06 March 2009

Instrumentation Revisited

This post is intended as an expansion of an earlier discussion of instrumentation in music education, first explored here (PDF format), with a blog-based addendum here.

In continuing to reflect on my own experiences as a student, it is ever more apparent to me that the need to populate balanced instrumental ensembles is an undue hinderance to music education at every level. It starts with my 6th grade beginning band, where 90% of the students wanted to play either saxophone or drums. Appallingly, percussion was not even offered as an option. I was never privy to the exact reason behind this, but I have since hypothesized that either the discontent among those who were not selected to be percussionists had become destructive to the learning environment, or that giving the students implements which were designed for hitting things had proven to be a bad idea. Whether it was either or both of these reasons or something else entirely I'll never know; the point is that from the get go, the single most viable option for engaging a majority of the students in this class in a meaningful way was lost.

The saxophone, at least, was offered (alto only, as I recall), along with trumpet, clarinet, flute, trombone, and euphonium. We were asked to pick 3 instruments from these 6 and rank them in order of preference. Where more than the maximum allowable number of students had chosen a given instrument, the assignment would be made randomly, with those not selected being given one of their lower choices. Again, discontent among those not awarded the saxophone was palpable, at least in the immediate aftermath of the assignments. Needless to say, my top choice of euphonium was uncontested, though I believe I did list saxophone as my 2nd choice. Perish the thought.

In no way do I wish to overlook issues of practicality here, which include band directors' ability to find or create music to suit their needs, as well as the availability of school-owned instruments. Certainly, these factors make what I'm about to advocate a bit more challenging than simply forcing students into a balanced instrumentation whether or not they have even the shallowest inclination towards the instrument they are given. Nonetheless, where such inclination exists, doesn't it make sense to take it and run with it, even if it is rooted in the most trivial, commercialized pop-culture stereotypes? Given many students who want to play the same instrument, why not simply start a drum line or a saxophone octet?

I suspect that the answers to these questions may lead down some uncomfortable and contentious paths. It starts with acknowledging the stylistic hierarchy that exists in (more like dominates) music education, and within that, the instrumentational hierarchies that exist within classical and jazz musics respectively. Though they may advocate on behalf of "Music Education" or "The Arts" generally, it's not at all clear that teachers, parents, administrators or arts advocates would support establishing a school drum line as adamantly as they might support the school band or orchestra (or, at least, it was abundantly clear to me that this was not the case when I was a student). The shadow cast by the distinction between high and low art is palpable here, but I'm less troubled by the possibility that one would see fit to make such a distinction than that one might not be able to recognize the potential for high art to take root in the percussion section. In fact, I'm an unapologetic high art snob, and would like nothing more than to see it manifested in every possible way in every possible corner of the earth. If the kids want to play drums, then goddamn it, give them drums and turn them loose. Anybody ever heard of a guy named Elvin Jones?

Teachers themselves seem to view this as merely giving in to the whims of students whose worlds were shaped by television and pop culture, where instruments like the tuba are used merely as punch lines, and where those like the bassoon would be lucky to make it on the air even in this capacity. The act of foisting music and instruments upon students rather than meeting them halfway has become a ritual of sorts, the discontent it sows merely being taken as a sign that learning is, in fact, taking place. It's good for you in an unpleasant sort of way, kind of like eating your vegetables or going to the dentist.

Of the many flaws in this paradigm, perhaps the most glaring is that it invariably squanders what may be the only thing the beginning instrumental teacher has going for them, namely their students' curiosity. Particularly among tuba players, it seems that the stories of seeing the instrument as a kid and saying "I want to play that one!" are too numerous to count. Conversely, you hardly ever hear successful adult musicians say, "I really wanted to play x instrument, but they gave me y instrument instead, so I just toughed it out."

Like it or not, our most basic inclination towards something at that age is often very shallow, yet it can also be eminently valid and accurate. This, at least, is exactly how I would describe my relationship with the euphonium at that age, so much so, in fact, that the tuba (which was similar in design yet even bigger, more impressive looking and eccentric; the precise reasons I chose the euphonium magnified several times) was a tough sell once I'd had 3 years to latch on to the euph. Sacrifice these primal inclinations to some administrator's rigid idea of what "high art" looks and sounds like and you've lost your first best chance to engage students in music in a meaningful and enduring way. The exalted sentimentalism that accompanies such stories when they apply to unpopular instruments contrasts starkly with the contempt that's directed at students who immediately go for the drum set, or who want to play the music they've heard on the radio. Even as an avowed high art snob, I can still see that there's something wrong with that.

Another issue is that of music publishing. Although publishers of educational band and orchestra music seem to be moving towards more flexible arrangements that allow for as many odd combinations of instruments as possible, beginning and intermediate music for like instrument ensembles, or for ensembles of entirely flexible instrumentation (i.e. with a range rather than an instrument specified), are, to my knowledge, still hard to come by. Hence, any teacher who wishes to accommodate the wishes of a large group of students gravitating towards the same instrument is probably in for a significant transcription or composition project. Of course, the music that is available also is nothing to write home about as music, which is yet another unfortunate circumstance. If we simply must force students into standard instrumental configurations, we could certainly use a better reason than the utterly vacuous and often quite horrifying music that these traditionally constituted ensembles get stuck with.


