Music Education in Detroit’s Public Schools: The Struggle to Survive

[Ed. Note: In March 2010, drastic fiscal measures were proposed to balance the Detroit city budget which included the firing of all arts teachers in the Detroit Public School system. In May, Joyce Schon, an attorney representing the Board of Education of the City of Detroit contacted operatic tenor George Shirley, university emeritus professor of music and former director of the Vocal Arts Division of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, about the matter. Shirley, who decades earlier was a graduate of the Detroit public school system and later the first African American to be assigned to a high school teaching position in vocal music in Detroit, began documenting the situation and has spearheaded an email campaign across the country to make people aware of what has been going on. We asked him to share his information with NewMusicBox. – FJO/MS]

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Detroit, Michigan, rode to global fame on the backs of two powerful industries. Automobiles and music gave Motown its globally acclaimed sobriquet. I am delighted that the automobile industry now appears to be staving off the total destruction that of late was so hungrily desired by many. I continue, however, to fear greatly for the second, now under raptorial attack by forces cluelessly determined to impoverish it via the agency of budgetary reductions that threaten retention of arts education as a core subject in the public schools. How, you may ask, would this action rob Detroit of one half of its eminence?

Robert Bobb, appointed emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools by Governor Jennifer Granholm, has decided to wrest control of curricular matters from the elected Board of Education, a body that over the years has not always functioned in a manner deemed efficient and effective. Since his appointment in March 2009 Bobb has, to his credit, uncovered fiscal mismanagement and incidences of corruption that have placed roadblocks in the smooth delivery of material support to students and teaching staff in a timely manner, if at all. His decision to dictate curriculum content generates from the real need to drastically reduce the school district’s budget for the coming academic year. His plan includes the firing of all 70 art teachers. At present, the supervisor of fine arts education, Benjamin Pruitt, plus 38 out of 81 vocal and instrumental music teachers, will be out of a job as of August 27. These numbers include some of the most experienced teachers in the system, as well as staff at some of the premiere schools in the city, e.g. Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High, The Detroit School of the Arts, and The Duke Ellington Conservatory of Music and Art. Statistics on the status of dance and dramatic arts teachers are presently being determined.

In this .pdf file is a list of teachers and staff, current as of June 2, 2010, provided to me by Benjamin Pruitt, the retiring supervisor of the Office of Fine Arts. It notes those who have “retired,” those who have been “pink slipped,” or who retired because they were going to be pink slipped; I have highlighted the music teachers.

This shocking document reveals clearly the disaster that awaits Detroit’s school population come next fall when these layoffs and “retirements” effect the destruction of a stellar citywide curriculum that through decades of instruction actually worked! A curriculum that produced some of the most notable names in every genre of the music profession will summarily disappear from the education of those who need it most. A curriculum that gave Detroit the talent that achieved for it one half of its global reputation will evanesce!

Bobb’s plan will not eliminate music totally from the curriculum. Herewith is an excerpt from his Detroit Public Schools Academic Plan revealed in March of this year (emphasis mine):

More extracurricular offerings: In addition to the usual menu of football, basketball, and baseball, more students will have access to debate or chess and performance groups like the Citywide marching band, jazz ensemble, and gospel choir, and more will compete in drama, dance, or media competitions.

PLANS FOR INCLUDING ARTS EDUCATION IN THE CURRICULUM

Create and implement a developmental and sequential arts program infused into the general instruction program. Schools will have arts infused in the school curriculum to reinforce skill acquisition, particularly related to literacy. Students will be provided with creative opportunities that enhance the inextricable relationship between arts, culture, life, and learning. Students will increase skills across multiple content areas.

(It seems unlikely to me that this could happen unless private funding is found to support it.)

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Bobb’s “vision” thus calls for the establishment of one citywide band (not concert?), one choir (only gospel?), one jazz ensemble, and one orchestra (?) for the entire school district. In order to qualify to compete for a slot in these “elite” performing ensembles, a student must maintain at least a 3.5 GPA in core studies. (Bobb seems either to forget or be ignorant of the fact that music is not “extracurricular,” but is deemed a “core” subject in the No Child Left Behind legislation.) It was pointed out to me by one of the teachers at a premiere high school that the students in his Honors String Quartet who recently won first place in a state-wide MASTA competition would, under Bobb’s academic plan, have been ineligible to play music in school!

