Opinion | Too Many Kids Quit Music. Is There a Better Way to Teach it?

When you mention the question of music in schools, two issues will typically come up: the pandemic and shrinking funding. Both of these are important, but they’re also missing the fundamental problem. Pandemic disruptions and the temporary halt of in-person teaching certainly exacerbated problems around musical education, but they didn’t create them. According to a study conducted over seven years in Texas, beginning in 2013, public school students in grades six to 12 had a band attrition rate of 80 percent, with the greatest declines happening between the first and second year of instruction. In a separate prepandemic study, California public schools saw a 50 percent decrease in student enrollment in music classes over five years. Research shows that students in low-income and ethnically diverse school districts are more likely to lack access to music education.

Funding is also part of the equation, but it’s not the whole story. Last year, California passed Proposition 28, which will bring about $1 billion in additional arts funding annually, with 80 percent of those funds typically going toward hiring teachers. But funding only makes music programs possible; it doesn’t adequately make kids eager to stick with them. People are quick to cite the anecdotal exceptions — the incredible teachers working with shoestring budgets who propel their bands to the highest levels in national competitions or the affluent kids who, like Ivy League heat-seeking missiles, will do anything to make that after-school cello lesson they secretly hate — but these “successes” only illustrate how the current approach is failing the majority of children.

Rather than fixating on funding, let’s look at taking a whole new approach. Educators lament that, as with other courses, band can frequently fall prey to “teaching to the test” — in this case, teaching to the holiday concert. A class that by definition is meant to be a creative endeavor winds up emphasizing rigid reading and rote memorization, in service of a single performance. We need to abandon that approach and bring play back into the classroom by instructing students how to hear a melody on the radio and learn to play it back by ear, and encouraging students to write their own simple songs using a few chords. (The dirty secret of pop music, as Ed Sheeran has explained, is that most chart-topping songs can be played by using only four chords: G, C, D and E minor.) So start with just one chord, a funky beat and let it rip — and, voilà, you’re making music.

It’s often been repeated that “music is a language,” yet we’re reluctant to teach it that way. When we learn a language, we don’t simply memorize phrases or spend all day reading — we practice the language together, sharing, speaking, stumbling but ultimately finding ways to connect. This should happen in music class, too. Music should be a common pursuit: Ask any dad rock weekend band or church ensemble how it experiences music, and the performers are likely to tell you it’s not a chore but a way of building community.

Most important, we need to let kids be terrible. In fact, we should encourage it. They’ll be plenty terrible on their own — at first. But too often kids associate music in school with a difficult undertaking they can’t hope to master, which leads them to give up. Music does not have to be, and in fact, shouldn’t be, about the pursuit of perfection. And the great musicians have plenty of lessons to teach students about the usefulness of failure.