February 2011 – Richard Colwell

Views on Music Education in the 21st Century
By Richard Colwell

The State of Music EducationIf our Pre-K-12 schools change their structure and their priorities, would those changes impact the teaching and learning of music?  This is a complex question and I’m not sure there is an answer. A good point of entry would be to assess the present status of music education in the US, its strengths and its weaknesses, and its relationship to 21st century American education and culture.

What is music education?
One element that contributes to some confusion is the lack of agreement on what constitutes music education and a second element would question the existence of a profession of music education.  Some schools of higher education are taking a less traditional approach to providing their students with the necessary skills to teach music. My most recent faculty appointment was with the New England Conservatory of Music, an institution that focuses its music education efforts on both improvement and excellence.  The Conservatory, however, has no music teacher certification program and no graduate programs with the traditional mix of education and music coursework.  The Conservatory does have a Continuing Education Department that provides individual and group music lessons to students of all ages and sponsors several outstanding youth orchestras, bands, and choruses.  The Conservatory is also the “musical home” of the National Public Radio program From the Top, hosted each week by Christopher O’Riley.

In addition, the Conservatory also serves as the “home” institution for training students to spend time studying and teaching at El Sistema, a state-sponsored music education program in Venezuela, founded by Jose Antonio Abreu. Recently the success of El Sistema has received extensive coverage in the American media after one of its graduates, Gustav Dudamel, became the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Since being hired, Dudamel has been a vocal proponent of social-music programs such as the one initiated by Abreu in Venezuela. (Editor’s note: Click HERE to watch a 60 Minutes with Maestro Dudamel as he discusses the importance of programs like El Sistema.)

The New England Conservatory is not unique in its efforts to provide continuing education programs. One can find a similar situation across the Charles River at Harvard University, an institution that has a large extension division that serves both public school administrators and teachers. Harvard is careful to distinguish between having a degree from Harvard and a degree from the extension division of Harvard. Juilliard students, despite the fact that the institution offers no teacher certification program, are quite active teaching music in the New York City public schools. They participate in a program similar to Artists in the Schools through grants obtained by Julliard President Joseph Polisi. Additionally, the institution sponsors a very selective pre-college division, a Music Advancement Program that offers instrumental music education to minority students from New York City schools, along with an evening division, and a Community Service Fellowship Program that presents concerts in New York City health care facilities. Polisi has been critical of public school music, saying that, “Currently the unfortunate state of music education in America on the primary/secondary level is a well-known condition to all of us” (Polisi, 2005, p. 52). Concerned about public school music, Polisi has argued that it is unfair to expect applied music students to take teaching positions under Artists in the Schools without any preparation; thus, he supports the “internship” of Juilliard students in the city’s schools as part of their undergraduate program.

Music and the world of education at large
I find it difficult to criticize the efforts of so many to improve the musical literacy of American students when the problem might be in the expectations that the profession has for itself.  I respect the position of MENC that music education be defined as “sequential. . . [and] taught primarily by certified and qualified teachers.” That position, however, resulted in a rebuke by Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment of Arts when he suggested that MENC was, with this statement, interested more in jobs than in education (Ivey, 2008, p. 112-113).  With these few examples, I hope to portray my view that assessing the status of music education in 2011 is a complex task.  I see the 1913 wisdom of Oscar Sonneck, the famous musicologist and librarian of Congress who said “I defy anybody to survey the musical life of America with accuracy” (cited in the Forward to Faucett, 2008).

There are additional complexities that must be addressed such as any distinction between required and elective music, the relative importance of music publishing and industry on the curriculum, the role of professional organizations in both music and education, and what tradition and culture have led the public to expect of a public school education.  I think I can make the argument that the public likely believes that all or most students should be educated in the rudiments of music with, perhaps, some knowledge of how to sing, and with small and large ensemble electives at the secondary level. A recent public opinion poll showed that 3% of Americans believe that music should be a core subject taught in public schools while another poll, conducted by Gallup-Phi Delta Kappa, indicated that the public believes that music instruction should be available in all schools, but not required. The voluntary national standards in four art forms – dance, theater, visual arts, and music – were a real stretch, certainly beyond the capability of the American educational system. Howard Gardner, a prominent educator who is supportive of arts programs in schools, now suggests that one art form would be sufficient (2010, p. 12).   Supporter Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2009, p. 48), in addressing priorities in our public school system, suggests that the artist is seen as a decoration in education.

While the music standards movement has focused on the content of instruction; I believe that the public would have a greater interest in the quality of music instruction.  Quality is addressed in the performance standards but few, if any, states want to go there.  Having a performance standard would mean discussing a general level of music competence for 3rd grade students or for 8th grade students.  The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1997 and 2008 selected a few items from our profession’s voluntary national standards for their assessment.  The test experts at NAEP found that they could not establish consistent standards for assessing creativity and performance capability and made a feeble attempt for the category responding.  With only about 10-12%  of our students demonstrating musical proficiency, music educators can simply ignore performance standards in music.  The resources required to bring half or more of the population to the expected performance standard is simply too great—at least at this time.

