Curriculum, School Community, Teaching

Can Music in Schools Live Up To Its Promise?

Hussein B. is an ESL student in Grade 9. He speaks very little English and is nervous and shy in his classes. But when he enters the band room, his eyes light up. He takes up his trumpet, and for an inspiring hour he is united with his peers in the universal language of music.

Amy T. is a very quiet Grade 4 student. She lacks confidence and rarely raises her hand to answer questions in class. But there’s been a real change in Amy. The school started a choir recently, and Amy’s clear voice sails alongside her classmates. She smiles broadly when asked to sing a solo part and does so with a gusto that she is beginning to exhibit in other areas of learning.

“I know my son is really keen to come to school now, and that’s really surprising from being a kid that didn’t want to get up to being at school by 7:30 for band practice.” – Michelle, Parent 

Hunter D. is in Grade 12 and about to graduate. He almost dropped out of school in Grade 10, but his music teacher encouraged him to get involved in a stage band where he’s been playing guitar for the past two years. School is still a challenge, but music has helped him not only get through it but graduate with an average that could get him into college or university.

“You can see engagement, you can see teamwork, you can see pride, commitment, dedication, all of those things that we know are important to how successful they are outside of school.” – Jan Unwin, School Superintendent

These students are out there in schools right across the country. You know them – or kids like them. Music really does help to bring out the best in young people. It nourishes self-esteem, keeps them engaged, and creates a respectful community. Clearly, our communities benefit when schools engage students in music. Interestingly, most education ministries across the country seem to recognize the importance of arts education in their curricula. But, somehow, many gaps appear between the official stand – as expressed in speeches and curriculum documents – and classroom practice.

The Coalition for Music Education recently undertook a survey of Canadian school principals to map out the musical landscape in schools across the country.[1] If music education can reap such important benefits to our children, it’s important to understand what’s happening at the grassroots; and public education is the only way to ensure that all children have access to quality music programs, regardless of geography, social status, or family income. But, as our survey found, the delivery of quality music education varies considerably across the regions and for many reasons. In this article, we will focus on one particular challenge, the use of qualified music teachers. (The survey also yields surprising information in other areas, including school board support, fundraising pressures, timetabling, and resources.)

“Four years ago, we were able to hire a specialized music teacher (preptime delivery). What an improvement. Having a well qualified, dedicated teacher brought music to the school, from Senior Kindergarten to Grade 8!”[2]

The starting point for any good school program is the teacher, whether that program teaches English, math, science, history, arts – or music. So why is it that, at the elementary level, we have so many generalist classroom teachers – with no background in music or music education – attempting to deliver the music curriculum?  In response to the question “Who teaches music in your school?”, 38 percent of responding elementary schools across the country indicated that they have a classroom teacher with no music background in that role! Not surprisingly, the provincial picture varies widely. In the Atlantic provinces, four out of five responding schools have a music specialist delivering the curriculum. In stark contrast, in Ontario, our most populous province, 58 percent of those teaching elementary music have no music background.

This situation raises a number of questions:

  • Without proper training or support, can curriculum expectations be met?
  • Can students really be given the opportunity to maximize their success at school if they have no music program, or if it’s being poorly taught?
  • Could we envisage math or science being taught by people who had no training or expertise in these subjects?

“The scary part is, without any musical background, you could just photocopy sheets about music notation for the kids to fill in all year and claim to be delivering the curriculum. But that’s like teaching kids the alphabet without showing them the joy of reading a book.”[3]

If we are to maximize the benefits of music education to students, it’s important to offer a variety of musical opportunities – activities that go well beyond passive listening to the minds-on, hands-on music making that creation-and-performance type learning can provide. Yet, in elementary schools, listening is the most common form of music education.

Music really does help to bring out the best in young people. It nourishes self-esteem, keeps them engaged, and creates a respectful community.

Why is listening ranked so high – well ahead of activities such as choir and instrumental music that truly reap the benefits for children? Could it be a symptom of the lack of knowledgeable music specialists in the classroom, who find it easier to put a CD into a player than to teach the rudiments of music theory? Listening is important, but it is active music making that has the strongest impact on kids.

“Musical training has a profound impact on other skills including speech and language, memory and attention, and even the ability to convey emotions vocally…What’s more, children who have had music lessons tend to have a larger vocabulary and better reading ability than youngsters who haven’t had any musical training. And children with learning disabilities, who often have a hard time focusing when there’s a lot of background noise, may be especially helped by music lessons.”[4]

So where do we go from here?

