PORTLAND, Ore. — Luke Said, 18, spent the summer of 2018 picking raspberries. In 2019, he got a job with a general contractor building food carts. He’s setting aside most of the money for college, but some goes to feed a school-year habit he just can’t kick: playing the trombone.
“It’s a fun instrument,” he said. “You can use it with jazz, in musicals, basically everywhere.”
Luke, a senior, is the first-chair trombone in the wind ensemble and jazz band at David Douglas High School in Portland, Oregon. He wakes at 5:10 every morning to get in the personal practice, private lessons, band practice and marching band drills he needs to play the instrument he loves. He’s also an A student. Luke’s family helps to cover the cost of private lessons and band fees but he pays for anything “extra” like mutes (a sort of plug for the horn of a trombone), slide oil and other accessories.
Luke is also helped by his school district, which has made music a priority at all grade levels. That is remarkable because 73 percent of the district’s enrolled students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty. In addition to employing qualified elementary, middle and high school music teachers, David Douglas offers inexpensive instrument rentals ($25 per year), a library of musical scores, connections to reduced-price or free private lessons and a closet of free marching band uniforms and orchestra dress blacks, among other necessities.
“We try to never restrict anything if a kid has a financial need,” said Tom Muller, the music coordinator for David Douglas, which is one of seven districts serving Portland students. And indeed, 51 percent of David Douglas high school students currently enrolled in a music class qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to 66 percent at the high school as a whole. (Typically, high schools have lower poverty levels than elementary schools because parents are older and able to earn more.)
“They understand there’s a lot of schools in more affluent neighborhoods, but we’re playing at a pretty high level, singing at a pretty high level,” said Muller. “The kids just work.”
Students from districts serving a mostly low-income community are still less likely to have music offered at their school than students in wealthier communities. And they’re more likely to have it offered infrequently or with less rigor. But David Douglas is not alone in bucking the national trend.
More than half of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in 180 of the 623 districts honored with the “Best Communities for Music Education” award in 2019. The David Douglas School District has won the award for many years running.
“These are the districts that without this recognition, [music] could be marginal and it could slip away,” said Mary Luehrsen, the executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation, the nonprofit professional association that awards the prize.
Districts have used the award to convince voters to approve bonds that covered music education, petition their school boards to keep funding music programs or to lobby principals for better scheduling at their schools, according to Luehrsen. Community support for music often grows after a district shows that it’s doing award-worthy work, she said.
San Antonio’s school board boosted its fine arts budget to $2.7 million for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, according to numbers requested from the district finance office. The initial boost came more than six months before the district won its first “Best Communities for Music Education” award. The increase included $753,687 more than was spent in 2017-18 for accompanists, instruments, travel, entry fees and uniforms, among other essentials. (Fine arts teacher salaries are covered under a separate budget, according to a spokesperson for the district.) The investment has already paid off, said Daniel Loudenback, the Texas district’s fine arts executive director.
“We used to have two or three [high school bands] make first division,” said Loudenback, who plays the saxophone. In 2018, five of seven made it. In 2019, six of seven had that honor.
These accomplishments are especially notable because 91 percent of the 50,641 students in San Antonio qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in 2018, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. All students are exposed to music starting in elementary school; by middle school nearly half (44 percent) have picked up an instrument, according to district data. Who plays doesn’t seem bounded by income either. For example, 97 percent of Poe Middle School students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the state, and 58 percent play an instrument. At Rogers Middle School, 92 percent meet that same federal guideline for poverty and 66 percent play a musical instrument.
The ethnic population at these two schools is in line with the district’s, which is 90 percent Hispanic. Some of San Antonio’s success in keeping kids interested in music comes from offering classes in types of music, like mariachi, that appeal to their students, said Loudenback.
“By fifth grade, a handful of schools have beginner string and mariachi classes,” he said. “We have a lot of mariachi students. That’s a very popular elective in our district.”
It could soon be a popular elective in Sioux City, Iowa, as well. The historically majority-white district, which served 14,150 K-12 students, 61 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunch in the 2018-19 school year, has seen a recent influx of immigrants from around the world. More than a third of the district’s students were Hispanic and another 20 percent were black, multiracial, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander.
