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Educators strive for accessible music education despite funding, diversity challenges

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A student rehearsing in the Paul F. Sharp Concert Hall on Nov. 10. 

Teachers have found ways to make music education more accessible and relevant to students at primary, secondary and collegiate levels, despite the lack of funding and diversity in music education programs.

In 2014-18, 1,110 fine arts classes in Oklahoma underwent a period of severe state budget cuts. In 2018, nearly 30 percent of Oklahoma public school students had no access to fine arts classes.

Funding for music education programs specifically has long been an issue in the Unites States, and though it is too soon to have information on how much the recent COVID-19 pandemic has affected fine arts programs, it is clear many districts have witnessed budget limitations resulting in cut programs and laid off arts educators.

“Unfortunately, arts most often get the low end of the funding poll because we haven't adequately identified the fact that arts are essential to humanness,” said Michael Raiber, former OU professor and current director of fine arts at Mustang Public Schools. “If it's essential to humanness, then it's essential to human education.”

Christopher Baumgartner, OU associate professor of instrumental music education, said funding for musical education programs is different for every school across the nation. A lot of times, he said, the burden of providing instruments goes to the student themself, making it “a constant battle” for students to have equitable access to music education.

“I think it's a catch-22,” Baumgartner said. “We wish that our school districts had enough state and federal funding to support everything for our students, so they could just walk in and we could just teach them and be done. But, that's not the reality really anywhere.”

Jessica Haley, a former public school music teacher and current first-year master’s student in music education at OU, said one of the biggest barriers she faced as a teacher was funding. At Clear Fork Valley public school in Ohio, where she used to work, Haley said many kids lived in rural areas where they did not have access to the internet and oftentimes would struggle to even have enough reeds for a clarinet.

Even so, Haley said the use of technology in band settings expanded students’ access to music. When the schools received a grant to provide students with Chromebooks for their classes, Haley said this aided in breaking down the funding barrier within the music program.

“The language of students these days is technology,” Haley said. “If we can reach them better by incorporating tech, then that's a totally valid pursuit.” 

Baumgartner said though there is no one-size-fits-all answer, he sees how teachers get creative with fundraising and parents help with donations to solve the issue of underfunding. Additionally, he believes teachers, both at OU and across every school system, need to communicate the successes of their students.

“Advocacy is one thing that's never going to go away,” Baumgartner said. “We're always advocating for our programs for our students to get more kids involved, because we know how much we love music and what it does for us and we want to do that for all of our children.” 

In addition to using technology to provide more access to students, Haley said community support in her former school district was vital to the program. Advocacy to find more ways to bring music out into the community, she said, is an important way to keep music alive in schools.

“One thing I really loved about teaching at Clear Fork was there was a really strong sense of community because it was like a small rural town,” Haley said. “Everybody knows everybody, and I think the band program really played to that strength.” 

Technology has broken some of the barriers caused by a lack of funding in music programs for students across the nation, and it also aids in increased accessibility to diverse groups in music education programs, according to Raiber and Baumgartner. 

In a 2019 longitudinal study following over 30,000 students, Black students, males, people with disabilities, people in poverty and people not yet fully proficient in English were found to not get the same opportunities for exposure to the arts in public middle schools compared to other groups. This indicates inequities and access gaps in K-12 grades within the arts and culture industry.

Diversity in music education has also been a problem for years in the music teacher workforce, Raiber said. This problem is most frequently seen in urban and rural areas, Raiber said, and is a result of these spaces failing to provide opportunities for students and teachers.

Raiber said the arts, as a profession, has been viewed for too long as an “activity rather than as an essential.” Because of this, music education programs have not made music widely accessible in educational settings, he said.

One problem, Rabier said, especially when it comes to the lack of diverse groups in musical education, is that to be in this field, students must enter with a skill set already in place. Unlike other professions, music majors have to audition and be accepted into a studio to enroll, meaning they must demonstrate a high level of musical ability and understanding. 

“There are universities around the country that are beginning to look at different opportunities for students to enter (these programs),” Raiber said. “Looking at different programs and providing space where they could come in as a guitar major (or) as a jazz bassist, things along those lines — they're offering more opportunities, but they're few and far between.” 

Baumgartner suggested implementing a variety of technological tools available to students in this generation, such as digital programs found on iPhones, tablets and computers, to make music programs more accessible to students. 

“We have to challenge ourselves as teachers to stay current and stay up with that and find ways to reach children where their interests are,” Baumgartner said. “I think there's a lot of reward and things to be learned by playing an acoustic instrument that you maybe can't learn by doing or performing or making music on a (technological) application.” 

Baumgartner said electronic music composers at OU have implemented some of these tactics, but, in general, he believes music programs need to offer more diverse classes for popular music, guitar classes, rock band classes and technological applications such as GarageBand. 

Rabier agreed that different kinds of music being taught and used in classrooms would not only diversify what students take an interest in music but also encourage all students to have passion for their music education. In his own classroom, Raiber uses a modern approach to his band by allowing students to bring in their own music, given it is school appropriate. 

By allowing student to bring in and write their own music, Raiber has encouraged students to better express themselves through the form, he said.

“Opening those doors for those kids to be able to work through those personal life experiences and sharing the power of music to be able to help them express that themselves, in my sense, that's the most powerful expression of music education we can get,” Raiber said. “Giving them those opportunities is what we work towards.” 

Music, all three educators agreed, is not only fundamental to students everywhere, but to human nature as a whole. 

“Music is not something that's just made for our leisure,” Raiber said. “It's not something that's just made by the gifted and talented. It's not something that we do because we have nothing else going on. It is essential to our (humanity). We must make music. It's part of who we are.”

Baumgartner said music is something everyone innately does whether they are professional musicians or children singing nursery rhymes on a playground.

“Music is a part of the human existence,” Baumgartner said. “People are naturally drawn to it and a lot of people naturally want to participate. Music and the arts bring a lot of culture and humanity to daily life and what we do.” 

In both self-expression and enjoyment, students can benefit greatly from music. As music education professionals, Baumgartner, Haley and Raiber said, their goal is to inspire the passion for and knowledge they have of music in their students.  

“My number one goal for (my students) is that they walk away with an enhanced appreciation and love for music,” Haley said. “I don't need them to go out there and be the next greatest conductor. If they can just incorporate music into their daily lives, whether that's just listening to the radio or playing an instrument or participating in a community ensemble. My goal is that they just understand music and they appreciate it and that it can kind of enhance their lives going forward.”

senior news reporter

Taylor Jones is a journalism junior and senior news reporter at the Daily. She started at the Daily in the fall of 2020 and has previously served as a news reporter. She is originally from Anna, Texas.  

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