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Whither the High School Band?

Fed-up teachers say music education has hit a new low in rural BC.

By Bill Metcalfe 12 Feb 2014 |

Bill Metcalfe is a print and radio journalist based in Nelson, B.C. Find his previous stories here.

Rick Lingard went out on a limb when he renovated part of his house into a music school. He knew self-employment would be tough after nearly three decades in the public school system, but so far he's making it work. Most importantly, he's happy teaching music again.

A year ago Lingard was under a doctor's care after taking stress leave from his 28-year stint as the music teacher at Mount Sentinel Secondary in the Slocan Valley near Nelson.

"I was a mess. It was all stress-related, and as soon as I made the decision to stop complaining and leave, change directions and do my own thing, my headaches, chronic and daily, disappeared," he says. "As soon as I made that decision I felt like a million bucks, and I have not looked back."

Lingard's downward spiral was a big surprise to many in Nelson's music community because he's known as one of the most optimistic and upbeat guys around. He says his stress was a result of trying to maintain his band program in the midst of several years of declining enrolment, budget cuts, changes to course offerings and timetables and an education system that sees music as a low priority.

"Every single step that they [the board and the school administration] have taken is counterproductive to music education," he says. "It was like an abusive relationship. You only take so much for so long and then you ask, "Why am I killin' myself here?"

Anita Prest, who teaches in the faculty of education at UBC, says the problem is the same in small-town and rural schools across the province. Prest's analysis of the state of music education in B.C. schools, published in the latest edition of the Canadian Music Educator, found that declining enrolment has led to a web of problems in music education: timetable conflicts and fewer course offerings, semestered and out-of-timetable music courses (plus related transportation issues), multi-graded classes and itinerant teachers. All of this has "radically and negatively affected the quality and breadth of music programs," concludes Prest.

The result? Fewer kids get exposed to music. And those who do pick up an instrument have fewer opportunities to play.

Minimum class sizes, maximum stress

Lingard's long-time friend and colleague, Keith Todd, recently left Trafalgar Middle School in Nelson after 23 years of teaching music there. His reasons were the same as Lingard's: the gradual undermining of his band and choir programs. Since taking a teaching job in Whitehorse, he too has new optimism about his working life.

"The big difference in Whitehorse is that there is a lot of money and resources and a desire to make things happen and offer unique and specialized programs," Todd says. "I am able to do a lot of things with my students. The last four years in Nelson I could hardly touch on music theory. I have developed a theory program here that I am integrating. Without that, you are not able to teach the kids the whys and the hows of music."

It used to be possible to run small music classes of 10 to 15 kids at Trafalgar School, Todd says, "but that is unheard of now. They won't run classes under 25." In the Yukon, by comparison, he has "wonderfully small classes."

"If eight or nine kids in Grade 11 want to have band, they are not being denied the opportunity."

Trafalgar and Mount Sentinel are both part of School District 8 (Kootenay Lake), where enrolment in secondary school has decreased from 2346 to 2100 (10.5 per cent) since 2008. (Some districts across the province have seen much more drastic decreases than that.) At Mount Sentinel in recent years, the minimum number for Lingard's classes was raised to 18. When enrolment fell short of that, administration put all seniors in one class together. That meant Lingard had to teach band and composition at the same time, in different rooms.

"It is not fair to the kids because it is not what they signed up for," he says.

In addition, the school combined Grades 7 and 8 for all classes. Having beginners mixed in with more experienced musicians does not work, says Lingard. First year band students are a labour-intensive bunch. They must learn to read music and play their own instrument, plus learn to play as a group.

"After a year of experience in band then it's OK to combine them with more experienced kids -- bring it on, the more the merrier. But for beginners, small numbers and personal attention are critical," says Lingard.

He says the experienced kids who have to wait around for their beginner bandmates to be taught the basics are being short-changed too. "I had parents of Grade 8 [second year band] kids phoning me and saying, 'my kid is bored.'"

Prest points out in her article that in multi-graded class, teachers often must choose between repertoire that is too difficult for younger players and too easy for older ones.

