School of music can mentor arts-deficient high schools

Credit: Juan Fernandez/ Credit: Juan Fernandez/
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“What else are we going to do?”

America has been hearing this statement a lot lately. We’ve heard it from the few businessmen and women who led our country to its current economic destitution, from sports players interviewed on their steroid use, and currently from the Pittsburgh public school system's very own superintendent, Linda Lane, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The district has no choice: It must cripple its so-called "extracurriculars" in order to help reduce its $38.2 million deficit projected for 2012.

The district’s proposed plan includes required weekly music, physical education, and art classes for the elementary and middle school levels, as opposed to the current optional multiple-times-a-week system. For some this is at least a beginning, but for others this is dramatically weakening the program.

Doesn't sound too bad — until you get to the part about all the itinerant music teachers being cut. According to Natalie Ozeas, professor of music education at Carnegie Mellon, the music classes would be taught by classroom teachers, most of whom have little experience teaching music.

Sure, this would save money — assigning one itinerant teacher to go to three or four schools once a week and cutting the rest tends to do that — but it would also keep the students from learning anything, especially those in middle school. It would encourage only those with enough money for private lessons to pursue their instruments, and even then the schools wouldn’t provide nearly enough supplementary support.

Speaking of private lessons, the plan also proffers to remove private lessons from the curriculum at Pittsburgh CAPA, the city’s magnet school for the creative and performing arts. Normally, I wouldn’t view this as much of a problem — I went to a regular public high school, and I had to buy my own lessons — but when considering the school's student population, losing the free private lessons would be disastrous, not only for the students but for the school as well.

According to David Knapp, CAPA's instrumental department chair, 85 percent of music students would be unable to sufficiently pay for private lessons. Music is, after all, an expensive business. While an inexperienced high school student might charge $20 per hour-long lesson for a fifth grader, professionals' prices range from around $40 to $240 per hour; the most common prices go from $50 to $100. For a lower-middle class family, weekly lessons — indisputably crucial for musical development — are tertiary to having a home to live in and sending a child to school, even if the child is musically gifted.

Thus, for over three-fourths of CAPA's music students, the only sources for individual improvement would be the internet and intuition. This 85 percent would have no role model for musicality, and no one to teach them proper technique or practice methods. And when the skill of the students goes, the school's prestige leaves with it.
Our country has a history of cutting the arts in public schools, especially in the past 10 years, and quite often these "proposed cuts" are already done deals by the time they hit the table publicly. Granted, steps must be taken to fix a deficit of $38 million, but I believe there is always a choice. There are untapped resources here in Pittsburgh, such as our own Carnegie Mellon School of Music, that could save the music programs from destitution.

Carnegie Mellon has at its disposal the most prestigious music school in the state. And yet the School of Music only has one organized outreach program, the Carnegie Mellon Arts Alliance, which gives current students opportunities to perform solo and chamber works in the Pittsburgh community. While this is certainly useful, offering valuable performance experience to Carnegie Mellon students and hopefully inspiring members of the local community, it does nothing to directly support music in Pittsburgh's public schools.

Many Carnegie Mellon music students are capable of and willing to directly assist in educating burgeoning young musicians.

I recently contacted Knapp about offering my own services to the students at CAPA who would be without a private teacher if the district follows through with its proposed cuts. I would charge on a need-based basis, and parents would only pay me what they could; if that means that I don't get paid, then fine. I would hope that other Carnegie Mellon music students would be willing to do the same thing.

This is only a small example of what students can do to support music in Pittsburgh's public schools. Ideally, the district would find other ways to lower its deficit — parcel taxes, for instance — but as it is, the district seems quite taken with its current plan. Carnegie Mellon's School of Music needs to be ready to act as a lifeline for Pittsburgh public schools' music programs if these cuts go through, or they'll have no hope for survival in the coming years.