Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” From polka to punk and mariachi to metal, you’ll find it here and in our surrounding communities. But even with all that musical talent around, many kids wouldn’t experience music education if it weren’t for schools, which teach music in a variety of forms. March is designated as “Music In Our Schools Month” by the National Association for Music Education — a great time to reflect on how music education can enrich the lives of students and communities.
Challenging the Brain
For Robert Duke, Ph.D., who is the head of Music and Human Learning at the Butler School of Music at UT Austin, learning to make music is a profoundly rewarding human experience that challenges and engages us in a way that few other activities do. “There are really no known activities that engage as much of the brain as music does,” he says.
Moreover, making music takes us on a path that is “wonderful and invigorating and reinforcing in all kinds of ways,” he adds, and greatly enhances our quality of life. Duke believes that public schools are an important part of making sure all children have opportunities to take such a path, since many won’t have these opportunities at home. He should know, having encountered his first musical instrument in a second grade music classroom, where he fell in love with playing a flutophone. Today, Duke is a distinguished professor, researcher and writer who has devoted his life to studying, appreciating, teaching and playing music.
The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) foundation recognizes school districts that offer high-quality music education programs nationwide. In 2017, San Marcos Consolidated ISD and Eanes ISD both received these “Best Communities for Music Education” designations. I talked to representatives from each to get a flavor of what makes their programs special.
Christopher Hanson, a trained violinist and composer, wears several hats within the San Marcos CISD, including Orchestra Director for San Marcos High School. Hanson helped create the orchestral program while studying graduate level music theory, history and composition at Texas State University. Although the district had a high school band, a choir and other music education programs in place before the native Houstonite became involved roughly six years ago, there had been no string program (such as an orchestra) since 1957, he says.
Over the past five years, Hanson and many others have worked to expand the district’s music programs, bringing increased student participation and even occasional monetary rewards. Today the district offers musical theater, salsa band, mariachi, classical guitar, music theory and music appreciation classes across multiple grade levels. Hanson attributes the growth of the district’s music programs and its recent NAMM recognition to the district’s teacher talent, expanded and diversified offerings, greater connection with community partners like the City of San Marcos, and enhanced public awareness of the availability and benefits of the music programs the district offers.
Kerry Taylor wears several hats as well, being the Director of Bands for Westlake High School and Fine Arts Director of Eanes ISD. In his 30th year of teaching with the district, Taylor has ushered the music programs through a lot of history. He credits the breadth of the programs offered within the district, as well as the stability and high quality of its music teachers with creating a setting in which students are motivated and excel.
The district has a marching band, four concert bands, a jazz band and a chamber music program, as well as classes in guitar and AP music theory. It offers an orchestra with strings for middle and high school students and various vocal programs as well. Although Eanes ISD music students have performed well in state and regional competitions over the years, such recognition is not a primary motivation for students or teachers, Taylor says. “It’s more about the process and the relationships that we are building, both between the students and the teachers and the community but also with the music,” says Taylor. “The kids would not continue if it were just about that trophy at the end. They put in too much work and effort for it to have just that payoff,” he adds.
For ideas about how to celebrate Music in Our Schools Month, visit tinyurl.com/y96koe4q. And wherever your child attends school, if he or she is not already involved in music-making activities, March is a great time to explore possibilities. You never know where the path may lead.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.