I pose here no argument in support of poor academic performance. I do, however, argue for including music as a part of the solution to effective academic and intellectual growth, rather than debasing it as a frill, a sop held out like a lollipop, an enticement for girls and boys to behave and eat all their spinach before they can go out and play. The presence of music today in most schools—when I was a student in Detroit, music was present in all schools—will under the Bobb plan become history. A new curriculum severely limited in reach and requiring private funding to support arts programs in non-magnate—read “most”—schools will become the norm. In those schools where funding might be scraped together, music instruction will likely be staffed by less skilled, less experienced, and possibly less talented teachers who will work for pennies. If reified, this plan will effectively obliterate a meaningful encounter with music from the lives of a majority of Detroit’s children, who deserve better!

What students will be prepared to compete for a slot in Bobb’s elite extracurricular performing ensembles? Evidently, only those who, in addition to nailing their academic subjects, will have access to musical instruction of a quality that makes them competitive. Such preparation will be unavailable to those whose schools choose not to provide it, or whose parents cannot afford it. Thus will only a handful of privileged children be fortunate enough to reap the benefits that flow from creative engagement with the fine and performing arts, a scenario that fails Detroit’s children miserably.

The old system touched everyone, as education must do. A musical education is not meant to be elitist; song is, for most human beings, organic, and every child deserves a meaningful encounter with the developmental powers inherent in musical study. This is the message we must pound incessantly into the awareness of bottom-liners tasked with reducing education to a robotic exercise devoid of creativity and imagination.

Michigan is presently at war. I am not referring to the deadly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; I am speaking of the debilitating economic war that decimates our communities with increasing unemployment, despair, crime, and the substance abuses that attend such traumas. Can we afford, especially under such conditions, to deracinate the tree of cultural life that enables survival of the spirit?

The arts enrich life in myriad ways that are ancillary to the main event; their benefits spread far and beyond their expected purview. To cripple arts education invites psychic and somatic chaos that can contribute in a devastating manner to dysfunction in the community. Motown, the music industry, was built by Barry Gordy with a staff of musical artists who were musically literate; they had all been taught to read music in Detroit’s Public Schools from the first grade through high school. In my brief high school teaching career—interrupted by the military draft—I taught Martha Reeves (The Vandellas) and jazz singer Kim Weston in my Girl’s Voice Class at the old Miller High School. Miller High also produced Milt Jackson, Della Reese, and Kenny Burrell—all before I joined the staff! During my tenure at the Metropolitan Opera, other Detroit artists like Shirley Love, John Macurdy, Dominic Cossa, Nadja Witkowska, Muriel Greenspon, and Frank Porretta were either on the roster of the Met or the New York City Opera. Joseph Silverstein was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Isidor Saslav held the same post with the Baltimore Symphony. Ruth Laredo established herself as a pianist of importance, as later did James Tocco. Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Roland Hanna, Kirk Lightsey, Barry Harris, Geri Allen, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, et al., the list goes on, all products of the Detroit Public Schools, all prepared by the system to be musically literate. The Detroit arts curriculum, one of the best in America, spanned the entire district. Cass Technical High School was the only “magnate” in those days; while it produced its share of notables, many other artists who made history came from schools like Northern, Northwestern, Cooley, Mumford, Pershing, Central, and Chadsey, as well as the aforementioned Miller High. The talent was ubiquitous, and it flourished under the expert guidance it received in every corner of the city. Now, art and music, expressions so basically a part of human nature, are in danger of being de-emphasized to a point just short of non-existence so that more attention can be placed upon language arts, the sciences, and history, each of which ironically could, in the lower grades in particular, be addressed in significant and indelible ways through studies in music.

It is a source of great concern when I see how seemingly responsible citizens like Robert Bobb relegate music to the status of entertainment. Bobb appears to perceive music solely as a prize awarded for good grades, rather than a proven mind and character-building discipline capable of opening pathways that lead to good grades and further intellectual accomplishment, a rigorous discipline fully adept at imparting life lessons that play a continuing role in all aspects of a student’s future endeavors.

