A Day of Music In a School Year Sorely Lacking It
To win a medal, all the eighth-graders had to do was step up to the microphone and sing the first verse of the national anthem. Dozens of students at Jefferson Junior High School ran over to the mike to join the impromptu chorus. Then, as the moment of truth neared, the confessions started popping:
"Can I just hum it?"
"I don't know the words."
"What are the words again?"
Not to worry: In a nation in which one poll found 61 percent of residents don't know the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner," the organizers of the National Anthem Project were prepared. They handed out lyrics cards, and everyone got a medal.
The project, a national tour of schools that hit Washington this month, is designed both to reteach Americans their anthem and to build pressure for a revival of music education. For years, music programs have eroded under budget cuts and now have been slashed from thousands of schools as a result of the test-prep mania created by the No Child Left Behind law.
At Jefferson, a school in Southwest Washington that used to have a flourishing band and chorus, it's not clear that either will get off the ground this year, says music teacher Richard Gill. So when the Anthem Project gathered kids in the gym and offered them the opportunity to play with acoustic and electric guitars, students queued up for a chance to ham it up, strumming and strutting like the musicians they see on TV. But no one actually knew how to play guitar.
"You can't even say we have a music program now," says Gill, a 33-year veteran of the District schools who is president of the D.C. Music Educators Association. "The administration assigns kids to instrumental classes at random, regardless of skills or background. It's like teaching German I and French III in the same class. Doesn't matter if the kids have experience or interest; they're all mixed together."
Gill says funding cuts, the reassignment of music teachers to other tasks and the failure to invest in instruments are the main reasons so many D.C. schools that once had excellent choruses and bands no longer have any student ensembles.
When Gill first taught at Jefferson in 1981, he lobbied for and got $500 to buy instruments. He went to a store and purchased some used horns. A quarter of a century later, Gill has to rely on some of those same instruments. He has but three horns for more than a dozen trumpet players, two clarinets for 30 players and no working saxophones.
He sent one of his tubas to the D.C. system's instrument workshop for repairs in March 2005. "I haven't seen it since," Gill says.
Facing similar frustrations, some D.C. music teachers have bailed out. "Let's say we have populated the Prince George's music program," Gill says. "They have marching bands and jazz bands. We have cuts and more cuts." (At the District's Eastern Senior High, where passionate alumni have stepped in to try to revive the troubled music program, repeated requests for enough instruments to put a band on the field drew this e-mail from the superintendent's chief of staff: "I have nothing positive to report.")