In some cases the school administration has combined two short classes into one long one. "I had not only [Grade] 7 and 8 combined," says Lingard, "but I have got them for 2.5 hours, sometimes once a week instead of every other day. It's absurd."

Semester systems also cause problems because music instruction demands year-long continuity to be effective.

Lingard says his senior concert bands and jazz bands have been semestered for a long time, and he's dealt with that by running it outside the timetable for part of the year, rehearsing during early mornings, lunch hour or after school. More recently he and Todd have had to deal with semesters with their younger students as well.

Classes that run before or after school hours cut down on the number of kids who can enrol, because many of them depend on school buses. Prest says that out-of-timetable classes can marginalize students who don't have transportation other than the school bus. This can lead to the perception of music as an elitist activity, she says.

When music mattered

Go back 10 years and things looked different in School District 8. Lingard's bands were often invited to national festival competitions for concert bands, and his student jazz bands were a powerful force at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho.

"Rossland also had a killer jazz band too," he says. "In fact they would usually beat us in our category in Moscow. Sometimes there would be 20 bands and the two Canadian bands from these two little schools would come in first and second. It was a source of pride."

Nelson even had its own festival. For 25 years until 2011, up to 2,500 members of high school bands and choirs came every year from all over western Canada and the northwestern U.S. to Festival Nelson. Todd and Lingard were two of the organizers. In 2005, CBC radio broadcasted a documentary about the festival. The festival was self-funded except for $1000 from the school district, but the organizers shut it down because they simply got tired. Attendance at the festival had decreased, perhaps a symptom of music education's decline across the province.

"We felt like we put so much time and energy into it," says Lingard, "and the school board took credit and pride in it, but it would have been nice to have some time off to do it, but that never happened."

Lingard and Todd talk nostalgically and proudly about the days when the district had a fine arts co-ordinator, responsible for liaising between schools and the community.

And in those days the B.C. Ministry of Education had a full time fine arts co-ordinator for the province, a position that disappeared in the mid-1990s. Around the same time, B.C. started to lose elementary music specialists, as this is not an area of specialization approved by the Teacher Regulation Branch and so universities don't offer it. That means that most music teaching in elementary schools is done by people with no knowledge of music and almost no training in it. And in small towns, explains Prest, "there is almost no opportunity for professional development."

That means that by the time kids get to Grade 8, if they have not had musical experience, "they are often very reluctant to expose themselves, to be that vulnerable, at the age of 13," says Prest. "That is generally the worst time for self-consciousness."

Asking for the impossible?

With fewer students enrolled, along with fewer and amalgamated classes, Todd and Lingard lost almost half of their music teaching hours and spent the rest of their time teaching other subjects.

When they fought their school administrations over the gradual squeezing of their programs, were they asking for the impossible? Jeff Jones, the superintendent of schools for School District 8, doesn't think there is much chance of anyone teaching music full time in a small secondary school in B.C. anymore. "Those days are gone," he says.

Jones explained to The Tyee that in School District 8 all decisions about timetabling, course offerings and teacher hiring are done by the school administrations, not the school board office.

For school administrators this can be a painful juggling act.

"At the secondary level, schools must decide on the minimum number of students for a course to run," says Geoff Burns, a former school administrator and drama teacher who now teaches in UBC's Kootenay Teacher Education Program at Selkirk College. "It is sometimes difficult to balance the various needs and resources of the school and students, with support for the arts."

Often it comes down to scheduling conflicts between courses. Students may be torn between what they need for university entrance -- physics, for example -- and electives like band. Sometimes, they can't do both.

"Declining enrolment exacerbates this," says Burns. "With more resources and more students, you can run more blocks, and the more blocks the greater the flexibility."

In B.C. secondary schools, students are actually not required to take any fine arts at all. The only arts-related graduation requirement in B.C. is four credits of fine arts (visual arts, music, drama, dance) or of "applied skills," which can include any of dozens of possible subjects from auto mechanics, business education and carpentry to home economics, metal fabrication, tourism and a variety of forms of technology training. (Any given school would not run all of those.)

