Why no stringed instruments in school music programs?
According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, there are approximately 450 professional and semi-professional symphony orchestras in the United States. For those not sure what exactly constitutes a “symphony orchestra,” I offer the following: Our modern orchestra typically is made up of 60 to 100 musicians, so let’s take an ensemble of 80 members for our example. On average, our orchestra would have 55 string players (violins, violas, cellos and contra basses), 10 woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons), 11 brass instruments (French horns, trumpets, trombones, tubas) and four percussionists (timpani, snare drum, bass drum, etc.). Though the proportions and make-up of these four instrumental families will vary according to the type of composition being performed, the string section always remains the foundation of the orchestra, comprising 70 percent or more of the total membership. Throughout the United States today, there are more than 25,000 string players employed by symphony orchestras compared with only about 11,000 wind and percussion players. Why are these figures important? Well, though a large percentage of the world’s great music requires string instruments for performance, children in most of Nevada’s school districts are not allowed to study the violin, viola, cello or bass in school.
In Carson City and Douglas County, beginning in elementary school, children are given the opportunity to study a woodwind, brass or percussion instrument, at least on a limited basis, without any cost. Additionally, many students in middle and high school are allowed to play school-owned instruments often worth $1,000 or more, again without cost. On the other hand, a student wishing to study the cello must first obtain an instrument ($35-60 per month to rent) and then pay about $60 per month for private lessons. Is this sound educational policy? Is it fair? The obvious answer in both cases is a resounding NO, which begs the question: Why then is such a blatant inequity allowed to exist?
Ask an administrator and you will receive one or more of the following answers: There’s not time to teach strings; we can’t afford to teach strings; there’s not enough interest to teach strings.
Not time to teach strings? Really? There’s time to teach flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and drums. Can’t afford it? They seem to afford the teaching of all of the aforementioned instruments. Not enough interest? Hogwash! I am personally aware of more than 100 students in Carson Valley who are currently, or were in the past, paying for private lessons on orchestral string instruments. Additionally, I have had dozens of calls from the parents of potential string students who did not follow through simply because of the cost!
If the standard excuses don’t hold water, what then is the “real” reason for lack of string instruction? To me, the answer is simple in the extreme: Violins don’t march! If those in charge of making curriculum decisions were not intimidated by the active and highly vocal sports community, there probably would be no instrumental music at all in our schools! Bands are great. I have played in, conducted and written music for bands from elementary school to the university level, but the fact remains, we need to balance our music education curriculum. Serious study of music can enhance every aspect of a student’s academic and social life; the evidence is irrefutable. So, give the football team its marching band, but give children the opportunity to choose from all those wonderful musical instruments out there, including those with strings attached.
n John O’Neill, co-director of the Carson Valley Violin School may be contacted through his web site: Music-FoodForTheBrain.com (http://home.pyramid.net/gallery/brainfood/homepage.html).