Keeping Music Education Alive in Los Angeles

Image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons and rosipaw

It’s a statement of fact that the public school music education system in Los Angeles is beset with enormous problems.

Simply follow the money trail find the main sites of the breakdown: state and local government, as they pertain to the education system.  But our lingering economic problems, 11% unemployment (still the third-highest in the nation), sub-par student performance, and high school drop-out rates are also substantial leaks in the pipes.  Like a struggling body pooling its resources to preserve its vital organs, which in this case are the ones getting graded by the state of California, the schools districts of Los Angeles are shedding “extraneous” appendages.

There simply isn’t enough money to sustain full-fledged music programs in every Los Angeles school.  The current system is dying, and it’s taking traditional music education down with it.

But Los Angelenos are innovative people, and this may be one instance where the decentralized nature of the city is to music education’s benefit.  Members of respective communities have taken it upon themselves, often with meager resources, to put programs in place that address the needs of the people they serve in ways that bureaucracies cannot.  Scholarships and reduced fees,  transportation options, multilingual instructors, free instruments, and supplemental programs remove barriers that have kept music, in myriad ways, inaccessible.

The leaders behind these programs taken inspiration from new models, drawn upon the largest group of creatives in the nation to lead as teaching artists (in some cases using them to bolster the public school infrastructure with their services), and set their own measures for success.

They understand a crucial piece of the puzzle: the value proposition of music education must adapt to these changing circumstances.  It could easily be argued that no one needs a symphony orchestra, a school choir, or a trumpet lesson, but what we do need are vehicles like music through which we share connective elements of our culture.

A tug of war is being played between teaching quantitive, Scantron-sheet knowledge and teaching wisdom learned by music.  We still need public school music education because it is the city’s largest, though not the most equitable, asset for teaching the arts.  Minus benefactors, fundraisers, and marketing teams, many of Los Angeles’ grassroots music programs go unrecognized.

We can do better than this particularly patchwork way of doing things, but I am encouraged knowing that the people of Los Angeles have come to the fore in an effort to teach young people how to be thinking and feeling individuals who have the capacity to be moved by music and the arts.

Read LyricalLA writer and KUSC radio host Brian Lauritzen’s opinion about the struggles music education faces in Los Angeles here, and share your own thoughts on how you think music education is doing in the comment section below.