In other words, it is possible for students to spend 12 years in school without any quality exposure to music education. Even if they or their parents want that exposure, it can be hit-and-miss in elementary school and prohibitively hard to schedule in middle and secondary school, if courses are offered at all.

In any event, everyone seems more concerned about math, that prestigious and troublesome subject whose solidly held position at the top of the school course-offerings hierarchy is rarely questioned. A small decline in Canadian students' math performance internationally made headlines across the country last month.

Math is part of STEM Education (science, technology, engineering and math), a trending educational priority worldwide that downplays the social sciences (critical thinking about society) and the arts (creativity and the imagination).

But the B.C. government policy document Mandate for the School System states that public education in B.C. has three goals: intellectual development, human and social development and career development. The document's description of those goals does not mention math or technology, but does specifically refer to the fine arts.

Community connections

Anita Prest says that if bands and choirs are going to survive and thrive in rural and small town schools, it will depend on better collaboration between schools and their communities, out-of-the-box thinking on the part of teachers and administrators and the loud voices of parents who want music education for their kids.

Her article gives examples of local musicians doing workshops in classrooms, school bands playing for public events, high school credit given for music instruction outside the school, school bands forming non-profit societies, getting municipal governments involved, and more.

"The arts are one of the most powerful means for forging bonds between parents, schools and communities," she writes.

But she reminds us that not all rural communities in B.C. are the same, that school-community partnerships will look different in each place, and that schools and parents will need to be open to experimentation.

When it comes to involvement in the community, Todd and Lingard have been important role models for their students. They have been, respectively, the alto saxophonist and trombonist of choice in jazz, pop, musical theatre and classical ensembles in the West Kootenays for at least two decades. This past summer they formed part of the front line of the 11-piece funk band Hornography on stage at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Last summer Lingard was the musical director of a community production of Cabaret, one of many musicals he's been involved in locally, and recently at the Yukon Arts Centre, Todd played trombone in an orchestral performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

One school-community connection in Nelson could potentially be the city council's Cultural Development Committee (CDC), but according to its chair, city councillor Donna Macdonald, arts in the schools is not part of that group's mandate. The goals and policies in the culture section of Nelson's Official Community Plan do not mention youth, schools or education.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary number of Nelson's young high school graduates head out to succeed in the performing arts in the outside world, spreading the good word about Nelson the "arts town," having got their start with the mentorship of people like Lingard and Todd.

How much music education does the school system owe us? Young musicians and singers have always devised their own mix of school bands and choirs, private music lessons and community music productions. Some schools recognize this and adapt.

For example, LV Rogers Secondary School in Nelson will give credit for Choral Music 12 to any of its students enrolled in Corazón, Nelson's 65-voice community youth choir directed by Allison Girvan, even though that choir has no connection with any school.

But membership in Corazón costs hundreds of dollars per year, and it's auditioned, so it may not be accessible to everyone. That's not exactly public education.

Does the existence of Corazón and Rick Lingard's Kootenay Music Academy contribute to letting the government and the school district off the hook for music education?

Lingard admits that there are no simple answers. But questions about the priorities of the public school system are foremost in his mind.

"Do we (in public school) have a responsibility to nurture the souls of kids? Is it important, in the environment of the school, to do that?"

As soon as he asks that question, his eyes lights up as he starts answering it.

"In ensemble playing, the multitude of disciplines that are happening at once! I have every synapse possible firing. I am thinking about that note, what does that symbol mean, that is a G, that means these fingers come down but not those fingers, held for this long, and at the same time I am listening: what is my role? Do I have to adjust it? I realize I am under pitch so I have to change my musculature, and then, boom, its gone and I am onto the next note, and at the same time I have to balance with the flute section so not to overpower them. It is such high level education in every way.

"Talk to any of those kids," he says. "Talk to them about the sense of community and learning they have in those bands."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Music

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