Miss Hillary's opus

By Lawrence Henry
web posted June 1999

Last week, Hillary Clinton made what could only be called a campaign appearance in New York City. In it, she pushed a program to donate musical instruments to public schools that no longer have music programs. Her cynicism, in case you haven't noticed, knows no limits. Virtually everything Mrs. Clinton stands for and has championed in her life destroyed school music programs in the first place.

It's too bad more conservatives don't understand the school music issue. It could be a real winner for the right Republican spokesman.

I do understand the issue. Not only am I a musician myself, but for three years (1988-1991), I edited a magazine called School Music Dealer, which served music stores that primarily got their business from school band instrument rental programs. At the time, those stores' business was disappearing -- fast. I spoke on the subject at the 1991 NAMM Show (the big musical instrument trade show) in Orange County, California.

Why have school music programs disappeared? Because of federal interventions in public schools - judicial, legislative, and executive.

Here's how it happened:

With school bussing mandated by federal judges, parents who could afford to do it took their kids out of public schools. That left public school districts poorer - but the effect didn't show up immediately. Motivated parents, those parents with enough wherewithal to go somewhere else, also made up the dependable tax base for local school support, and the dependable parent advocates for special local school programs like music.

That parental exodus led, eventually, to the local tax revolts of the 1970s and 1980s, most famously to the Howard Jarvis-led Proposition 103 in California. (Property owners weren't interested in local public schools any more.) Local school budgets were cut at the same time that the local school pupil population grew harder to serve and more difficult to educate - because the kids were far from home, and came from poorer families.

Hard-pressed school administrators closed the most vulnerable programs, and music -- especially bands and orchestras in elementary schools -- went first. But, without elementary bands and orchestras to feed them, junior high school and high school bands and orchestras were starved of their participants. So, in coming years, they disappeared, too.

That's the simple outline of what happened. Now look further.

Federally pushed and union-supported multicultural programs undercut the basis for traditional ands and orchestras. When you teach kids to play instruments, you start with clarinets and trumpets at about age eight, when the kids' adult teeth have grown in. In today's "multicultural" environment, the kids - and their teachers - aren't interested in playing or teaching instruments, or repertoires, whose history is all tied up with a bunch of long-dead white guys.

You can't build a school band from turntables, drums, thumb pianos, and electric basses.

School bands used to teach traditional virtues, most conspicuously obedience, cooperation, literacy, and patience. You couldn't learn an instrument (they're hard) without doing what your instructor told you to do. You couldn't play in an ensemble without being willing to subordinate your will to the overall objective of a group (and follow the rules). You can't play ensemble music without being able to read music. And you can't play in a band without working patiently at your skills, both alone and in the group.

Let's not forget discipline. Band and orchestra teachers used to have to direct up to a hundred kids at once. Like to try that in a public school today?

The self-esteem movement undercuts every one of those virtues.

Music isn't the only casualty. After-school activities, including drama, debate, chess club, and, conspicuously, sports, have suffered the same one-two punch of federal meddling and the resulting loss of student participation -- and parental involvement as taxpayers. Nowadays, most high school students who want to play football, for example, have to pony up an "activity fee."

And impoverished high school football programs don't have marching bands, either.

The movie "Mr. Holland's Opus" told the story of a high school music teacher (Richard Dreyfuss) who lost his job because of declining student participation in music. It was sentimental and foolish, and Mr. Holland's "Opus" composition, played at the end of the film, was truly dreadful.

But the real story here is the outcome of Miss Hillary's Opus - an grand work of federal, liberal heavy-handedness that destroyed public education over three decades.

It'll take a lot more than donated instruments to start up school bands and orchestras again. In fact, if you dig into school store rooms a year from now, I predict you'll find those very instruments gathering dust. If you can find them at all. If they haven't been stolen.


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