“Traditional arts ensembles like marching band and big band don’t necessarily resonate,” said superintendent Paul Gausman, a musician and long-time music educator. “It’s part of our history, but as we bring kids in from other countries [we should offer] more popular ensembles in other countries.”
Sioux City now offers world drumming in elementary and middle school. And the district’s musical director, Pat Toben, who is a drummer, has just put together a proposal to create a high school mariachi band. Participating might be one more way a Sioux City high school student could satisfy the fine arts requirement (everyone needs two fine arts courses to graduate). The district also offers courses like Digital Audio Production, History of American Pop and AP Music Theory.
Nationally, the fine arts seldom merit high school graduation requirement status. Still, there are more schools across the country offering music today than there were 20 years ago and more of those schools employ full-time music teachers. That determination comes from an examination of two major surveys by the U.S. Department of Education: One was administered as part of the 2016 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for eighth grade music and the other focused on all fine arts and was administered during the 1999-2000 school year. The data from the earlier survey is available in a detailed 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education.
The uptick in schools offering music classes since 2000 is in keeping with a longer, 50-year trend. The percentage of secondary school teachers who specialize in art or music instruction grew from 6.7 percent in 1966 to 8.5 percent in 2015-16, outpaced only by special education, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Anna Medina, 18 and a senior at David Douglas High School, has had several of those new music teachers. She started playing the flute in fifth grade, she said, “because I come from a family that couldn’t afford an instrument and we already had a flute.”
Seven years and untold lessons and practice sessions later, Anna is the first-chair flute and a section leader in the David Douglas band. She also plays the piccolo and plans to pursue a degree in music. She benefits from free private lessons from a local flutist and was recently invited to perform a solo with an orchestra at the opening of a regional band camp.
Music is “pretty much everything to me,” Anna said, sitting in an office off the band room where kids were organizing instruments a few days before summer break. Without her public school’s music program, she added, “I wouldn’t be here. Music is not cheap.”
Most U.S. school districts offer music, including 90 percent of districts serving a majority low-income population. That figure jumps to 96 percent in wealthier districts, according to the 2016 NAEP survey. Kids in higher poverty schools that offer music tend to get fewer music classes that reach fewer students, though not by very large margins.
Rural schools were the most likely to have a full-time specialist on hand to teach music, federal data shows. And students in the West were less likely than students in the central states, the Southeast and the Northeast to get music in schools. More detailed data about which schools and students offer music isn’t available.
Only 13 states publish data on enrollment in arts courses and none publish data on how much time is devoted to the arts, according to a 2019 study by the Education Commission for the States, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to studying education policy. The federal government collects data on the fine arts only about once every 10 years and it tells us more about who is teaching music than which students have the opportunity to play it.
“School is a system, so it’s not measured only by if you’re going to get an influx of teachers,” said Sunil Iyengar, the director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. “What kinds of students get access? It’d be nice to know that.”
There were a few hints in the 2016 NAEP survey. According to student responses, about 15 percent of kids living in poverty participated in a band; participation rose to 19 percent for higher-income kids. We also know that 24 percent of middle schools offering music enrolled 61 percent or more of their students in music classes. Half of schools enrolled 21 to 60 percent of students.
While enrollment will naturally decrease in high school because of self-selection, David Douglas’ Muller said broad access to music instruction starting in elementary school is key in low-income districts where kids have limited access to private music lessons. With help from an unusual local arts tax — $35 from every adult in Portland city limits living above the poverty line — Muller has the budget to staff each of the district’s nine elementary schools with a full-time music teacher.
Now that music is included in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Muller and several other music educators said they hope that more schools nationally will offer music with the same depth and attention dedicated to subjects like English and math. The ESSA lists music as one of the subjects meant to constitute the “well-rounded education” that Congress says it expects the country’s K-12 schools to provide.
For a kid like Alanna Peevy, 16, the principal cellist in the David Douglas orchestra, early exposure made all the difference. Her family didn’t have money for private lessons when she was in elementary school, but she did learn a lot in music class. By middle school, she was interested enough to sign up for orchestra.
“It felt forced in a way,” Alanna said. A conscientious student, she practiced her cello as assigned every week. Still, “it wasn’t a passion. I didn’t have my own drive.”
