Music Matters

Music Class at UB
One researcher analyzes the role of music education in inner-city schools.
When you think of cherished school memories, acting in the school play or playing on the soccer team may come to mind. School is about far more than classes and tests, and many remember the times when they were engaged in creative, active, and personally meaningful learning experiences. While these meaningful experiences have been a part of American education for generations, there are great discrepancies in the availability and viability of such activities in suburban and urban schools. Limitations are often driven by budgets or policies focused on standardized testing, but are also related to the way teachers seek to understand and engage (or fail to engage) urban students.

Frank Martignetti, UB Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, experienced a shift in pedagogy as a music educator during his years of teaching in inner-city schools. This experience prompted him to devote research to the role music education can play, and, he believes, should play in the lives of inner-city students.

Like other teachers who succeed in urban schools, Martignetti was first confronted with the limitations of his own background and experience when he journeyed into the urban classroom. He learned about his students’ life experiences, often vastly different from his own, and how those experiences shaped their approach to school, learning, and music. Martignetti quickly realized that his training in music education and classical music performance did not prepare him sufficiently to reach and teach these students.

It was the beginning of a challenging, yet rich exploration to identify his students’ musical strengths as a starting point and build from there, rather than succumbing to the cultural deficit model presumed by many. Martignetti knew that the role of music education cannot be understated, as it allows students to work cooperatively, develop self-discipline and focus, take risks, branch out and express themselves in creative ways. So, he has focused his research on recruitment, engagement and retention in secondary school music programs, and on bringing the voices of actual urban students and teachers to bear on music education research and policy literature.

With that in mind, Martignetti conducted a case study of eighth grade band students in New Haven, Connecticut’s public schools, focusing on the critical transition between middle school and high school — when many students stop being involved in school music programs, or in music altogether. Through extensive class observation and interviewing students about the meaning of their experiences in school music programs, he attempted to gain insight into the factors affecting retention of band students between middle and high school.

The research indicated that participating students clearly derive a great deal of joy and benefits from the experience, primarily the joy of music making itself, as well as the strong bonds frequently formed with fellow students and teacher. However, results indicated there are significant issues regarding access to music education, as well as the breadth and perceived relevance of courses offered.Three main issues identified were: the absence of programs in certain high schools, actual or perceived scheduling conflicts due to block scheduling, and the paucity of opportunities to study instruments such as keyboard or guitar, which allow individuals to have a satisfying musical experience on their own outside of rehearsal. Subjects’ responses also spoke to music educators’ frequent failure to include and honor genres and styles near and dear to their students, which is problematic since music forms such a key part of adolescent identity.

Sheet Music
Sheet Music

In order to serve students well, policy-makers must make informed decisions that include knowledge of students and knowledge of the benefits of a comprehensive education that includes the arts. Unlike students, policy-makers may not fully appreciate the benefits and the precious connection between music students and teachers because they may have never been involved in the creative expression of music. In Martignetti’s view, music is a powerful tool that can enhance human development and must have a growing presence in schools.

Technological advances and market forces have transformed music for many Americans into a product passively consumed, rather than a process engaged in with others, and Martignetti believes we are a poorer society for it, arguing that we need the benefits of active music making now more than ever. If music education can maintain and increase its presence in schools and broaden its traditional base of activities to include instruments and genres that figure prominently in contemporary culture, it can be a vehicle to change lives, and our culture, for the better.