I Have a Gripe

December 8, 2013

Religious Music and Public Schools

When I was in elementary school, I loved how festive things were as we inched closer and closer to Christmas. Every class participated in decorating the school. I remember making “stained glass windows” in art class using black paper and brightly colored tissue paper. There were always two trees on either side of the stage. Each year one grade would put on a play of some sort and of course the concert.

Wow, have things changed…

Fast forward a few decades (not saying how many) and most auditoriums are bare. No trees or decorations. There was one principal I know of that would purchase poinsettia plants (using his own money, mind you) so there was something around the stage. After he retired? The stage was completely bare. Oh, and they are no longer called “Christmas concerts.” They are “holiday” or “winter” concerts.

To me, all these changes pale in comparison to the biggest issue in my opinion – the attempt to eliminate any religious music whatsoever from the concert.

When I went to high school, we ended every concert with the singing of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Once you graduated, you would be invited to join the chorus for the singing of the piece with the current students. I can’t imagine not having that experience either as a student or after I graduated.

More and more schools are asking music teachers to submit their program for review and approval. There is great concern by some that the concept of separation of church and state should include the elimination of all music with a reference to some type of religious reference. As I see it, there are two major issues related to this entire situation.

First, the separation of church and state today has been taken completely out of context. The original reason for this separation was to ensure the government does not endorse any specific religion. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Children playing and singing music with a religious tone does not count as an endorsement of a specific religion.

Second, just as religion is part of history, religious music is an important part of music history and education. Just like Handel’s Messiah and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, these pieces have significant places in music and children should not just learn their words and music, but their histories.

As a result of the over-zealous attempt to eliminate this important genre of music from music programs across the country, organizations such as The American Center for Law and Justice have provided various documentation to help protect music teachers when planning their lessons and their concerts. Most music teachers I know keep a letter similar to the one linked here to protect their music programs. I also know of some districts where a letter like this is on file in their board office.

The fact that this needs to happen at all is amazing to me. When I first heard of issues such as these, it was in the South Orange/Maplewood, NJ School District. Since then, other towns have attempted to follow suit. Most have thankfully have lost. I remember a number of years ago when my husband was at doctor’s office he was asking him about his upcoming concert. He began to explain the situation just as many other teachers do, that he needs to produce his planned concert repertoire for approval. The doctor’s response? “That’s ridiculous. I was the little drummer boy for years in school and I wasn’t scarred for life.” This was in reference to his Jewish heritage. It made me laugh considering I had just recently read an article about how a Jewish man now in his 30’s said as a child he was incredibly uncomfortable with his experience as the little drummer boy as a child.

At the end of the day, all the festivities related to Christmas and Hanukkah should be celebrated as they have for generations. It is not an endorsement of a religion; it is an endorsement of valuing the importance of music education.

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November 14, 2013

NEVER Mess With the Marching Band!

‘Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield.
~Don McLean

Multiple times on this blog I have defended the importance of music education in public schools. All too often music departments do not receive the respect or the funding they need and deserve.

music education

The magnet on the back of my car.

I often say my years in marching band in high school were some of the best times of my life. I was in just about every music-related activity offered in my high school. I took private lessons for piano and bass. I helped teach pit at my high school after graduation. And the ultimate – I married a band director. I grew into the adult I am in large part because of my experiences in music. I learned about responsibility, teamwork, leadership, the value of hard work, and built confidence, to name just a few key life skills.

I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a professional musician, but it was still great. Many of the individuals I met through the music department became professional musicians and music teachers. My husband and I were absolutely beaming when we learned that not one, but two of my husband’s kids were my niece’s band directors.

Fast forward to today…

Like everyone I know on Facebook, links to articles get passed around regularly. Today I saw one that had my blood absolutely boiling. All too often, high school football teams, their parents, and game attendees think the marching band is there simply to entertain at halftime and give the players a break. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Well, a football coach in Annandale, Virginia  displayed the ultimate in bad behavior when he flipped out trying to get the band off the field during halftime so his team could warm up. He went so far as to yell at the kids and the band director as well as shake the podium of the assistant drum major.

To say I was furious when I read about this event is putting it mildly.

I fired off the following letter to the coach, the school principal, and the director of student services.

To All,
I just read an article online about how disrespectfully your high school’s marching band was treated at a recent football game. I am absolutely incensed by the rude behavior of the football parents, coaches and administration. You should all be ashamed.

From what I have read online Mr. Scott, your poor behavior has been a constant during the entire football season by bringing your team on the field before you should. And you are very lucky indeed that the Assistant Drum Major did not fall off the podium when you began to shake it.

Believe it or not Mr. Scott, the marching band is not there simply to entertain at halftime. Marching band is quite competitive and requires absolute marching precision while simultaneously playing an instrument. Something that is not easy.

How do I know this? I am a PROUD former marching band member from Belleville, New Jersey and a former Drum Major. I am also married to a Band Director. I also went to a high school where the football team (which most of the time had a losing record) was treated with far more respect than the marching band – as well as the music department as a whole. Trust me when I tell you, the band usually had a better record than the football team. It sounds like you have a similar poor record. Meanwhile, your school’s marching band has won both the Virginia State Champions and a National award for “III-Open” class.

Have you ever been to a marching band practice or a competition Mr. Scott? I doubt it. You should. Maybe you would understand what is really involved and how hard these kids work.

I have also read that it was “suggested” that the band do their show after the football game to avoid any issues. That is completely unacceptable in my book. In my many years experience (four years as a student and 25 years of following my husband as he traveled with his band), opposing teams and coaches are always understanding of special events, such as senior night, thus any potential penalties are waived. Do you really think it would’ve been acceptable to do their show as people exited the stadium? I think not.

