Music educator: Arts, music need political champions

Paul Mayne // Western NewsDon Wright Faculty of Music professor Patrick Schmidt is giving music teachers a voice by conducting surveys and interviews with music teachers and arts supervisors across Ontario. He is asking them to share their experiences and stories on their current situation and the state of music education in Ontario.

The plight of music teachers has fallen on Ontario politicians’ tone deaf ears, a Western Music professor contends.

Despite ongoing public discussion about the importance of music education, many Ontario public school students will never get to experience the joy of music in their classrooms because of a decade-long drop in provincial funding designated towards music and the arts, according to Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Patrick Schmidt.

“We have no idea how music teachers are responding to these conditions and how are they living these experiences,” he said.

Schmidt is giving them a voice by conducting surveys and interviews with music teachers and arts supervisors across Ontario. He is asking them to share their experiences and stories on their current situation and the state of music education in Ontario.

Schmidt will eventually extend this research across Canada.

Multiple studies have shown music education is one of the most effective ways to foster creativity, communication and teamwork ­- key skills required to prosper in the 21st Century. Music training has also been tied to general academic achievement.

In a recent 10-year study, tracking more than 25,000 middle- and high-school students across the United States, students enrolled in music classes earned higher scores on standardized tests (reading, verbal and mathematics skills) compared to students with little or no music involvement.

While music teachers play a crucial role in cultivating that creativity, there is little information on their working conditions in Ontario’s public schools.

Anecdotal evidence suggests music teachers are asked to teach a variety of other subjects, which can leave them little time to devote to music instruction. They also have little freedom to pursue creative ways of teaching music to a new generation of Canadians.

“In a multicultural society like Canada, how do we create a space for multiple forms of music from a variety of new communities and immigrants?” Schmidt asked. “We need to encourage informal music learning where students learn from their peers and learn a wider repertoire of music that is meaningful to them.”

Schmidt also plans to speak to school administrators to understand how schools hire and allocate music teachers across school boards in urban, suburban and rural Ontario.

In many cases, smaller, rural schools cannot afford to hire music teachers, which leave children with less opportunity to learn an instrument or rehearse a choral piece. Schools in more affluent neighbourhoods, however, can purchase instruments and supplies and arrange for students to experience live performances. This geographic and economic divide can lead to a wide opportunity gap.

“The narrowing of schools means a narrowing of civic and empathetic capacities in our societies,” he said.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education acknowledges the crucial role of music and arts in shaping children’s creativity, leadership and problem-solving abilities.

Yet the push towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects can mean students are actively discouraged not to study music and the arts.

Schmidt said this comes at the expense of  deeper learning and understanding of other experiences.

“To build a cohesive, intelligent, and collaborative population requires an education that is not specialized, and schools are the best way to develop those qualities,” he said. “Schools should be places where people get to express and learn and develop themselves in multiple formats and ways. We are delimiting these possibilities very early on.”