Hitting the High Notes: With programs growing, music educators work to remove deep-seated barriers

When budget cuts hit schools, the axe falls first on anything that’s not considered a “core subject.” 

For many school administrators, music education falls into the category of a luxury, rather than a necessity. In fact, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) put math, reading, science and social studies above all else. The arts simply weren’t considered essential to being “career ready.”

But music educators disagree with that sentiment.

“If kids aren’t involved in arts and music specifically, they’re missing that creative part of their education. What’s that going to mean to them in 10 or 20 years when they’re in that market?” said Cory Micheel-Mays, executive director of the Michigan Music Education Association (MMEA). “When they enter the workforce, they’re not going to be that creative, out-of-the-box team player.”

Years of research back Micheel-Mays’ claims. Studies published in the likes of The Journal of Neuroscience and Scientific American, among others, show that music education is linked to significant improvements in math, science and reading scores. It alters the nervous system with changes that last into adulthood, including the ability to process all auditory information — not just music. For adults, learning an instrument even has been shown to stave off Alzheimer’s disease and depression.

That research is part of why the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the NCLB, has made explicitly clear the importance of music education. Still, the bipartisan ESSA was only enacted by Congress in Dec. 2015, so its true impact has yet to be seen.

In the meantime, music educators will continue to make the case for the value of the art form.

Beyond producing results in other academic areas, learning and playing instruments has an inherent impact both emotionally and socially. Steffanie Rosalez, program director for Grand Rapids’ Cook Arts Center, said that music allows for an outlet that can’t be found in science or math.

“In this time, where everyone’s feeling a range of emotions, it’s times like these that remind me how important the arts are,” she said. “It’s important that kids have access to forms of self-expression and creativity that can allow them to be angry or to move around a lot. … Holding a guitar or hitting a drum, they’re physically engaging with a creative process that can be whatever they want it to be.”

Rosalez is also the program director for Girls Rock! Grand Rapids, an annual week-long camp where girls from around the city are split into bands who then write, perform and record a song. The songs can be about whatever the participants want, from a grandma’s ghost to turning into a cat. Rosalez said this freedom both allows the girls to express themselves individually and brings them all closer together — that’s what music education does.

“We’re encouraging young women and girls to be leaders and be creative, to support each other and spread positivity,” she said. “It’s using music as agency to build community.”


To an extent, however, access to that music education varies from place to place, community to community.

For instance, Michigan is the only state in the contiguous United States that does not require school districts to provide arts instruction in elementary, middle school or high school. Advocating for requirements like these is a large part of the MMEA’s work — a bill focused on elementary school has been proposed and now sits awaiting action in the state’s House Education Committee. 

In 2012 — the same year Michigan cut funding by more than $300 per pupil under Gov. Rick Snyder — approximately 9 percent of the state’s elementary schools didn’t offer a single music course, according to an Arts Education survey led by Michigan Youth Arts. For high schools, that number jumped to 23 percent. Those numbers may have changed by 2016, but accurate and timely data are rarely available publicly on both the state and national level, said Lynn Tuttle, director of content and policy for the National Association for Music Education.

Still, arts instruction requirements would help keep that percentage as close to zero as possible. Micheel-Mays of the MMEA said that music education — where it does exist — is already of an incredible caliber in the state, and that he would put our high-school performing ensembles up against any other state. He also noted that schools like Michigan State University and the University of Michigan are considered “some of the best in the country” for music.

However, the fact remains there are students missing out on that success, which he views as “horrible.” If those students could participate, the state’s musical reputation would only improve.

Conductor John Varineau leads the GRYS at the 2015 Festival of the Arts. Photo courtesy of Terry Johnston.

“Somehow, we’ve got this amazing crop of talent without any of the necessary requirements in place,” he said. “If we’ve got it that good right now, imagine how amazing Michigan could be if we get the other piece in place.”

However, even when hard times hit, many schools recognize the value of music and find a way to make do, whether it be through outside help or creative problem-solving. Partially due to statewide budget cuts under Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Grand Rapids Public Schools briefly switched in 2010 to a “hub” system in which all music electives were moved to City High, and students from all of the district’s high schools participated collectively. In 2012, the district was able to de-centralize and hired Maggie Malone as director of fine arts to help rebuild the program.

Malone said that through all of this, the community and the district “stood behind the value and the quality that music instruction brings to students.” Since then, enrollment in programs has only increased and the GRPS Coit Creative Arts Academy has transitioned into an International Baccalaureate school, where art and music are considered core content.

While every school in the nation could always use more funding, Malone has high hopes for the future.

Part of Malone’s optimism stems from what she perceives as a culture shift toward the representation of musical talent in a positive light, especially through talent-based TV shows like The Voice and The X Factor.

“I think, as a society, we’re coming back to valuing music,” she said.

Enrollment has continuously grown for Jenison High School’s music programs as well, and Director of Orchestras Dan Scott also attributes that partially to an increased respect for music in society.

“The stigma toward participating in music is virtually gone, at least in the environments that I see,” Scott said. “When I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, you were kind of the nerd if you were in the music program. I would say that culture and society has changed — we’re either embracing the nerds or kids’ differences are just a little more valued and appreciated.”


While 2010 and 2012’s funding cuts have impacted every district in one way or another, many schools held strong.

For Kalamazoo Public Schools, the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship has made all the difference, according to Dan Stout, the band director at Kalamazoo Central High School. Depending on how long students have been in the district, the program pays for anywhere from 65 percent to 100 percent of their college tuition at any Michigan public university or community college. Stout said this means the community works hard to keep kids as involved as possible, and music is a big part of that.

At many schools, the largest impact from prior cuts was the loss of parapro workers, who essentially acted like secretaries and took on much of the “administrivia,” according to Jenison’s Scott.

