes are usually the most passionately involved because our schools are providing the most opportunity for their children, and as parents, they are committed to these programs' continued success. I applaud those parents! As educators, we should be looking to make the tent bigger, rather than complaining about those outside the tent. Band programs provide a similar motivation for our families to truly enter into the life of the school. Though their kids have been in the school for many years, I am getting to know these parents for the first time because they are likelier to volunteer, attend sporting events, and work on parent committees than they were when we didn’t have the band program. Every study on successful schools indicates that strong parental involvement is the hallmark of those schools. We are "penny wise but a pound foolish" when we regard music and band programs as luxuries that we cannot afford for our students.