Instrumentation as oppression is not just a concern for the K-12 level, but for the college and graduate levels also. College music programs have the instrumentation of their flagship ensembles very much in mind when it comes to admitting instrumentalists as music majors. Given the sometimes spectacular disparity in reputation and recruiting ability among instrumental teachers at the same institution, it's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the top candidate for admission in one studio is significantly weaker than the third and fourth candidates for another. There is often scholarship, assistantship or stipend money available only for the top one or two applicants on each instrument, but if instrumental balance is valued ahead of overall talent and potential, the weaker player would not have to compete directly with stronger applicants on other instruments who might otherwise beat them out for it. Though I can't claim knowledge of a specific case that unfolded this way, based on what I do know about the two colleges I attended, I'd be shocked to learn that this never happened, or even that it was unusual.

With state budgets dwindling, many public university music programs are increasingly dependent on privately-raised money, and they know not only that prospective donors want to see high art, but that they recognize it in only a few of its myriad forms. Invariably, the symphony orchestra is the gold standard. The trombone ensemble is cute, maybe even musically compelling, but it's not going to loosen the wallets of too many retired insurance adjusters. Until something changes on one or more of these fronts, music schools are going to continue to admit a one-size-fits-all student body that meets their instrumental needs rather than providing programs that reflect the unique interests and needs of their immediate communities (interests and needs which, one would hope, included orchestras and bands, but not exclusively, and certainly not to the point where balance trumps merit as an admissions criteria).

The year I was at the University of Northern Colorado was also a year that the school was up for NASM reaccreditation. As part of this process, so it was announced, the school was to put on a collage concert featuring various students and faculty whose performances would reflect the school's identity. Yet after being treated to a classically-dominated program of rather conservative repertoire, it was impossible to avoid coming away with the impression that the concert merely reflected what NASM thinks a school's identity ought to be. Until such accrediting bodies, along with politicians, philanthropists, and community leaders can see beyond the forms that high art has taken to the forms it might take, we'll be stuck with a quasi-authoritarian system of imposing instruments on students regardless of their inclinations. It would behoove us to establish a more egalitarian approach, and to rely on our ears rather than ours eyes to determine its success or failure.

1 comment:

D0nnaTr0y said...

You raise some interesting points. As an elementary band teacher at a school where kids started band in the 4th grade, delegating instruments at the beginning of the year was a nightmare! Not only did you have to deal with kids not being big enough for certain instruments, there was an issue of resources. You are spot on with the kids given 3 options and the majority listing sax and drums as first choice. All of the problems you raised were present at my school. The school provided the instruments and we only had 4 saxes for 3 ensembles. It was unheard of for the students to actually rent their own instruments, which would have been my preference and as a result you got a little kids interested in the beginning but very fickle with their commitment. Having kids drop out (and being allowed to by parents and other teachers) right before the holiday concert made the initial instrument delegation become an assessment of who would likely stay in band and lets get those kids divided amongst the core instrumentation of the ensemble because if I don't present a good first concert, I will lose what little support I have for the ensemble and music in general.

I also made kids wait for 5th grade (with the prerequisite of being in band for 1 year with good behavior) before being allowed to switch to drums. This was partially to do with classroom management and partially to ease the rejection of those not chosen to play. Those that really desired it had to work for it and by the time 5th grade came around, many kids were content with their first instrument and no longer wanted to switch. Plus there was the added benefit of the kids who switches having a basic understanding of pitched theory.

A drum line or sax choir would have been much more fun to teach than concert band. But there is no way in hell that would have flown at my school. And not because my principal was anti-arts. It mainly came to scheduling. As it was, kids had to leave academic classes to attend ensembles, of which there were four: beginning band, advanced band, jazz band, and chorus. Classroom teachers really had to accommodate the ensemble schedule with planning and testing. More than 4 ensembles would have been unnecessary nightmare for already stressed out teachers. Not to mention the two music teachers (yes, my school had TWO) where already maxed out with classes. We both had to teach general music classes to give classroom teachers a prep period. There simply was not enough time in the day for additional ensembles.

The idea of letting kids be granted their first choice is an interesting one. I'd be very curious to see the results a school yielded if they had the resources to foster that. But to be perfectly honest, and judging only from my personal experience only, I found that the majority of kids were interested in music solely for music's sake. Yes, there were some who had a strong desire for certain instruments (one was a baritone player who LOVED that instrument, carried it home every day, and called it his tuba!) and it was usually easy to see which ones had that desire. The rest of the kids just wanted to be in band and were choosing instruments based on popularity and even randomness. A good teacher will be able to bring out a child's love of music regardless of the instrument, at least at that stage of learning. If a student gets stuck on an instrument they don't really like, but they love music itself, they will stick around until they have the opportunity to change instruments. The difference of one year isn't life changing.

I guess my long winded point is that as it relates to public primary and secondary schools, it's not always a matter of high art vs. low art (though I'm sure that is the case in plenty of places) it's an instance where practicality really out weights everything and that does not need to be lamented. Music is music. If we can inspire a child to love music, we have to believe the rest will work itself out. We survived crappy circumstances and still managed to make music our life's work didn't we (I know I did!) Instill a passion for music in a child and then they themselves will have the confidence and education to deem what they consider high and low art. At time when music in general is close to being cut, we should be grateful that there is music of any kind still in the schools.