Crisis or Opportunity: Tales from the Trenches

December 16, 2011

Crisis or Opportunity:

Tales from a Music Educator in the Trenches


“A man has no more character

than he can command in a time of crisis.”

— Ralph W. Sockman

            My allotted teaching space from 11:15-11:55 am was a brightly-lit, yet bare and uninspiring, second-floor multi-purpose room of a 98% minority public middle school in downtown Augusta, Georgia. I smiled at the boy opposite me, a stoic seventh grader named Christopher Quiller, whose solemn eyes only rarely connected with mine. I could hear the rowdy noise of his classmates in the hallway as he approached this room, and as he sank into the deeply scooping plastic chair, he seemed conflicted. The way his jaw was set told me he didn’t want to be here. The way he cradled his viola suggested exactly the opposite. His reputation, as supplied to me by his string teacher of the previous year, supported both of my observations.

This was my first teaching day in the fall of 2006. I taught chorus and general music classes at another Augusta area middle school for the two previous years, but there was an opening in the Richmond County Orchestra (RCO) faculty and I was finally able to get into my chosen musical field, being a violinist myself. Chris, on the other hand, had spent the last couple of years getting detention or in-school suspension for the occasional scuffle with his classmates while proving to be something of a natural on the viola. Due to a perfect storm of circumstances, he and I began our year of one-on-one lessons.

Teaching orchestra wasn’t supposed to be like this. Ideally, we’d have an actual orchestra class. You know; with more than one student and a true orchestra classroom with things like proper chairs to promote good posture and maybe some paneling on the walls to muffle our sounds to the surrounding classrooms. We would have class every day. I would never see a fourth grader enter my class with a full set of acrylic nails and the school nurse would not take over my room at will for scoliosis screening, robbing an entire day’s worth of teaching time for three for my classes. (Yes, that happened.)

Idealism just isn’t in the cards with the RCO. It is a pull-out program with an impressive (or devastating, if you’re prone to using the word “crisis”) nine string teachers covering 60 schools, teaching beginners in the fourth and fifth grades, all the way up to advanced high school students. The average RCO teacher travels to seven schools, depending on the size of the orchestra classes in their assigned schools. He or she will see the elementary school classes twice a week (sometimes with 60+ beginners in a class, sometimes only a handful), the middle school classes thrice – if they’re lucky! – and the high schools every day, with all 9-12 grade levels combined in one class.  There are county-wide evening rehearsals on Monday and Tuesday nights, also run by the nine teachers. Even though it is hair-raising at times, I found the challenge exhilarating.

As I read Alex Ross’s description of the “crisis” in music education (which called to mind this video about the crisis in education, overall), I felt a real connection with the two groups he had featured, the Malcolm X Shabazz High School Band and the Community MusicWorks. In the RCO, my colleagues and I had experienced a similar sense of needing to go above and beyond for the kids there, not as a special one-time effort, but as standard operation. Just as Hassan Williams had purchased a trumpet for his prize musician, it wasn’t long before I was driving Chris Quiller, among others, to and from evening rehearsals. (That year, he would not only continue his progress on the viola, but totally out-do himself, and completely astound me, by getting a better grasp of the cello in only a few months than I was able to do in a semester of private lessons in college.) Many of the RCO faculty members lend their own student-level instruments each year, in addition to the ones provided by the county. One RCO director bought new strings and etude books for several of his students for Christmas a few years ago.  Another polled her high school class on which composer they’d like to study intensely. She bought them each a hardcover copy of the same 800 page book on Mozart and during the course of the year they regularly read it aloud to each other.

As I soaked up the stories from Ross’s article and related them to my own experience, it occurred to me that many of the greatest teaching moments for me have come about because of the “crisis in music education”. We’ve been hearing for years, with increasing frequency and alarm, that music and arts funding is being cut from schools across the nation. Our county had to cut days from the school calendar and some vacated positions were not refilled. In a rare moment of publicity, our program even found its way into the local headlines.

