The State of High School Music Education

Photo By Jill Wagner

It’s tough to be a music teacher in the public schools, especially these days. The state budget crisis (still unresolved) is translating into cuts in funding that local school districts will receive - though at the present time, no one knows exactly where the ax will fall, or how deeply it will cut.

In the meantime, with the state budget still unclear, local school districts are trimming, snipping, cutting, and tucking, anticipating the blow.

All too often, it’s local music programs that feel the knife. As they have so often in the past.

Consider the experience of William A. Zinn, a music teacher in the Sacramento City Unified School district for 18 years, and a music teacher at Sacramento High School for the past decade, as part of the schools Visual And Performing Arts Centre (VAPAC) program, one of the district’s flagship magnet programs.

Zinn - who teaches three student choirs, a student orchestra, and a guitar class — has been working under a budget he says basically disappeared under mysterious bureaucratic circumstances. “VAPAC is sent $159,000 by the district, but what has happened over the last several years is the money was folded into the general budget for Sacramento High, and never got to VAPAC. So for the last three years, we’ve basically operated without a budget,” Zinn said. “The superintendent said to go through the chain of command, but when we’d talk to the principal, she’d say ‘There is no money for VAPAC.’ It’s been very difficult, but we’ve done it anyway — through money that the boosters raised, through grant money, and just through the grit of our teeth.”

For starters, Zinn mentioned chairs that were ordered, to replace a set of “cast iron folding chairs made more than 50 years ago, which predated our building. They were bad for posture, uncomfortable for the kids’ backs, did not promote good singing or playing,. After two years of pressing the issue with (Sac. High’s) principal, she did acquiesce, and bought the chairs. But the price went up $3,000 (in the meantime).

Keeping instruments in playable condition is another constant crisis. “We deal with very old instruments, and there has been a lot of maintenance. The school district does have a contract with local repair shops, but (the instruments) break down frequently. A lot of supplementary things have been (paid for independently) through our two booster programs, Band Boosters and VIBE (Vocal and Instrumental Boosters and Enthusiasts).”

Music programs have also found themselves in competition for space. “We had to compete in terms of VAPAC’s marching band and percussion unit. We need to practice, especially the percussion unit, inside the gymnasium. When they do guard competition, they perform in the gym. But we had a lot of difficulty in asserting the right to share space with athletic teams, basketball in particular. The football team wants the outdoor field for marching season. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just difficult to coordinate. The gym and the outdoor field are the only ones we’ve got.”

Even the climatic conditions in the music room have been difficult. “A few years ago, the district installed a new heating/air conditioning system at Sacramento High, made so it had central control from the district office,” Zinn said. “I can’t control the temperature in my room. When I’d come in the morning, it would be 60 degrees. I would complain, and (within an hour) it would become 80 degrees. That’s not healthy for singers, and it’s bad for instruments. We’ve gotten it to a place where it’s a better balance. But this wonderful new system took a year and a half to work (right).”

Then there’s been the controversy involving Sacramento High’s transformation into a charter school, under the aegis of the St. HOPE program, which is directed by Sac High graduate and former NBA athlete Kevin Johnson. Zinn said that St. HOPE is not interested in keeping the VAPAC program onboard.

“The school board has awarded Sacramento High to St. HOPE, and my understanding is that everything in this facility that belongs to this facility stays in this facility,” Zinn said. “So the instruments that have been used by VAPAC for the last 20 years will no longer be available,” even though VAPAC will also become a charter school. A lot of the instruments VAPAC has sued were not purchased by the school district—they were purchased by VAPAC’s Band Boosters for the use of students in a particular program. There are steel drums that were purchased for a particular program. And percussion platforms that were actually manufactured by one of our band boosters, which are really his personal property.”

With the imminent shutdown of the old Sac High, Zinn has been cataloging at his program’s instruments on hand, and returning any that were on loan from other schools. “We had an alto clarinet, violins, violas, and cellos that were borrowed. I’ve identified those, and taken them back,” Zinn said. “This is a very painful process. This is all being torn asunder,” he said.

VAPAC’s past graduates are moving ahead in the world. He recalls “Kendra Doyle, a recent graduate of UCLA, who has a contract to do a national tour with (the Broadway show) ‘Oliver!’ “ Likewise “Noah Hayes, who went through vocal jazz studies at CSU Sacramento, and sang in Sacramento Opera productions with me, and just performed in a show at Garbeau’s in Rancho Cordova.”

“Also Jerry Douglas, class of ‘96, studied dance, drama and vocal music while at Sacramento High. He went on to study ballet in Canada and was them accepted to the Royal Ballet of London. The first person of African descent ever to do so.”

The galling aspect for Zinn is that he firmly believes that it’s Sacramento’s students who lose as the VAPAC program repositions amidst uncertainty. “Music educates part of the mind that other subjects do not,” Zinn said. “A string player who starts before the age of 12 has synaptic connections in the brain that no other human being has. There is an opportunity for artistic expression and emotional expression that may not be as easily accessed through any other art form, or other media. Music is a language unto itself that can bridge cultures, from one to another.”