Music in colleges and universities
With large enrollment increases in applied music majors, it is safe to say that music in our colleges and universities is healthy.  In schools affiliated with the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), some 2,903 undergraduate music degrees were awarded in 1990, increasing to 4,159 in 2008 with entry into these programs being very competitive.  Clearly high schools are producing extremely competent musicians.  Of interest is the proportion of degrees granted – music education with 5,070 awarded degrees in 2008 is no longer the only big draw in the music department.  These numbers are of special interest as a number of Ivy League institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Boston College still do not grant academic credit for applied music.  Assessing the health of graduate music programs proves more difficult to describe because of the wide range of degree titles.  There were 72 uniquely named doctorates in music granted by colleges and universities in 2008. Music business may be the fastest growing program if judged by the number of institutions that offer degrees with various titles but all related to the business end of music.  The Berklee College of Music, the largest school of music in the US, was founded after WWII and was not accredited until 1993. Today, Berklee has 4,000 undergraduates and over 500 faculty members.  It accepted guitar as a principal instrument in the early 1960s and has programs in film scoring, music synthesis, songwriting and, of course, jazz.

Music education in the community and public schools
The quality of music by school-aged students is evident in the stunning youth orchestras that exist in every state.  Leon Botstein (2008) in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal cites 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. Informally, my count found the number closer to 300, but Botstein is president of Bard College and has a basis for his claim that live classical music is an unsung success.  There are more than 400 professional orchestras today where 30 years ago there were 203 and more youngsters are playing classical instruments than ever before. Nearly every one of these professional orchestras has an educational component designed to supplement or replace music instruction in the schools.  Botstein concludes that if classical music is in trouble, it is because advocates are acting as if it were terminally ill. (p. 1-2).

It is not only the selective youth orchestras or the individuals who appear on From the Top that serve as evidence of a high interest in classical music among today’s youth. There is enormous performing competence in thousands of secondary school bands, orchestras, and choruses, stronger in some parts of the country than others.  Instrumental music has probably led choral music in the schools for nearly 100 years and that reality may relate to the relative emphasis of teaching music reading in general music programs.  Quality and quantity differ based on any number of factors: tradition, socio-economic status of the student body, inspired teaching, and, of course, administrative support.  Donna Emmanuel of the University of North Texas informs me that mariachi bands are dominant in many Texas high schools.  She cited one Dallas suburban school that employs five full time mariachi instructors at both the junior and senior high school. (I suspect that many would not accept this experience as a quality music experience for the vocalists and trumpeters but that’s not my point.)

Students from the Fox Tech High School Mariachi Band in San Antonio, Texas.

It is equally difficult to describe the health of required music in the elementary schools.  There is simply too much variation.  The “rough” estimate is that, on average, students receive about 45 minutes of instruction per week. This amount of time is insufficient to accomplish any performance standard on any one of the nine voluntary national standards, let alone all nine.  That average is misleading since instruction amounts can very from daily to once every two weeks.  There appears to be a relationship between classroom teacher “planning-time” and the amount of instructional time from specialist teachers.  Thus, the priority of music is affected by the priority given to visual arts, theatre, dance, special education, physical education, and even community programs such as DARE.  Some of this music instruction can be from Artists in the Schools or an integrated arts program headed by the music teacher.

In reviewing the status of music education, one cannot ignore the interest in arts integration.  The US Office of Education supports at least 60 teacher training institutes on arts education each year, affecting more than a million students.  Articles in journals published by education associations focus on arts integration and the Lincoln Center Institute, in operation since 1975, claims to have had an impact on more than 20 million students and teachers with its focus on developing skills of observation and imagination.

Lastly, a look at the numbers reveal that music is offered in 90% of American schools with band and chorus offered in 97% and 90% of those schools, respectively. Advanced placement theory is one of the fastest growing AP course with 17, 267 students enrolled in 2010.

Professional Development
The general music program is not solely dependent upon instruction in elementary music methods courses offered by American colleges and universities.  There are associations of teachers related to specific teaching strategies that meet regularly and conduct in-service educational programs.  The American Orff-Schulwerk Association has a membership of over 6,000 that offers specialized instruction in some 62 institutions.  The Organization of American Kodaly Educators has a membership of some 2,000 and its members also attend workshops and in-service programs in approximately 35 institutions with the smaller Gordon Institute aggressively promoting a researched and sequential program of music applicable in general music programs.  There are also smaller programs that promote ideas of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze and a number of organizations with programs for both pre-Kindergarten and primary schools. Additionally, there are 8,000 accredited pre-schools and a school must offer music to be accredited. The Mountain Lake Colloquium held every other year in Virginia operates at maximum capacity. The membership numbers of these organizations affiliated with MENC- The National Association for Music Education – would indicate that a large percentage of general music teachers are active in teaching and promoting various teaching strategies while continuing to improve their own instruction. In instrumental music, the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic is an independent educational organization, band and orchestra teachers have their professional organizations, and students supplement their school instruction by attending summer music camps.  These camps offer classes, private lessons, and large ensemble experience.  I do not know the number of students reached nationally, but the camp at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro enrolls 1,800 students each summer.

