How to start a music program

With budgetary blues playing all over the nation, music programs are getting silenced. Use this guide to bring music education back to your child's school.

By Rob Baedeker

girl playing violin

The day the music died

If there were a song that told the story of the state of music education in our schools, it might be a slow, sad dirge. A 2008 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found a long-term decline in arts-education since 1982, with childhood music education showing the most dramatic reduction. This downward trend is especially painful given the academic and social benefits that music study offers.

Has your child's school reduced or eliminated its music program?   Don't sing the blues. With some organization and initiative, you can find the resources to start (or save) this critical component of your kids' education.  Try these 7 guidelines for implementing a school music program and report back on your experience.

parents collaborating

A community chorus

Ensuring the place of music education in schools is "about educating parents as well as children," says Karen McKie, a parent who helped save the Berkeley Unified School District music program in the 1990s.  "Gather parents around, so they understand what's at stake, and make the case for why this is valuable to the community. Use numbers and facts, and give them the script for why this important." 

The first step to build support for a music program in your school? Share this article and the article about the importance of music on children's cognitive development with 5 parents or teachers you're hoping will partner with you on this project.  Then organize a community meeting -- or introduce the idea at a PTO meeting.  Be creative about drumming up interest for the event: combine it with a concert by local musicians (or even graduates of your child's school) who can perform and speak about the significance of music in their lives and careers. Build your network by collecting phone numbers and email addresses from parents and other supporters.

money and trebel clef

Bank notes

A good music program will be long-term, and this requires more than good intentions.  It requires money!  First stop?  Your school's PTO.  If your school's PTO doesn't have the funds or doesn't exist, try to  find a local music organization that can become a partner.   Look for  a corporate sponsor that might want to fund for a pilot program.  For instance, a local opera company might conduct a program in your school while a local business that wants to be associated with the arts helps fund it.

Regional arts councils often provide grants for music education, and they can connect you with other music-education resources, from existing programs to teachers and arts-related events. Businesses -- both local and national -- can be another good source of funding, whether it's the neighborhood café providing space for a concert or a large corporation sponsoring a long-term music program. 

And there are thousands of private foundations that give money to the arts. Artists House Music provides a good overview of where and how to pursue grant money for a music program and the Children's Music Workshop has a list of music-related grants

Finally, university music programs may be a good way to create a program on a shoestring.  If you can arrange for graduate students to teach and receive credit for their teaching at your child's school, they won't need to be paid as much (if at all).  Instead, you will need to provide these fledging music teachers with a structured internship -- feedback and support from a teacher or other staff.

meeting with the principal

Principal player

"You have to get the principal on board," says Marion Atherton, who helped implement a music program in her son's elementary school in Berkeley, Calif. "If I had gone to the teachers first, it wouldn't have worked."

Atherton, who had lined up a possible grant through the California Arts Council and a local community music center, says she was able to "hand the principal a solution to a problem she didn't know how to solve."

kids making music

Harmonizing with the kids

"It's not just the message of music that's important," says Beth Elliott, director or the Kadima Conservatory in Sherman Oaks, Calif.  "It's the messenger. A lot of good music programs fizzle out if they're not taught by good messengers. You have to find the right teacher."

Just because someone is a virtuoso on the bassoon, for example, doesn't necessarily mean they'll be good with kids. Take the time to research and interview candidates until you find the right fit. The Music Teachers National Association's guide to choosing a music teacher is a good place to start.

moms over coffee

Orchestrating volunteers

 Raising money is a big step in getting a music program off the ground, but there are plenty of non-monetary ways that parents and community members can keep a program flourishing by contributing their time and skills. McKie says the Berkeley music programs depend heavily on volunteer support -- from parents who help coordinate performance schedules or raise money to purchase instruments, to local artists who help music teachers by leading "sectionals" (small breakout groups) during band rehearsals.

Ex-students can be a great resource, too. In Pleasant Hill, Calif., an enterprising 14-year-old named Larry Wang started a music mentorship program at his former elementary school after its fourth-grade music program was cut. (Watch his inspiring story .)

Row of basses

Instrumental lending

Even after a music program is established, there are still costs that can be daunting for parents -- especially the price of musical instruments. The good news is that many organizations help give kids access to instruments. The Walla Walla Washington Symphony, for example has a lending program that provides no-cost access to musical instruments, as does the national Bluegrass Heritage Foundation). Check with a symphony, community music center or music society near you to see what help may be available.


Going low key

Even if you aren't able to secure a major grant or persuade your principal to change her curriculum, you can at least ensure the students at your child's school are being exposed to music. Many symphonies offer regular concerts for school groups or free performances for the community. Get a group of parents to research and plan a field trip to the symphony with your child's school or class, and then present your plan to the principal. You can also research local bands or performers who might be interested in visiting your school to play -- and pique interest in music among the kids, teachers and administrators.

Rob Baedeker is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif. He is the coauthor, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: Weddings of the Times and Obama's BlackBerry.