My Band Directors, as well as my husband, always taught their kids to conduct themselves in the most professional manner. Over my high school years and my adult life, I have always been proud of both my fellow band mates and my husband’s kids and have conducted themselves, even in the face of stupidity. It doesn’t sound like you have set the same example Mr. Scott. You could probably learn something from the band members.

You should all be made to publicly apologize to Mr. Hilkert and the entire marching band, as it sounds like the administration just sat idly by and let this man’s rant continue. I also think Mr. Scott should be reprimanded by your Board of Eduction.

Shame on all of you,
Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten
Belleville High School Marching Band 1984-1988
Drum Major 1986-1988
Belleville, New Jersey

The band director, Adam Hilkert, is an incredibly accomplished musician, and he has decided to spend his life educating children through the vehicle of music. In addition to his position as band director at Annandale High School, he serves as Doctoral Conducting Associate at George Mason University, where he studies instrumental conducting. He is the Music Director of the Vienna Community Band and Graduate Conductor of the Mason Wind Symphony and Assistant Principal Double Bass with the American Festival Pops Orchestra.

The manner in which this “coach” (and I use that term very loosely) treated Mr. Hilkert and his marching band is simply deplorable.

I am encouraging all my readers to email or call the Annandale High school and let them know that he should be, at minimum, reprimanded and forced to apologize. Personally, I would rather see him fired. He doesn’t deserve the important position of fostering the youth of this community.

September 6, 2013

Schools “Under Pressure”

Filed under: Education,General Annoyances — alvb1227 @ 12:46 am
Tags: , , ,

Just like many stores, Target has been running a “back to school” ad campaign. They are all set to popular music seemingly played by a bad elementary school band. While they are cute commercials, sort of, I find them incredibly frustrating.

You see, for those of you who read my blog regularly, know that I have very strong feelings about the arts and music in public schools. I am the person I am in due in large part to the music program in my school system. And while some of you may not think that is so great, I do. The music department helped me with confidence and I found a place where I was comfortable.

Now? Well, thanks to the constant barrage of required testing, the arts and music are “under pressure” and getting kicked out of school in many places. That is an absolute travesty.

I wonder if Target realized the irony.

February 15, 2011

2010 Medal of Freedom Recipients and the Arts

Filed under: General Annoyances — alvb1227 @ 7:48 pm
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For roughly the last hour, I have been watching the coverage of the Medal of Freedom ceremony. It honored many different individuals that have made great contributions to our nation and our world. I did find one point interesting; the number of artists being honored.

Artist recipients included Yo Yo Ma, Jasper Johns, Maya Angelou and Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, an organization that provides educators, parents, and artists with resources and the tools to support arts programming in schools and communities with a focus on disabled individuals.

What great contributions to the arts from these people.

Now, those of you who read my blog regularly know where I am going with this. Without the arts in our schools, would Yo Yo Ma be the musician he is today? Would Maya Angelou have found her voice? Would Jasper Johns be such an inspiration to so many artists? I wonder.

Again, the arts and music play an important part in a child’s development. When these programs are eliminated in the schools it not only robs the students of an opportunity to explore their artistic abilities, it potentially robs us all of the future of an artist.

I hope this gives many pause that feel the arts and music in schools is nothing more than “fluff.”

February 1, 2011

The Arts & Music Should Still Matter in Our Schools!

Filed under: Education,Finances,General Annoyances,New Jersey — alvb1227 @ 12:43 pm
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As all my readers know, I am a great proponent of the arts in our public schools. I have said repeatedly I am the person I am directly because of my involvement in my school’s music program growing up. I even married a band director!

Well, yesterday I read an article on NJ.com about a string teacher that was laid off in Paterson, but he still comes to the town on his own time on Saturdays to continue to teach his kids at a local church…for free. He uses his unemployment check to buy instruments and he makes his own instrument repairs. This makes me proud, sad and angry all at once.

First, I am so proud of this teacher. He personifies all that is right about New Jersey education. A large majority of teachers in New Jersey (as well as around the nation) take their role very seriously. They look at their position in the community as a true calling and understand the responsibility of shaping a child’s future.

I am sad that such a good teacher lost his job. You can just tell what he does is so important to him. He gave up a lucrative career playing music around the world to teach in a district with at-risk youth. He should be applauded instead of laid off.

I am angry that, as usual, the arts and music are considered fluff in schools today and are often the first thing to be eliminated from a district. There has been study after study that the arts and music have a direct impact on how well a child does in school. If we are trying to make such a huge push on math and science, you would think that schools would everything in their power to have their students succeed. Those tools to succeed should include programs in the arts and music. But no, it is much more important to do standardized test after standardized test. Yeah, that really makes a difference.

While it is a movie, if you have ever seen “Mr. Holand’s Opus,” this actually has some very true moments. While I love this movie, it makes me angry because hits a little too close to home. There are two quotes from this movie that really ring true to me:

“Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.”

“The day they cut the football budget in this state, that will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!”

Today in our society, we are too quick to cut the arts and music over sports. We value professional sports players who are often terrible role models for our children. Just look at Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Kobe Bryant, Dante Stallworth…I could go on and on. The real role models are our teachers, police officers, fire fighters and members of the military. But they are just considered “ordinary,” so they really don’t count. Teachers are mocked more than revered. And while our New Jersey Governor claims to not be in the business of bashing teachers, his constant assault on the teacher’s union has trickled down to an even lower opinion of teachers by the public than before.

I was never a “sports kid.” I was a “music kid.” I understand sports have an important place in today’s schools, however, music and the arts should not be immediately cut as a cost saver. All too often sports are one of the school’s “sacred cows.”

So, I say shame on your Paterson school district and all the other schools around the nation that are so quick to cut the arts and music without fully understanding all that music and the arts do for their kids.

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