Every year since No Child Left Behind, when the time came for the teaching contracts to be signed for the next school year, we orchestra teachers debated whether or not we would be among the educators invited to return. On one hand, we’re terribly efficient; the RCO boasts regular superior and excellent ratings in the state-mandated performance evaluations and the nine teachers cover all the schools in the 8th largest county in Georgia. Then again, nine people might seem expendable in light of the figures that need to be trimmed in order to sustain our school system. It was a constant sense of needing to prove ourselves that I remember from my five years on the faculty. There’s something about the sense of urgency that comes from thinking you might lose your job at any time because of budget cuts that made me strive to be the most outstanding teacher I could possibly be. I needed to connect with those kids while I still had a chance.

In 2009, I attended the ASTA Convention and found myself pleasantly involved in a conversation with a woman from either Montana or Wyoming (I can’t remember which). We animatedly discussed the thrill of teaching music to our students and I thought we’d really hit it off until I mentioned the word “public” to describe my schools. She simply said, “poor you”, and turned away, seemingly no longer interested in conversing with me.  I should have said it right back. Not only was I stung by her curt tone, but at the sheer ignorance of her assumption that public schools aren’t places where music education can thrive and therefore I couldn’t possibly derive satisfactory teaching moments there.

Motivation is a funny thing. As I ponder my own interpretation of what was expected of me in this “crisis” as being just the incentive I needed to prove my worth as a music educator and that of the entire RCO, I start to wonder what that was like for my students. Chris Quiller, for example, is now a 17-year-old senior in high school. He is currently the Principal Cellist of the Richmond County High School Chamber Orchestra, the most challenging performing ensemble in the RCO.

I moved to Pittsburgh, PA over the summer, so I haven’t seen Chris since he started his senior year. I got in contact with him to ask about his experience in music education. He tells me he originally joined the RCO because his cousin and sister were already members, but adds, “I later found out that music was an intrinsic motivator for me, and that I was a pretty good musician.”

Curious about the impact of music on his life, I ask questions about what kind of effect being in the RCO has had on him. He doesn’t have any comments about No Child Left Behind, or worrying about this type of program being cut from our schools (even though that has been an issue since I met him as a seventh grader). Instead he talks about music in ways that make me proud as his former teacher, not because he’s mimicking something I said to him, but because he’s thinking for himself; he has taken complete ownership of his identity as a musician. He says, “Music has not only changed the way I think, but also the way I react to certain situations. I have found an outlet for many of my emotions. Music has allowed me to express my thoughts and emotions in ways that not only benefit me, but may someday benefit someone else.”

Chris is enrolled in the International Baccalaureate Program at the Academy of Richmond County, the only public school in the county to offer that prestigious track. It would be easy for him to use the rigorous course of study as an excuse to give up the cello and focus on his academics completely. He didn’t. Holding a principal position in the RCO, he could also have developed a sense of elitism. He hasn’t. In fact, in response to my question (raised for me by Sebastian Ruth, right at the end of Ross’s article) as to whether or not music is something that can be made by anyone, anywhere, Chris replies, “I believe that music can be made by anyone and anywhere. Whether or not the music appeals to anyone, is determined by the perspective of the listener… music can take many shapes and forms, and that music is made not with instruments and gadgets, but with the mind.”

Many RCO students past and present would echo his sentiments, I am certain. The Richmond County Orchestra isn’t a nationally recognized program, it doesn’t benefit from any grants, and is sometimes even forgotten about or pushed aside by some of the county administrators. (In fact, I challenge anyone to find information about the orchestra program using the Richmond County School System website. The concerts on December 12th and 13th aren’t even on the events calendar. Disgracefully, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.) In spite of all of this, the RCO regularly produces serious music students, many of whom continue to play after graduation and seek degrees in music, and that leads me to believe that we can’t give up; there must be some hope for the future of music education. It is, in part, simply up to the music educators to continue to fight the good fight for our discipline, even filling the gaps left empty by other seemingly “core” subjects. We must use every bit of wisdom we possess to pass our love of music and our passion for teaching it on to our students through our day to day contact with them, for the sake of humanity.


2 Responses to “Crisis or Opportunity: Tales from the Trenches”

  1. Ed Turner Says:

    What a great story! You changed Chris’ life forever, which is what great mentors do…one at a time. Good.

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