Entertainment, as defined by most dictionaries, is something that affords the mind rest, relaxation, diversion, amusement; in sum, an agreeable experience. An artistic experience, however, transcends these bounds by offering the mind a challenge, an opportunity for growth; it uplifts as well as soothes and does not have to be agreeable to be worth its weight in gold. Rigorous pursuit of artistic perfection is the goal that prepares psyche and soma in ways that enable future success in disciplines seemingly unrelated to music. The poisonous and shallow view of music as entertainment alone makes it expendable when the education dollars get tight, an easy target for destruction when cognizance of the long-term consequences of such a decision is lacking. History has proven repeatedly that cultivation of the fine and performing arts ensures the continued growth of mind and spirit. In this way, hand in hand with scientific development, civilization is reborn and continues to thrive.

On a recent visit to Cape Town, South Africa, I taught a number of workshops to students at the South African College of Music of the University of Cape Town. These were young singers, over 90 percent of whom were from the townships (read black African), and who had received initial training in vocal music in their public schools. A strong choral tradition, combined with classically based training in vocal technique produced amongst these students some of the most stunning voices that I have heard anywhere my travels have taken me. While there, I met a young soprano named Pretty Yende who had just become the first singer ever to win first prize in every category of The Belvedere Competition, one of the most prestigious singing contests in the world. She is now a member of the young artists training program at Milan’s famed La Scala Opera. I also met a married couple, alumni of the school, who were visiting from Germany where both perform under contract to a regional opera house. In addition, I met another alumnus, a baritone presently engaged by New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company.

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Of course, not all the talented students I heard at Cape Town will go on to established careers in opera. Some will perform popular music, and some will sing in church as they pursue other professions that the discipline instilled by musical study will have in part prepared them to embrace with success. My point: What do they know in the townships of South Africa that Robert Bobb seems ignorant of in Detroit? Although we were removed from the heart of Mother Africa more than 500 years ago, music and art remain no less of an imperative to our well being and survival as a people in the New World. The Bobb plan will of a certainty further impoverish countless Detroit youth who will have no chance to discover aspects of themselves through those characteristic pathways that inhere in the study and practice of music and the visual and plastic arts, pathways ingrained in our historical memory as sons and daughters of Africa.

To my mind, three disastrous occurrences have created the monster of indifference that makes of music a non-player in thousands of public schools across this nation. First in order of destructive importance comes the institution of the self-contained classroom, a decision that eliminated departmentalization in the lower grades. Second, the media and Muzak that have made the sounds of music ubiquitous, taken for granted, and drained of substance. Third, the failure of music professionals to adequately inform the public of those benefits provided by music that reach far beyond and plumb far deeper than the shallows of entertainment and advertisement that unceasingly inundate our sonic consciousness.

The destruction of Detroit’s premiere arts curriculum began with the introduction of the self-contained elementary school classroom some five decades ago. Bean counters got the bright idea that one teacher could be taught to teach all the core subjects and thus save dollars. The proposed change received support from some educators and parents who felt exposure to a single teacher a more effective method of nurturing the child than that provided by the prevailing system of “departmentalization” in which elementary pupils visited different classrooms during the day to receive instruction from “specialists” in music, science, etc. The policy makers felt departmentalization denied teachers adequate time to become acquainted with their charges as intimately as they should, and that children were incapable of bonding to an acceptable degree with more than one teacher. I think it probable that children who required that kind of bonding needed it because they were lacking sufficient nurturing from parents busily engaged in expending their energies in career or social pursuits outside the home. Granted that mine was a different generation, but I doubt my peers suffered greatly from having to adjust to different individuals who taught us science, music, art, and gym. It was, in fact, a relief at times to escape homeroom to learn from the expertise of another teacher! Are today’s children so different, so in need of a longer period of gestation or an extension of umbilical attachment?

Thus, without acknowledging or respecting the obvious fact that it takes special abilities and thorough technical preparation to effectively teach art and music, the decision makers resolved that music, along with social studies and science, be added to the teaching assignments of the “homeroom” teacher. Art escaped this indignity for a while, but eventually found itself relegated to “Art-On-A-Cart” status without a proper home of its own.