The role of industry
Bodilly and Augustine (2008) in a report supported by the Wallace Foundation and RAND suggest that music teaching and learning now is the responsibility of four organizations, community-based providers, cultural organizations, out of school organizations, and the schools (p. 1).

The music industry has been an important factor in music education since the Handel and Haydn Society found that the sale of the music of Lowell Mason, Luther Whiting Mason, and George Root proved to be very profitable.  Instrumental music also has a commercial side; one million wind and string instruments are sold each year. Guitar study is available in 25% of American junior and senior high schools with organizations like Little Kids Rock supplying guitars to children in disadvantaged communities. VH1’s Save the Music Foundation claims to have restored 1,600 instrumental music programs since 1997. The Yamaha Corporation publishes grade examinations that have been taken by some 400,000 candidates and Conn-Selmer provides quality instruments to 13 colleges.

The reader of this journal is probably aware that many of the innovations in music teaching and learning were the result of foundations and/or industry.  The Carnegie Foundation has been involved in supporting music since at least the early 1920s.  It was the Ford Foundation that initiated Young Composers in the Schools in 1959, expanding it in 1962.  The Comprehensive Music Project was also a Ford-supported venture, occurring about the same time that Ford provided 60 million dollars to symphony orchestras – money that has proved critical for the healthy status of many orchestras today.  The Rockefeller Foundation was also instrumental in initiating many of the successful curriculum reform efforts and one can be sure that NAMM, the International Music Producers Association, is represented in today’s discussions with curriculum standards, offerings, and advocacy.

Personally, I’m impressed with the number of organizations concerned with and supportive of music education, however that term is defined.  The Kennedy and Lincoln Centers reach millions of students and teachers; Young Audiences performed at nearly 6,900 schools, impacting around 5 million students and recently received a 4 million dollar Investing in Innovation grant from the Department of Education. Yes, music instruction is increasingly being outsourced and a MusicianCorps (comparable to the Peace Corps) has been established.  Many very accomplished musicians enjoy teaching in the schools and places are being found for them.  I serve on the board of a Community Music Center in Boston and the Center provides all of the music instruction in some 20 Boston schools.  The presence of 1,500 magnet arts schools indicates to me that there is parental interest in music. While most of these parents are not directing their children toward careers in music, they are aware of the many benefits, other than improved musical technique, that come about through participation in music.  During the early 20th century, vocal music was taught in the public schools of Boston for its health benefits.  My colleague, the eminent music historian William Lee argues that superintendents supported music ensembles for their social, democratic values – and I concur. Many Americans like to participate in ensembles as adults, which I assume is based on the experiences they had as children in the music programs at their own schools.  The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that 28 million Americans participate in choruses, while New Horizons, a new organization for adult instrumentalists, reaches at least 10 thousand people.


Bauerlein, Mark (nd). (Ed.) National Endowment of the Arts: A history 1965-2008. Washington: National Endowment of the Arts

Bodily, Susan and Augustine, Catherine with Zakaras, Laura (2008). Revitalizing arts education through community wide coordination. Santa Monica: RAND

Botstein, Leon. (2008). The unsung success of live classical music.  Wall Street Journal, Oct 3, pages W 1-2.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009) Intrinsic motivation and multiple intelligences.  In Shearer, Branton, (Ed.) MI at 25: Assessing the impact and future of multiple intelligences for teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press, pp 44-50.creativity.

Faucett, Bill. (2008). Music in America, 1860-1918: Essays, Reviews and Remarks on Critical Issues. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press.

Gardner, Howard. (2010). Five minds for the future.  In Bellanca, James and Brandt, Ron (Eds.) 21st Century Skills: Rethinking how students learn. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press, pp 9-31.

Ivey, Bill. (2008). Arts, Inc.: How greed and neglect have destroyed our cultural rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Polisi, J. W. (2005). The artist as citizen: Pompton Plains, NJ: Amadeus Press.

Dr. Richard Colwell is professor Emeritus of Music Education at the University of Illinois and the New England Conservatory of Music and the founding editor of the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education and the Quarterly Journal of Music Teaching and Learning. He is also a Guggenheim scholar and a member of MENC’s Hall of Fame. He is the author of numerous books, chapters, and articles on the subject of music education curriculum, methods, evaluation, and research. He is the editor of the MENC Handbook of Research Methodologies, the MENC Handbook of Musical Cognition and Development, and The New Handbook Of Research On Music Teaching And Learning. (Image and bio source: Rhode Island College)

This entry was posted in The State of the Profession - February 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to February 2011 – Richard Colwell

  1. Thank you, Dr. Colwell, for this information packed article. There is much here to consider, and for me personally, it’s gotten the wheels turning. What should the future of music education be, when the very fabric of what defines music is now changing dramatically? What new corporations and organizations of influence will shape what is to be learned, and maybe more importantly, the way in which it will be taught? What are the most important elements of music as a performing art, and what are the standards to be used to measure these elements? Now may be the optimal time to re-evaluate the way we have been approaching these questions.

    Thank you,
    Adam Goldberg

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