ode to small schools

I started this post 5 years ago but just couldn’t finish it up because I have so many emotions wrapped up in it. Every time I attempted to finish it, it just didn’t get across my thoughts very well. I’m not sure this is a vast improvement over any of the previous iterations, but at least it’s a published attempt. Take it for whatever it’s worth. If I have a chip on my shoulder (and I know that I have more than just one), it’s that the Middle and High Schools of northern New England will NEVER be able to compete artistically with most other school districts across the country. We are geographically too spread out, our resources are too spread out, and our per capita student population is dwarfed by even moderate sized school districts across the nation (a small high school in the midwest or southeast is 2,000+ students. The largest in all of Maine is currently at 1,700). So if we were to judge our programs by concert comparisons, programs in northern New England, on a national scale, would routinely receive a failing grade. Statement of fact.

There’s three reasons that’s troublesome. The first is that we even rank the success of our programs by the musicality of our concerts. We really have become (maybe always have been?) a profession obsessed with the “performance”. That’s understandable since that’s the one tangible thing others can judge us by. They aren’t in our classrooms watching our instructional practices, they don’t study our pedagogy. It becomes very easy for us to put a lot of emphasis on our performances because we feel that’s the measure of our worth. Second, we rank the success of other programs by the musicality of their concerts. We look across our own driveway to view our neighbor’s lawn. Whose is greener? How many kids made all state from that school? How large is their concert band? How many singers are in their 6th grade chorus? How do I stack up against them? The third is that we miss the entire point by judging our performances to begin with: we don’t teach music, we teach kids. OUR own kids in OUR own programs.

The challenges of a small school are wrapped up in those things. The net result education we provide our students is predicated on the skill level we get them at. If we are good at what we do, we simply take them where they are at when they get to us and elevate them as far as they can go before they leave us. What does that look like in a small school district? It might mean that no one takes private lessons. How do you make up for that? By devoting time to foundational technique instead of learning literature, or teaching literature at the expense of developing technique. It might mean that you have one trombone in your entire instrumental program. What do you do about that? Select literature that allows that trombonist to succeed… and that means selecting literature a grade level or two lower than that actual grade span would otherwise get. You have strings in your program. But because you are a small school, there are fewer teachers and sections of required classes, so the only way you’re able to meet with those kids is at 6:45 am two times a week (that’s an actual scenario).

And wrapped up in all THOSE things are the impact it has on you as a music educator. There were unfortunate changes going on in the local Middle School when I started my career at the High School in Bellows Falls, Vermont, and within 5 years of beginning my career I had a total 2 tenors in my Chamber Singers. By the time I left for graduate school, it was down to 1. I had other tenors in the program, but none who were ready for that kind of challenge musically or academically. This drove me to feel like such a failure as a teacher that I decided to quit the profession. I looked into Masters programs down the road at Keene State to become a guidance counselor, because I loved working with the kids but clearly was a failure as a music teacher. I was in the middle of that career transition when Denny Cox invited me to come up to Orono to spend a year up there with him (which changed my life). But my point is clear: I was evaluating MY OWN aptitude on the size and sound of my program. The fact of the matter is that, in small school districts, you are at the mercy of so much more than you have control over, and that does a number on your psyche. The mental and emotional well being of music educators in small schools has been a concern of mine ever since my first years in Vermont. My instrumental colleague at BF left Vermont after a few years and moved to a High School in Texas where he become the Freshman Marching Band director of 140 students. If he gained or lost 10 kids here or there, it wasn’t even noticed. In Bellows Falls? The addition or loss of 10 kids meant the difference between the program even existing or not. Did he have other concerns in Texas? Yup he did, but that’s a discussion for another day to be led by a music educator other than myself. When your very existence as a music teacher is predicated on recruitment or public perception, when your own self value is filtered through the lens of “how does my program compare…”, when you go to work each day wondering if the one bass who matches pitch is going to be in rehearsal that day or not, when you know that if you do superhuman work you still will not be able to program grade-level concert band music as long as you are employed by that school, and on and on, it adds up.