In fact, I believe the present crisis in education across the board is a direct result of the ascendancy of the self-contained philosophy. It is risible to expect one teacher to master the in-depth knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies, science, music, and art and possess the talent and skill to impart it with equal fervor and energy to his/her students! The idea that a teacher working in this type of learning environment can be capable of delivering a more “child-centered” rather than “subject-centered” instruction has led to the poor mastery of subject matter we decry in our schools today. We still send students to the gym for sports and exercise; it does not seem to upset their equilibrium when they are exposed to the gym teacher or coach who is especially qualified for the job. Why on earth would one think that visiting the art or music or science teacher for one class period out of the week would be less nurturing or more upsetting than being locked in with only one teacher for most of that week? Suppose the student cannot stand the teacher, or the teacher the child? The child has then neither recourse nor respite from an atmosphere that can foster only resentment and a sense of helplessness.

Self-contained classroom instruction, which mandated the training of regular classroom teachers in precise methods required to effectively teach music to elementary school children, automatically unseated the trained music teacher from his/her post, subsequently relegating him/her to the status of itinerant music specialist, traveling from school to school, finding, like the Coo-Coo bird, temporary shelter in nests of oft times indifferent hosts. These “circuit riders” visited schools in their assigned districts, teaching pupils on their visiting days and instructing classroom teachers in methods for continuing the work until the next visit. In many schools, music became an activity the sole purpose of which was to fill in the spaces when the classroom teacher needed to go on “break.” Naturally, if a classroom teacher was ill equipped by nature to provide an appropriate musical model for the class, he/she was not likely to risk embarrassment in front of the pupils by attempting to teach the music lesson. Indeed, one might argue that those non-musicians who attempted to teach the music lessons when the children would have been better served by a prudent omission of it were doing more harm than good! What with the inevitable decline of musical standards attending this cost-cutting, bonding-focused development, erosion of the quality of musical experience was assured, bringing us to today when fewer and fewer administrators and educators seem to know the difference between a musical experience of merit, and one that is absolutely poverty-stricken! It pains me to see a basketball game where few if any members of the team can hit the backboard, much less sink a basket. The musical equivalent of this fiasco is the band, orchestra, or choir that performs with great energy and volume, but fails miserably to play or sing in tune, with rhythmic precision, with nuance, or with a proper sense of style (read “sink a basket”). I hurt for the composer, the music, and most of all for the students who feel they have accomplished something of value when in fact they have failed miserably, either through sloth or poor instruction, to master the techniques and rules, thus resulting in an inability to play the game at a competitive level.

The present mayor of Detroit is a former professional basketball player who successfully applied what he learned on court and in class in order to achieve success as an entrepreneur. He now applies those lessons in his attempts to achieve success in the political arena. A musical education provides similar preparation for life, either as a musician or as a successful practitioner in other professions. The University of Michigan campus boasts numerous professors in varied schools and academic departments who claim music as an avocation. Only 3 percent of the 300+ students in the UM Marching Band are from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, a statistic not generally known to the public. Why do these scholars who are not majoring in music spend hours daily practicing their instruments in order to play in the band when they could be doing their homework in astrophysics, tonometry, or, say, growth of phytopathogenic fungi? They are preparing for careers in those “marquee” professions, e.g., business, medicine, law, physics, etc., that Detroit parents also wish for their children. Why this dallying around with music, if it is a frill of little or no real value? A few years ago I was told a question of this nature was asked of a band member by a reporter, possibly from the student newspaper, The Michigan Daily; the student’s response: “Because it’s humanizing.” I would add that it is also inspiring, intellectually and physically challenging, and was a significant contributor to the student’s ability to achieve mastery of the concepts and problematics that constituted the core of her academic major.

What Detroit desperately needs is a curriculum that engages young people in inspirational, intellectual, and creative ways that lift their sights and foster harmony and the cooperative spirit; in this regard, the record of accomplishment for music education in Detroit over time is that of a winner. Bobb would destroy it totally with his shortsighted plan, leaving only a handful of the student population with the possibility of tasting the inspirational and developmental powers proffered by formal music study. I’ve often said that studying music is no more about preparing to become a professional musician than playing football is about preparing to become a professional football player. While professionals do emerge from these learning experiences, the true value of these disciplines inheres in the life lessons they teach to all participants; thus it would be criminal in my view to deprive the majority of Detroit’s youth of the salubrious effects that attend music making and the lifelong benefits to be obtained therefrom.

