The Arts Are Not Just for Fun

06/02/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016


By Steven Sanders, Guest Blogger

In my classroom, students sit in a U-shape, their trumpets, trombones and clarinets in front of them. The walls are painted with bright murals, depicting great composers of the past and present. If you visit us, you’ll see high school students—90 percent of whom have never touched an instrument before ninth grade—focused on creating beautiful music as a team.

I’m proud to say that there’s joy in this classroom every day. I’m also proud to say that there is quality instruction. Because the truth is, even in the world of the fine arts, there is room for high expectations, rigorous curricula and, yes, standards.

To me, those things are not mutually exclusive.

The Common Core State Standards, if implemented with fidelity, have the power to level the playing field as far as rigor in American classrooms is concerned. Students are reading challenging texts, using multiple sources for research, and digging deeper into the concepts underlying mathematical processes. And that’s only scratching the surface.

While the Common Core is great for subjects like math and English, what about music education? For someone who strives to teach music in the most effective and rigorous way, what standards do I have that will ensure my students have an opportunity to be “college ready” when it comes to playing a musical instrument?

Here in Illinois, there are learning standards for fine arts. But these standards are rarely updated, and there is no accountability attached to them. Why should there be? Aren’t the arts just for fun? The truth is that the arts are fun. But for my students, they are often also critical components of their future success in college and beyond.

Here’s what I mean: My beginning band students were in class the other day, struggling to understand the significance of a key signature. They weren’t sure why they should bother learning this tricky skill. I had to remind them that this is the kind of skill that could eventually prove important for their future opportunities. At DePaul University here in Chicago, for example, the audition process for a prospective music major requires that a student know all 12 major and minor scales, prepare a classical solo, and sight-read music chosen at the discretion of the college.

Of course, it would be foolish for me to think that 100 percent of my students will pursue a music degree in college. But what if they just want to perform in a collegiate band to earn a scholarship, or keep their love for music alive? To do any of these things, they must audition.

If I want to open the door of opportunity for my students to be able to participate in music at the collegiate level—and in some cases, help finance their college dreams—I must equip them with the necessary skills to do so. Last year, I wrote about my classroom and how deep discipline plays a vital role in my curriculum. Students must discipline themselves to become learners and develop the habit of focusing for extended periods of time. It is my duty to present them with a rigorous curriculum that both infuses them with a passion for music, and gives them a firm basis in the technical aspects of musicianship.

I knew that the existing state learning standards for music weren’t strong or specific enough. So I decided to create my own. I asked myself, “What does a student need to know about instrumental music to be able to continue with it after graduating from high school?”

I came up with a set of skills (spread across three years) that students would need to master in order to be a successful musician. Our standards cover five categories: rhythm, pitch/notes, symbols/terms, tone, and intonation. These five categories guide the work in my classroom, with the overall goal of preparing all students to continue with music if they so desire.

Each of these categories is broken into two skills: technical and literacy. Not only does each student need to be able to perform a specific skill, they also need to be able to describe what they are doing. Authentic assessments—including performance exercises and written and oral descriptions—accompany each skill at different levels. For example, they might be asked to show me how they sit with and hold instruments correctly at the beginning level; at the advanced level, they might be asked to describe their role in a pyramid of sound.

In my classroom, there are absolutely standards my students must reach. And the success of my students—both on stage and off stage—proves that music, like any other subject taught in the context of a rigorous curriculum, can yield great results for our kids. Sure, my standards aren’t the Common Core, but they are my way to push students as far as they can go. I hope one day soon, other music teachers across the country can have the resources and support to do the same.

If you would like access to Mr. Sanders’ categories and skills, please email us.

Steven Sanders is a 2014 Fishman Prize Winner.