It’s impossible to write a blog post like this without running the risk of a perception of: he has it out for large programs, or he doesn’t appreciate the challenges we all face regardless of the size of our school districts. Neither is true, and anybody who truly knows me will vouch for that. Some of my greatest joys have come from watching strong programs grow and flourish under the direction and supervision of my most valued, talented and inspiring colleagues in the field. But when the crossroads of my early 30s was whether to go on and teach at the college level or stay in the public schools, I made a commitment to stay in the public school ranks in northern New England because I was inspired by my colleagues in Vermont who worked in schools with no resources, low numbers to draw from and little in the way of musical culture and yet brought meaningful music education and experiences to their kids anyway. I wanted to be in the middle of the geographical region where a “large” High School is 700 students, and the next closest High School is many miles away, not in the same school district. I wanted to be in a region where the music teachers are itinerant, and yet find the way to bring energy and enthusiasm to their students to a degree that would make any music teacher with their very own designated classroom blush.

I’m done going to ACDA conferences until the day comes that they stop accepting performance groups by audition tapes or videos. Just once I would love to attend a conference where the performing groups are selected by geographical region and by gradations of resources, not by how they sound. Just once I would like to attend a conference where a choir is selected based solely on the pedagogical approach of their director, and that session is a workshop on how to teach fundamentals. Just once I would like to attend a conference where a choral director brings their choir of 35 kids out of a school of 400, where they meet once or twice a week, where not one of them takes private lessons, where 4 of them have a working range of a minor 3rd (and we hear it in their performance), and we celebrate – and learn from – the music education that occurs there to make their mere existence possible. ACDA of course will never do that because, “…what if they don’t sound good?” I’m not even anti-ACDA here. I was a state president and am a life-long member for a reason. I’m just done with anything that feeds into the belief that what we sound like dictates our level of success. Because the moment you’ve done that, you’ve automatically diminished the work of some of the finest teachers I will ever meet but no one knows about because that work was done in programs nobody ever really noticed. Robert Shaw could have conducted choral music in Ludlow, Vermont: via audition tape, they would never have been accepted to perform at an ACDA conference. I don’t apologize for having a problem with a profession that thinks that’s okay.

I presented a workshop for NHMEA yesterday afternoon on Individual Assessment in the Large Group Ensemble. The topic is pretty un-sexy, and it was a 2:45 time slot up against quite a few other outstanding sessions including the state ACDA All-Member meeting. I was hoping for up to 20 attendees, expecting closer to a dozen. 70 showed up. It wasn’t attributable to me, it wasn’t attributable to the topic. It wasn’t even attributable to free chocolate (because I forgot to bring it!). It was attributable to the fact that these music possible-953169_1280educators, regardless of their circumstances in their schools, happy or otherwise, content or otherwise, fulfilled or otherwise, showed up because they want to be better for their kids. I saw all of them walk in and I wanted to cry. I know many of those who were there and in some cases an intimate knowledge of the struggles they’ve had to confront day to day, year to year. For those I didn’t know, I wondered as I was presenting what hurdles they have to overcome each week to make their programs viable. My emotion the entire time was one of admiration for them, as it is for my colleagues in Maine and those in Vermont – choral, instrumental and general – who fight the good fight in our smallest school districts. The ones where they don’t have the resources, where they don’t have the colleagues to collaborate with, where they don’t have the cultural support of their rural communities because the arts are simply not a priority. Randy Pausch in his Last lecture said, “I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person every day, because hip is short-term, earnest is long term.” Amen to that. If I had the chance to spend a day observing Eric Whitaker or a day observing Jen Nash up in Orono, guess who I’d select 100 times out of 100? That’s not a slam on Eric Whitaker, it’s a slam on what I feel this profession is sometimes guilty of. Some of the finest, most inspired work is being done in some of our smallest school districts and some of our smallest music programs in northern New England where the accomplishment lies with every trumpet player successfully playing a low “D” with the 1st and 3rd valves at the same time on cue in concert: lets make sure our criteria for truly “successful” programs encompasses that.

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