The advertising world knows well the power of music to educate the public; if it were not so effective in capturing the attention and imagination, music would not be an essential component in the success of the billion dollar commercial business. Music remains one of the most powerful tools for synchronous learning available to the teaching profession. It gains direct and immediate access to the souls of children, sparking the volatile creative fuel that sloshes within. When that fuel is not ignited by positive inspirational experiences of the kind that formal musical instruction provides, it will of a certainty be detonated by other incendiary forces, not all of which result from friendly fire. Unfortunately, we see consequences of the latter too frequently these days…

The scholars of the medieval university knew the value of music’s intellectual properties, including it in the quadrivium along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Studies in harmonics were deemed fundamental in preparation for advanced studies in, say, philosophy. While applied studies in music were not part of this curriculum, the exploration of the basic structures of the art form doubtless fostered performance studies as well. The point here is that the study of music poses mental challenges that go well beyond the training of motor skills and honing of those aesthetic principles necessary to achieving expertise in musical performance. José Abreu, founder of the famed Venezuelan music education initiative now known as El Sistema, is an economist by profession and a talented amateur musician whose excellence in his profession owes, I would argue, no little credit to the contribution musical study has made to his intellectual development. His “system” offers undeniable proof of the power of music to heal lives that are at risk, as are so many in Detroit and other cities across this nation.

Recent action on the part of the House education subcommittee of the State Legislature in Lansing, Michigan, denying Robert Bobb his request for academic control over the district is a step in the right direction. I hope for a tornadic outcry from parents, educators, community leaders, and students that will sweep away Bobb’s wrong-headed thrust to marginalize music in this manner. We who know the value of a musical education need to become more proactive in enlightening the general public to the fact that, as El Sistema continues to prove in Venezuela, music study and performance wields transformative power, turning people’s lives around and pointing them towards the sun. Music has been, is, and must remain a CORE SUBJECT!

In closing, I have included below some excerpts from short essays written by students of Marc Haas, orchestra teacher at Cass Technical High School, whose position terminates in August.

“Why I Play Music”

“Music should be in all schools, because some people do not have the freedom to express themselves. Sometimes all a child needs is to express themselves to be accepted in this world.”

“Where I live is rough in the heart of the eastside there is no right path. So instead of selling drugs I practice and I practice hard whenever I’m frustrated and I feels I can’t function through everyday life I play some music and my troubles melt away… I truly never thought that I would become this good at the cello…my parents love to hear me play now when at first I had to stay upstairs to play (now) they make me play for family and friends and everyone is amazed by my skill and how much I progressed. The point is that I can do anything regardless of my position. You can do it no matter what the odds because most people don’t really know what it’s like for me what I do when I leave Cass but I don’t let it I interfere with my love for music.”

“Music teaches me discipline. Music helps me establish a work ethic. Music isn’t easy. It takes patience, hard work and dedication.”

“Music is my way of communicating what it is that my mouth finds too hard to speak. With every aria I am able to release my inner passions. With every minuette, I am free to dance into a stupor. With every concerto I am able to let go of my anger. And with every overture I am able to overcome any and all obstacles. So when people ask why (she) plays music, she laughs and answers, ‘So I can dream’.”

“Music is a necessity to my life, it keeps me pushing to do better, and when you have to do that with even just one aspect of your life, it forces you to do the same with every other aspect. Why do I play music? I need to. I have to. Music is not an option.”

“My parents don’t tell me that they are proud of me a lot but when I play my cello for them and see the smile on their faces I know that they are proud of me for achieving something and learning how to play such a difficult piece of music.”

“The people I’ve made memories with will be with me forever. Music brought all of us together to form this small family that has become one of the only reasons I still enjoy coming to school.”


Does Robert Bobb, or anyone, need more proof?

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George Shirley

George Shirley is The Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Music and former director of the Vocal Arts Division of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. He has won international acclaim for his performances with the Metropolitan Opera, where he was the first African American tenor to sing leading roles, and with major opera houses and festivals in Europe, Asia, and South America. Shirley received a Grammy award in 1968 for his role (Ferrando) in the RCA recording of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. He has performed more than 80 operatic roles as well as oratorio and recital literature over the span of his 51-year career. A graduate of Detroit Northern High School and Wayne (State) University, he was the first African American to be assigned to a high school teaching position in vocal music in Detroit.