The survey points out that, for most of the past decade, student participation in music has been rising while overall funding for music education has been falling. Clearly, as a community of stakeholders that includes teachers, parents, administrators, and policy-makers, we must continue to promote the value of music for children in our schools and ask for the resources – not just the material resources but more importantly the human resources – that will strengthen those programs.  Given the importance of having a qualified music teacher in the classroom, what strategies can be deployed to make sure that the talent at the head of the classroom is equipped to create the best learning environment for students?

1. We not only need more qualified teachers in our classrooms; once they are there, we need to keep them there. Some education ministers claim there are more music specialist teachers now than there were five years ago. This may be true, but many such specialists are teaching other subjects.

“It is really sad that I have a music specialist on staff who is not teaching music. Unfortunately, we are so short of qualified personnel to teach French (we are an immersion school) that I cannot afford to use her as a music specialist at this time.”[5]

2. Ministries of education and school boards need to do a better job of promoting and supporting professional development among those who are required to teach music but may not have a strong music background. One principal took the time to respond in the survey with this savvy recommendation, I would like to see a whole year set aside at our board with funds attached (from the Ministry) for systematic professional development for generalist teachers from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 6 for the following purposes: 1) to show them how much joy music brings to our lives; 2) to boost their confidence levels by providing tools to make their understanding of musical terms easier and their access to a variety of music activities to do with their students easier; 3) to build ‘teacher music networks’ with a mix of different ability levels in each group (perhaps these networks could meet once a term, with release funds, to share successful teaching strategies in teaching music to their students).”[6]

3. Our universities in general need to be doing a better job of providing teachers with the necessary skills to teach music effectively. While we firmly believe that more schools across the country should be hiring music specialists, we know this is not going to happen, at least not in the short term. But with better training for generalist teachers, more children in more schools will reap the benefits that a quality music education can bring. We owe it to this generation of students to move past the point where, as one teacher described it, “Music is the ‘extra’ that is done when there is time, and for which there is no space other than the classroom.”[7]

Hussein, Amy, and Hunter are among the fortunate students whose lives have been enriched by music. Their parents might even go further and say that music changed their children’s entire experience with learning and with school. Strengthening music programs may require resources, but more fundamentally, it requires a will and a belief that music can change young lives.

“It is my belief that every principal, through creative timetabling, can have a music specialist teach all the students in the school.… If a principal values music education, he/she can find a way to ensure it happens.”[8]

EN BREF – La musique aide les jeunes à se réaliser, nourrissant leur estime de soi et maintenant leur intérêt. L’enseignante ou l’enseignant constitue le point de départ de tout bon programme scolaire, que ce soit en anglais, en math, en sciences, en histoire, en art – ou en musique. Alors pourquoi, au primaire, y a-t-il tant d’enseignants généralistes – sans formation ni expérience en musique – qui tentent de livrer en classe des programmes de musique? Bien que jouer activement de la musique ait le plus solide impact sur les enfants, un sondage de la Coalition pour l’éducation en musique a révélé que l’écoute se situait au premier rang des activités musicales des écoles. Serait-ce le symptôme d’une pénurie de spécialistes en musique dans les écoles, où il est plus simple de glisser un cédérom dans un lecteur que d’enseigner les rudiments de la théorie musicale ou d’organiser une chorale ou un orchestre? Renforcer les programmes de musique peut nécessiter des ressources, mais plus fondamentalement, la volonté doit y être et il faut détenir la conviction que la musique peut changer la vie des jeunes.

[1] A Delicate Balance: Music Education in Canadian Schools, (study commissioned by the Coalition for Music Education, conducted by Hill Strategies Research Inc., 2010).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kevin Merkley, York Region District School Board, as quoted in Louise Brown, “Majority of Music Teachers Lack Musical Background: Survey” Toronto Star (4 November 2010).

[4] S.L. Baker on a study by Northwestern University Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. From “Music Benefits the Brain, Research Reveals,” naturalnews.com, July 30, 2010,

[5] A Delicate Balance.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Meet the Expert(s)

Norman Mould

Norman Mould is Chair of the Board, Coalition for Music Education. www.MusicMakesUs.ca

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Ingrid Whyte

Ingrid Whyte is Executive Director of the Coalition for Music Education.

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