The Lowest of the Low: Your Music Teacher

If your child is considering college, you’re probably aware of the value of music lessons.  You already know your kid is statistically far more likely to earn a higher GPA and more academic honors and awards than does one not studying music.  It could be because students studying music have larger “planum temporale,” the part of the brain you’re using now to read.  Another theory is that music students develop thicker nerve fibers connecting the left and right parts of the brain, as this prominent 1994 study contends.  (Source: G. Schlaug, L. Jancke, Y. Huang, and H. Steinmetz (1994). “In vivo morphometry of interhemispheric asymmetry and connectivity in musicians.” In I. Deliege (Ed.), Proceedings of the 3rd international conference for music perception and cognition (pp. 417-418), Liege, Belgium.)  As a reformed music educator, I like to keep up on these things.  I’m hopeful my newfound status as a writer will catch the attention of the right someone who can affect change.  But before you tell me how passé it is to start talking about what this country can and cannot afford, read on.

Private Schools/Public Schools

Some parents send children to private schools believing they will receive superior education than their public school counterparts.  Parents: think again.  Most private school music teachers are part-time and take multiple positions elsewhere, often in considerably divergent locations, in order to survive.  And those smaller class sizes your school advertises?  Multiply class size by the number of classes and gigs your kid/s music teacher must work to scrape by, then ask yourself how well the teacher can do with your child.

Further, your prestigious private school music teacher probably has no health insurance.  Well, s/he might have something – assuming they have no preexisting conditions, they may be able to scrape up some awful “basic” package from somewhere.  They’ll correctly make time to investigate different plans between all that commuting.  (Keep telling yourself that.)  Living the lifestyle shared by music teachers across the country, and listening to the tone-deaf national debate on healthcare, it’s easy to get the impression that America believes our part-time music teachers should just hole up somewhere and die.  The message for them is plain: you aren’t earning billions to prop up our economy, so you don’t matter.

And the full-time teachers? 

If your child’s music teacher is full-time, s/he does receive some benefits – benefits which include an unrealistic workload, often with duties beyond their realm of expertise, and leaving little time to assume “extra” gigs or private teaching to boost meager salaries.

Meet Your Music Teacher

The most expert music teachers are first-rate educators who also perform.  Good performance chops are inspiring to students, and it is rare to hear gifted instrumentalists in a classroom setting.  Yet, they’re around – usually in the lower tier orchestras, likely in their first job, and trying to audition their way up the food chain.  The goal: earn more, teach less.  Few hotshot players want to teach, which strikes me as intuitively similar to most other professions.  Of course, the supremely gifted student invariably finds his/her way to the supremely gifted masters – but we’re not talking about those students, are we?  Besides, if your child is one of those, you’re probably less concerned with the SAT score, preferring instead to focus on auditions or competitions.

Most middle level orchestras also yield fantastic music teachers, ones who are augmenting a “livable” wage with benefits.  You’ll find “career types” here also, still trying to audition their way up the food chain, and probably still not really wanting to teach your kid, who continues to play the same wrong F-sharp, week in and week out.  But these teachers soldier on, and your kid’s high SAT score opens doors.

The Syracuse Symphony employs teachers like this.  Or did.  It folded last night.  Of course, orchestras folding isn’t news, but tell that to Syracuse.  The impact on this community will be devastating.  Losing your Symphony Orchestra means more than losing cultural vibrancy Friday and Saturday nights downtown.  But don’t worry, your kid’s SAT score is probably safe; the majority of SSO players will likely collect unemployment benefits and/or earn ad hoc wages well below poverty level.  (A terrific retirement gift, by the way.)  Consummately talented, now destitute, they’ll nevertheless continue trying to help little Suzie with that infernal F-sharp.

Those who love to espouse the merits of competition in our economy may argue the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra as a cautionary tale of “mediocrity” (they’re not, by the way) in a tough-as-nails economy, but what of Detroit?  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra employs some of the finest musicians in the world, and it has been conspicuously hovering near death all season.  These musicians are teaching your kids also, though they probably have less patience for that F-sharp. 

Question: Who cares?

Answer:  The educated minority.   

According to a prominent study, approximately 16% of Americans go to classical music concerts.  40% of those attendees had post-graduate degrees, 25% earned college degrees, 21% had some college training and only 8% had a high school degree or less.  These statistics tell us that educated people still care about the arts in this country, but they only make up 16% of our total population.  That’s not bad when you consider that less than 30% of Americans have a Bachelor’s degree, but it’s terrible when you consider less than 30% of Americans earned their Bachelor’s degree.   (Source, Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study 2002: National Survey, sponsored by The Knight Foundation and conducted by Audience Insight LLC.)

In a nation that continues to prioritize free market values over basic human ones, why do you still care?  Oh, right.  Sorry, your kids live here too.  But then why aren’t we prioritizing Arts and Education in the budget?  Oh, right, we can’t afford it. 

It’s slash and burn for everything in D.C. these days, despite the hoarse cries from our best and brightest that under-funding educational programs is a sure path to long-term economic damage.  In condescending tones, we’re told to pin our hopes of economic salvation to helping the rich get richer.  We are given to believe this is an expression of our patriotism, and an honor.  Losing your home to toxic mortgages was one such premium on patriotism, and since there is increasingly less room at the Table of Ideas for social justice, what hope do the Arts ever have?

It’s fitting that we’re learning about sacrifice for our patriotism.  Next one?  Our children.  As is, their future belongs to the United States of Wall Street.  Our politicians – Democrats and Republicans alike – certainly aren’t doing anything substantive about it.

If you truly want change, go pay a music teacher their weight in gold.  It’s what they’re worth.