Nevertheless, she did get pretty good at playing the cello. When she auditioned for the high school orchestra, she earned a compliment from the director.
“She said I looked comfortable with shifting,” Alanna said. “I was so surprised because I had not practiced that solo as much as I could have.”
From then on, no one needed to convince her to practice. She’d found her passion. Although her family lives mostly on her father’s salary as a stocker for Bimbo Bread, her parents help her cover some reduced-price private lessons offered at the school. Her parents even gave her a share of the proceeds from the sale of their home (they rent now) so that she could buy a custom-made instrument.
And while many teenagers would have been tempted to spend $5,000 on something other than a cello, case and bow, Alanna said she is stoked. She’d like to pursue a degree in music: The new instrument will help her do that.
That kind of focus is common among the school’s orchestra students, said orchestra director, Michelle Lindberg, who also plays bass in the Portland Opera.
“I’ve never met anyone who will work harder,” she said of her students.
Music educators say many elements must be in place to ensure that hard work pays off. A partial list of what any district would need to offer a robust music program includes teachers with advanced degrees in their subject area, class schedules that allow as many kids as possible to participate in music, high-quality curricular resources, professional development opportunities for teachers, and partnerships with local musicians and music organizations.
And then there are the instruments, which are expensive and take a lot of work to maintain.
“Overall, our inventory is aged,” said Muller, who plays the French horn. “We’re handing out band instruments that have been here since the district opened [in 1959]. Woodwinds go sooner than brass instruments. With string instruments, the pegs get to the point where they’re not reparable.”
That matters, because the quality of an instrument affects how it sounds.
“I play a school instrument,” said Anna, the flutist. “The nicer your instrument, the easier it is. For me to get a sound like that is 10 times as hard.”
But Anna is willing to put in 10 times the work if it gives her the chance to play with her bandmates. They are her best friends, she said, a statement repeated by a dozen teen musicians at David Douglas High School. Many used the term “family” to describe how close they felt to their fellow musicians.
“It’s the main reason kids want to dedicate themselves,” said Annabelle Sukin, 17, and a singer in the elite Troubadours choir at David Douglas. “It makes you feel so loved and important. Everyone wants to give so much effort.”
Students’ statements about their musical “family” gain even more power given the school’s racial diversity — 35 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian and 12 percent black. And the high school music program is nearly as diverse, with white students overrepresented by 10 percentage points, Asian students represented at exactly the same percentage as their schoolwide population and Hispanic and black students underrepresented. Of students currently enrolled in at least one music class, 18 percent are Hispanic and 7 percent are black. Former English language learners are also represented in the music program on par with their representation in the school at large (26 percent), likely a credit to the robust elementary school music offerings.
Relationships that tight are hard to quantify, though research has shown that kids who are friends with their classmates do better in school and that strong friendships in high school predict future mental and emotional health.
It is a stronger argument than the one that playing music makes kids better at math or other academic subjects. Despite the popularity of that idea, no researcher has been able to prove it. Research has instead shown that kids who are engaged in music tend to be engaged in school. A Canadian study even found that the most engaged musicians tended to be the best students. And the trend holds true at David Douglas High School in Oregon as well. The average GPA for 10th through 12th graders who participate in music here is 3.35. For the those who don’t play an instrument or sing in the choir, the average GPA is 2.82. The only thing these established trends prove, however, is that kids who like to play music also like to get good grades.
Bruce Yan, 17, didn’t need a study to tell him that. Bruce plays the viola at David Douglas. His junior year classes, he said, are “all AP.” He’s just as committed to school as he is to his instrument and he hopes his hard work will earn him a music scholarship — though he’s looking to earn his degree in computer science.
“If you’re serious about music, it will make you better at school because you manage your time better,” Bruce said.
Sioux City’s Gausman, a drummer himself, is fine with any argument that keeps music at the center of his district’s approach to education. But for him, most of the debate about the best reasons to offer the arts is beside the point.
“The arts are the arts,” he said. “If we dug up a buried culture, we’d still find their art. There is no society, there is no human culture, without the arts.”
And that, alone, is enough for him to ensure that the school band plays on.
Elizabeth Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting contributed reporting for this story. Read her story on middle school music.
This story about music in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.