“Music, in the minds of many administrators, is expendable, not necessary,” Zinn said. “It’s what you can do when you have a surplus budget. But by eliminating music from the curriculum, they are eliminating part of the education of a child that can be educated in no other way.”

Zinn has made different plans for next year. “I have signed a contract with the Davis Joint Unified School District,” Zinn said. “And VAPAC’s band director, Christina Alsop, is going into nursing.” VAPAC may yet sign a contract for a new location, but at this point several core teachers are gone.

James Mazzaferro, band and orchestra director for Sheldon High in Elk Grove, would appear to be much better off than Zinn. Sheldon High is adjacent T.R. Smedberg Junior High - Smedberg Lake in the Yosemite backcountry bears the same man’s name. Together, the two Elk Grove schools share a gorgeous 726-seat performing arts facility, the envy of the region. “It’s designed for music,” Mazzaferro said, “So often, the halls (at schools) are designed for other things. But we play in a nice hall all the time. It brings the level of the kids’ performances up. This place is for music, this place is for you, this place is important to what you do, and what you’ve worked on,” Mazzaferro said. “So many schools do their concerts in a cafeteria, and the kids come in and say ‘this is where we eat.’ But they walk into our theater and say ‘this is where we play.’ ”

And yet. . . Mazzaferro finds himself struggling to recruit students. The facility is stunning, and he has plenty of instruments - most no more than 15 years old.

But the music program’s that feed Mazzaferro’s classes at Sheldon High are being trimmed, and moved into slots before or after school. “The scary thing I have to fight every year is convincing administrators that the arts are important, and the arts are a priority,” Mazzaferro said. “We face that every year.”

Mazzaferro said that cutting music programs at the junior high and elementary level “is like not giving students a reading course until they’re in high school. For the last three years in particular, it’s been a battle. When a middle school goes year-round (but band programs don’t), that has an effect. When the whole emphasis is on math and reading test scores rather than the mental and emotional development of a child, that has an effect. We’re so worried about our (state-mandated) Academic Performance Index scores that we forget about developing the whole person.” And the API omits more than music. It also leaves out art, athletics, and other subjects.

Mazzaferro also spends time working with fundraising groups to keep his program going. “We have a very active booster program that raises between $20,000 and $25,000 per year. We use this to buy sheet music, instruments, and pay for professional coaches to come in and work with the kids.”

“The biggest reward is watching kids grow and develop as people,” Mazzaferro said. “Seeing them understand that what we’re teaching are life skills, not just putting your finger on the right valve and blowing, then this note will happen. It’s helping people who are going to grow up and become productive in society.”

Music education is also critical in the view of Michael Morgan, music director and conductor of the Sacramento Philharmonic. Morgan started piano lessons as a third grader in an after-school class in Washington, DC. “That was the beginning of everything,” Morgan said. “At that time, every public school had full time music teachers” - even elementary schools, which rarely have full time music teachers nowadays in California.

“For many students, arts education - and music in particular - is the main inspiration for getting through the rest of the school day,” Morgan told SN&R, who compared the positive influence of music study to the positive influence of sports. “You find a disproportionate number of academically-achieving students amongst the music students, but you also find a disproportionate number of leaders,” Morgan said. “I think this is because music emphasizes individual achievement and group cooperation at the same time. One learns to work with others in a way that is more mental than physical, making it a very useful training ground.”

Morgan regrets cuts in school music programs. “It’s very important that people remain vocal advocates for music education. It’s not only a matter of money, but also a matter of priorities. Organizations like the Sacramento Philharmonic are trying to get programs going that help young people find their ways to school instruments. People should support music programs, and the young people.”

The Sacramento Philharmonic has included school ensembles in several recent concerts. “It’s important to see this kind of cross-generational activity,” Morgan said. “And for the Philharmonic, it builds new pools of players and new listeners and supporters. For the young people, it’s an inspiring experience they will never forget, and one in which they were taken very seriously by adults. That can’t help but make them feel more important.”

Lenore Heinson teaches choral music at Woodland High School and Douglass Junior High (also in Woodland). Like Mazzaferro in Elk Grove, Heinson is seeing “cuts in music programs at elementary school levels,” and at higher grades. “But if you’re cutting the roots of the tree, pretty soon the upper foliage is going to die back,” Heinson said. “The elementary programs are what feed the high school programs. At the elementary schools, the opportunity for students to use their voices during the day is something individual teachers will have to bring into the classroom, rather than having a structure program for the whole school. You may have very talented kids who won’t have that opportunity.”

Heinson is delighted that her students will have a chance to sing at a prominent venue like the Mondavi Center as part of the Jammies. “The Jammies are making it possible for students to perform in a venue often reserved for professional bookings. An experience like that can make a difference between a young person saying ‘Well, I’m talented, but. . .' and saying ‘This is what I want! I want to come back here again!' They find that this is what they want to do. It shows that this venue is here for the community, and fine art, at whatever level you’re at. It’s so important! And it’s attainable! It’s not out there in the distance somewhere!”