by Matthew Spradlin
Shortly after ‘returning home’ to serve as the band director at my high school alma mater, a major employer announced they were leaving our community. The company employed 9,500 in a community of 12,500. One could imagine the fear that set in throughout the community. Upon this announcement families suddenly went into survival mode. They looked at their budget and immediately began to eliminate anything deemed unnecessary. Our local music store, whose primary source of income is from their private lesson studios, lost two-thirds of their students in one week. Students, having heard their parents discuss the uncertainty of their household income, started to question if they would be able to afford marching band fees, participate in overnight travel, and just whether or not they were going to be able afford renting an instrument.
Of course the fallout from this loss hit our local economy, which forced cuts in our school. The band program’s budget was cut 60%, the number of students that requested to borrow an instrument based on need went from 2% to 30% in one year, and our percentage socioeconomic disadvantaged students went from 24% to 60%. What I did not expect was the change in demographic. People who held jobs in supervision and management were finding jobs…just not in our community. During this time I watched several terrific student musicians move out of our district as their parents found employment in other states.
During this whirlwind of events I began to question if we were going to be able to continue to maintain our program and continue the level of excellence that had been such a big part of our legacy. Several actions were immediately taken such as such as finding instruments for students to play, most of which were donated by alumni; creating instrument focused mini-lessons during classes as few students were taking private lessons; and finding additional ways to raise funds to make up for the loss of budgeted money. However, the most important thing that we could do in this situation was to take care of the students and ensure that we were part of their support system. There is not a one-size-fits-all program that will fix all problems. The following is offered as considerations of how to build relationships and promote self-worth in students of low socio-economic status to foster a positive environment of music making.
It is important to understand that poverty is defined as “the insufficient resources to meet what are typically seen as basic needs in that place or time…It is more than just a lack of money. It is a way of thinking, acting and making decisions (Templeton, 2011). In “Engaging students with Poverty in Mind” Jensen (2013) writes “In one study of 81,000 students across the United States, students not in Title I programs consistently reported higher levels of engagement than students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (Yazzie-Mintz, 2007).” It is important to note that socio-economic data is determined by a school’s free and reduced lunch percentage.
Building relationships and a risk-free environment through listening and reflecting
Students of low socio-economic status typically do not live in home environments that foster consumption of the arts. Ruby Payne, author of “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” writes that the driving forces in poverty are ‘survival, relationships, and entertainment.’ One should not assume that the arts are not appreciated in low SES households, but sometimes not accessible due to lower income, working second or third shift, the lack of knowledge of how to be a consumer of the arts, or the fear of crossing social classes. This is why it is important to share great music daily with your students; available resources such as iTunes/Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, etc, have made this easier than ever before to accomplish.
Consider building into your rehearsal a regular time when your students listen to band repertoire. Perhaps this will be as students enter the room, at the beginning of a rehearsal, or on certain days of the week. While this is a great strategy for sharing repertoire, it will be most effective when it is interactive. Share the song titles, composers, and performers on a white board or via projection and follow up with questions, either verbal or written, to help the students become active listeners. When first starting this activity, do not ask complicated questions or use technical language that could intimidate some students. Look for ways to make this activity low-risk. Ask questions that will allow students to relate to the music on a basic level. (i.e. “what do you think this music is about,” “If this were music to a soundtrack, what is the theme of the movie,” “write a short paragraph telling the events of this story.”) These questions are achievable by all students and there are no wrong answers. I prefer written responses when first starting this activity as students will be more likely to give an honest and in-depth response; rather than speaking up in front of the class, which would be high-risk for many students of low SES. This practice will yield two important results: 1) you will gain insight about your students, their interests, and have the opportunity to have a conversation with the students about what they wrote; resulting in building a relationship with that student. As you forge this relationship, you create trust; an adult member of their support system. 2) After reading the responses encourage students to take the risk to share their writings with the rest of the class. If the student agrees, be certain to offer support by showing your enthusiasm for their work in regard to their creativity and use of prior knowledge of a certain topic. Model an acceptance of their writing for the rest of the class and note how this student helped everyone see the music from a different viewpoint and without them, we would not have this take on the music. This, in turn, will help the student who shared in front of the class feel as if they possess something of value. The major point of this practice is to share music, build relationships between student and teacher, foster a sense self-value, and establish a risk-free classroom environment.
Building community through chamber ensembles
Another key element is to create a sense of community, which will also showcase each individual’s value to the group. At the very basic level this can be accomplished by infusing the word “we” and maintaining a team environment. Incorporating chamber music into the band program has been found as an excellent vehicle for establishing community in the band program. 1) In a one-on-a-part chamber ensemble everyone is their “own section.” This not only promotes musical growth, but it also makes each person valuable to the other members of the ensemble. Without everyone playing his or her part, the music is not achievable. 2) In a large ensemble rehearsal the time does not exist to have conversations with individual students as is awarded in other classroom settings. It is true bell-to-bell teaching. Chamber music days are another great opportunity to build relationships with students. On chamber music days in our program, I float from ensemble-to-ensemble to offer assistance to each group. I really look forward to these days as I get to have conversations with students, which leads to another time when I get to strengthen relationships and trust. 3) Consider operating chamber ensembles in a cooperative learning environment. Assign roles to each members of the ensemble where they will serve as the ‘experts.’ One student may research the historical aspects of the music or composer, while another student is in charge of rehearsing the group, etc. Each ensemble then represents a reflection of all of the students’ work. Do use caution as you assign roles; “Social-dysfunctional may inhibit students’ ability to work well in cooperative groups. (Jensen 2013). Match the students’ interests with their assignment and skill level in the chamber ensemble. Once the students are comfortable with the process then they can start sharing in some of the decision making for the ensemble. Students who are given a choice within boundaries will continue to feel as if they are providing something of value to the music making process and have a greater opportunity to take ownership in the band program.
I believe that all students desire to do a good job and it is our job as educators to provide the resources and engagement strategies that will allow students to succeed; our decisions regarding resources and engagement should be driven by the demographics of our students. While our situation is not the ‘worst case scenario’ it did make us realize that we must take care of the child first, create and positive environment for them to learn, experience, and grow; then, show them the amazing
world of music.
MATTHEW SPRADLIN is in his twelfth year as Director of Bands at Wilmington High School after holding a similar position for three years in the Franklin City School District. He is a 2001 graduate of Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) where he received his Bachelor of Music Degree and received his Masters in Music Degree from Wright State University in 2015. In 2004 he was awarded an “Excellence in Teaching” award from the Area Progress Council of Warren County, and in 2011 The Williams Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Wilmington Schools Foundation.
In addition to his role at Wilmington High School, he frequently serves and Music Director/Conductor for the Wilmington College Theatre Department, has served as interim conductor of the Wright State University Concert Band, and as honor band guest conductor. Spradlin stays active in the Ohio Music Education Association where he has been District President and serves in various leadership roles.
Spradlin’s ensemble have earned consistent superior ratings at district and state events, have performed at Disney World, Dixie Classic National Adjudicators Invitational, and the Ohio Music Education Association Professional Development Conference in 2009, 2011, and 2016. He holds professional memberships in the Ohio Music Education Association/National Foundation for Music Education, College Band Directors National Association, and the National Band Association.
As published in the National Band Association Journal.