A (Major) Case for an Overhaul of the Current Music Education Curriculum

I spent half of my childhood in the band room at my school. My dad is a music teacher — and in a small town that meant band, chorus, music theory, general music, individual instrumental lessons and everything else imaginable. His love for band and choral music is readily apparent, and can be exemplified by his Master’s thesis on “Wind Bands in the 1900's.”

I spent many mornings setting up chairs, stands, and chorus risers. I spent summer days moving percussion around and putting sheet music into score order. Additionally, as I got older, I was a member of the band and the chorus, the jazz band, and the music theory class.

Eventually, I graduated from high school and spent four years at Berklee College of Music. Then I spent another two getting an MFA in Music Composition. The point of all this being — I owe a LOT to music curriculum I went through. For an added bonus, I ended up married to a music teacher — who continues this noble work.

However, the system is broken. And I’m not here to talk about the pathetic lack of support and funding. I’m not here to talk about the disgraceful level of musical literacy among adults now. I’m here to talk about what is being taught.

The music education curriculum in the US is still heavily centered on band and chorus with a sprinkling of music history and theory. Third graders still do “Recorder Karate,” and music theory is still largely avoiding parallel fifths. The bottom line is:

The current music curriculum is outdated.

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Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash

The era of wind bands and community choruses is falling to the wayside while at the same time kids in their basement are getting famous off of making electronic dance music (EDM).

Public schools have never been particularly adept at adapting to technologic changes. There are schools that still don’t offer typing classes and despite graduating high school in 2010, I still left knowing only a few software programs — and I wasn’t particularly skilled at any of them.

However, I’m advocating for a modernization of the music curriculum based on what popular music is. Rather than attributing the lack of musical literacy to some sort of inherent laziness of a generation, or blaming it on the four-chord pop song (it’s not as if four-chord songs didn’t exist 50 years ago!), let's blame it on a lack of interest among students.

And I don’t blame them!

If all the music you’re exposed to is pop, hip-hop, R&B, country, folk, screamo, etc., it should come as no surprise that you aren’t exactly amped up by the idea of singing a four-part hymn or playing an adapted version of Benjamin Britten on your clarinet.

I propose a music theory curriculum focused on the functions of chords, the creation of melodies and the basics of music production. A small dose of acoustic science couldn’t hurt either!

I propose music ensemble courses that allow the students to learn instruments they will continue to value playing into adulthood — guitar, piano, drums, and bass. Instruments that kids will feel “cool” carrying to school instead of concerned about bullies. Let’s continue to allow for the option of other instruments — but, is preserving the legacy of the wind band more important than preserving the habitual playing of music in a larger populous?

I was as entrenched in the beautiful world of music as a child could be, and yet, do I ever reach for my French horn? Have I joined a community band or chorus? No, but I play piano and guitar almost daily, I write and record songs when I have the time or feel inspired and I listen to as much music as I can.

I didn’t learn guitar, piano or music production from school. I was fortunate that my dad taught me piano. I taught myself guitar out of pure musical interest and production came in college (an experience that wouldn’t have happened without piano).

It’s hard for me to propose such drastic changes. And it definitely brings a lump to my throat to think of empty band rooms — but I fear that the real risk is continuing on a path that garners little interest, and makes music an easy target for budget cuts. A drastic change is what may be needed to keep the band rooms full — albeit with a different sort of band.

I’m a Product Designer at Grubhub working on the LevelUp Team to create branded apps for restaurants.

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