It’s no secret (and possibly no surprise) that the public education system in Saskatchewan (and other parts of the country) is under attack. While governments have been claiming to increase funding to the sector, the truth is that education (and I’m mostly talking about primary and secondary education, because post-secondary is a whole different kettle of worms) has been underfunded for at least 15 years. I’m not talking just about teacher salaries (don’t come at me with shitty “teachers don’t even work a full year” and “teachers are overpaid” and “I could do a better job” take. I don’t entertain any of that malarkey unless you ARE a teacher, mostly because the folk who bleat that crap don’t understand the profession, the curriculum, nor the system itself), but about the entire system. We have schools in desperate need of physical upgrades and repairs that have been left out to pasture so long they now have to be torn down, schools that can’t afford custodians, schools that need to be enlarged. This government, which seems so excited about in-migration to the province and making this a great place for families don’t seem to equate the need in growing communities for increasing funding to education. And under it all is the thrum of the privatisation drum, which has been, and will continue to be the death knell of what used to be a world-class system.
I’m actually not going to continue to rant about chronic and long-term educational underfunding, because that would take a lot of your time. I do want to talk about some of the casualties of the government’s failure to understand that as the cost of doing anything increases, providing “increased funding” that matches (or that just barely matches) the rate of inflation/cost of living is not increased funding; it’s status quo funding. And if status quo funding was insufficient nearly two decades ago (it was), it sure as shit is insufficient now.
What’s happening now, and what has been happening for a decade and a half, is the decimation of arts education in general and band programs in particular. There are probably kajillionty studies that talk about why these programs are important, but if you don’t already understand the value of the arts and culture, none of these studies will resonate with you. The problem we sometimes have as artists is being able to answer “so what?”. I’m extremely biased when it comes to the importance of arts education and cultural studies, in part because my profession depends on both.
Let me tell you a little bit about how the brain works when you learn music. You already know you have two hemispheres in your squiggly thinker; areas in each hemisphere ‘control’ different things. The younger we are, the more spongy our brains are, and the easier we learn. By and large, language lives in the left hemisphere, along with speech and aural processing. Maths and logic are more comfortable over on the right side. That’s not to say your brain ONLY lights up on one side when you’re doing thinky things and learning.In addition to your hemispheres, you have lobes: frontal, occipital, parietal, temporal (front, back, middle, and sides), and your cerebellum. There are other parts (like the cerebral cortex and the ‘mus’es) in there too. It’s a whole big…well, little, really, complex machine. When you learn music, your hemispheres fire off together, and since you’re not just sitting there listening to a lecture, you’re also doing some fine motor function (and/or gross motor function if you’re on percussion or canon), a bunch of those lobes are on fire too. It’s super cool to look at the brain scans of people listening to music, because activity fires off all over the place. It’s even cooler to look at the scans of people *playing* music. And if you can watch a scan of someone learning a new piece, it’s literally mind-blowing. Band is one of those classes where you can demonstrably prove that participation embiggens the brain. EMBIGGENS. No matter how old the student is. It’s sometimes easier for younger students, but if you want some really good braining to happen, do the music.
And to everyone saying “band is just an easy credit”, for some, it is, and what’s wrong with that? High school is HARD, yo. Not necessarily all the work, but just…*flaps hands*…everything. So what’s wrong with going to a class where you can learn AND be relaxed? What’s wrong with taking a class where you can get a fairly good mark by showing up, participating, and blowing in a tube for a while? (snarky comment about SK’s record with DUI here) What’s wrong with being part of a supportive, fun class?
There are students who take band who may never really be able to read well because of learning disability. There are students who take band who ace all their classes without trying. What’s wrong with those folks getting to know each other and learn together? And so what if band is a “mickey mouse” class? (It isn’t. Learning to play an instrument, whether it’s a wind instrument or strings or keyboards or percussion, takes your whole brain, something few other learning environments do.) Shop is a “mickey mouse” class for some too. ELA is a “mickey mouse” class for some. Maths are “mickey mouse” for some. Everyone has natural aptitudes and everyone can learn. The fact that we value arts education so little, and band in particular, says a lot about why we struggle with engagement.
Most education degrees take about four years to achieve. If you have an undergraduate degree already, there are some programs that make it possible to complete your studies in two years. You then complete an Internship, and join your professional association and, if you’re lucky, you get to strike out into the classroom. If you’re unlucky, you get stuck doing curriculum review and evaluation and administration (this is tongue-in-cheek; there are loads of folks who really enjoy the admin side of things and more power to you! Don’t cut band!). Many band teachers have an undergraduate degree in music studies, music performance, music theory, etc., which means they’ve been learning and practising their art likely since they were 10 or 11 years old. By the time they become band teachers, they’ve had more than 15 years’ experience. Most band teachers need to know how to play all the instruments, because even if they got their music degree in piccolo, there likely won’t be 40 piccolo players in beginner band (dear Glob, let there not be 40 piccolos).
Can you argue that someone who teaches maths has been learning maths since they were three? Sure. Absolutely you can. We all learn arithmetic and geometry and calculus and, as mentioned, some folks have a real affinity for it. People who go on to become maths teachers are, one hopes, among them. And we’re not talking about cutting maths from the curriculum. With increasing class sizes and stagnant pay for teachers, we do see teachers whose educational focus is not maths being required to teach it, which is hard on the teachers and the students. Almost as if it would be more efficient and more effective to have teachers teach in the areas in which they studied teaching.
Here’s the reality: if you are a band teacher, and you only teach band and music (and maybe whatever you minored in) at one school, you’re really fortunate! Most band teachers are ‘locum’ teachers who travel among different schools. Recently, in Regina, because of schools having to do belt-tightening due to chronic underfunding, they had to cut one band teacher position. That means students in a half dozen schools no longer get to take band, and who knows whether the music programs in those schools will continue.
Band programs have been being whittled away bit by bit while extracurricular activities are supported by teachers’ volunteer time. Schools and school divisions are eradicating credit-granting courses like band while other courses deemed ‘non-essential’ are added or continued. Forensics. Shop. I am definitely biased, because I know that music education, particularly (but not only) band is one of the things that helps students learn in every other core course they take. It enriches language, history, maths, science, and social studies. Students who take band learn how to problem solve. They learn how to work together. They learn how to tackle extremely complex issues logically and progressively. If there’s one program that should never be cut, it’s band, but it’s always an easy target. Before you jump down my throat, I recognise the important learning skills you get from shop, and forensics, and phys ed, and extracurricular sports and clubs. I’m not saying they’re not worthy. They absolutely are. Band is community-building, enriching, and it teaches so many things in addition to music. Music education should be part of every core class, sure, but cutting band programs is super shitty. I’m always mystified why schools and school divisions target band and arts programs (credit-granting classes!) instead of extracurricular. We’ve seen in the past when teachers pull back from extracurricular programming, shit gets done.
I could go on, and I’m sure you’re sick of this by now, but please, PLEASE don’t let them cut band, or band teachers. When they say “they’re cutting one band teacher from this system”, that affects a dozen schools. One job, 12 schools. They’re already doing so much. Students deserve to learn, and band and music programs make those big brains even bigger, ready for more information and processes. Please keep band.
To all the band students affected by the loss of your program, please reach out to community bands in your area. Lots of us would be happy to help you learn an instrument and play in an ensemble.