“In general, directors did as much as possible to protect their kids from the cuts, so you didn’t see too much loss of programming,” Scott said. “But teachers were taking it on the chin, for lack of a better term, to get their programs through that rough period.”

To this day, the biggest concern for Scott is staffing, or lack thereof, which leads to teacher burnout. He said there are multiple music classrooms in West Michigan that have only one teacher for more than 50 students, and even a few situations where the single-teacher classrooms are close to 100 students.

“Parents, administrators and legislators need to consider whether that is appropriate,” he said.

On top of class size issues, music instructors — especially those working with marching bands — often spend a great deal of time on field trips and after-school instruction as well.

If education funding gets restored to prior levels, Scott said it will be interesting to see if schools reinvest back into music where they had cut or halted expansion previously. Before the downturn, more and more area school districts were adding orchestras, including Kenowa Hills, Hudsonville, Grandville and Zeeland. That trend slowed significantly after 2010, with Rockford Public Schools in 2013 being the most recent district to add an orchestra. However, Scott said that more districts have once again started to express interest in adding an orchestra.

Throughout the year, Grand Rapids Symphony players head into schools to give students a hands-on experience. Photo courtesy of Terry Johnston.


Regardless of whether schools can provide the kinds of music programs they desire, arts organizations across the region work to both supplement those school programs and bridge divides.

St. Cecilia Music Center of Grand Rapids has its highest enrollment ever across many programs, including three youth orchestras and two developing jazz programs. Martha Cudlipp Bundra, education director, and Rebecca Steimke, education assistant, said that music programs are broadening in genre — moving beyond just symphonies and into an expansive spectrum of musical performance. These programs are expanding in age as well, with most major institutions now offering at least one program for adults.

The Holland Youth Symphony also is growing, although Holland Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Kay Walvoord said enrollment oscillates by semester because of high school marching band in the fall. Still, the HSO keeps busy year-round with programs for all ages, Walvoord said, including a New Horizons class for adults and concerts geared toward young children and families.

“Our approach is from the very youngest to the very oldest,” she said.

For most arts organizations, however, the largest portion of their educational outreach is in tandem with schools. At the Grand Rapids Symphony, more than 75,000 attendees come in from all over West Michigan to experience symphonic music at a young age.

With this many participants, symphonies are often faced with the tough financial choice of either keeping tickets affordable or assisting with bussing costs, said Claire Van Brandeghen, the director of education at GRS. 

The GRS has opted for cheap tickets — the fifth-grade concerts are entirely free, while the Lollipop Concerts are only $5 per student.

Van Bradeghen said transportation is the number one barrier to participation, especially for a symphony that serves 14 counties across West Michigan. For example, participating schools come from as far away as the city of McBain, more than 100 miles away. 

Additionally, transportation is an issue that spans beyond West Michigan. In the 2012 Arts Education survey from Michigan Youth Arts, 45 percent of schools cited transportation as a significant barrier to arts-related field trips.

To overcome that barrier, the Brass Band of Battle Creek seeks grants and donations to cover the cost of transportation for its concerts. Transporting one elementary school costs about $500, according to Executive Director Jennifer Rupp, but the impact is invaluable.

“We’re all about impact right now and how we seek out and get kids to seek out arts opportunities in their community,” Rupp said. “We reach so many kids every year and the hope is that they will become appreciators of the arts.”

On the other hand, Van Bradeghen said that requiring schools to contribute funds for transportation greatly assists with their commitment to showing up. 

“I have colleagues with other orchestras who have transportation stipends, and then they start to see commitment drop off because the schools don’t have any skin in the game,” she said. “When they’ve had to commit the funds and resources, we start to see 100-percent attendance.”

Dan Scott acts as both director of orchestras at Jenison High School and director of the Youth Philharmonic at St. Cecilia Music Center (above). Photo courtesy of St. Cecilia's Music Center.


On an individual level, tuition is the largest barrier to participation in music classes and youth symphonies. However, organizations like St. Cecilia are fundraising constantly, enabling them to assist those in need. Bundra said donations allow St. Cecilia to provide financial aid to students whose families can’t afford it. When the GRPS Harrison Park Elementary school lost its orchestra program, St. Cecilia was able to offer some full scholarships to students.

Similarly, the Grand Rapids Symphony — in addition to tuition assistance for the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, Classical Orchestra and Youth Chorus — offers the Mosaic Scholarship. Through this program, about 20 African-American and Latino students currently receive one-on-one lessons with professional musicians from the symphony. The GRS also recently launched Symphony Scorecard, which provides free tickets to families receiving financial assistance from the state.

“We thought last year we’d be doing well if we had 400 tickets used. We were a little bit surprised to have more than 2,100 tickets used,” Van Brandeghen said. “We’re looking at how we remove barriers so that more segments of our community can participate.”

The Cook Arts Center, which is part of the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities nonprofit, removes those barriers with free after-school and summer arts programs for those living in the Grandville Avenue (a.k.a. Roosevelt Park) neighborhood of Grand Rapids. The after-school music classes range from piano to guitar, violin, drumming and more. The Summer Arts and Learning Program is similar, but closer to a day camp, offering the whole spectrum of classes to students ages 5 to 12. Each year, the program also has a theme fit around social and emotional learning, with 2016 focused on “the future of selves.” Rosalez said that the Cook Arts Center listens to residents, then creates programming around their requests.

Of all the center’s programs, Rosalez considers the aforementioned Girls Rock! Grand Rapids to be the most effective right now. In four years, the camp has doubled in size, growing in 2016 to 40 girls, split into eight bands. More than 50 volunteers assisted this year as well.

“This has been way more successful than we anticipated, mostly because the whole program has been centered around them making whatever they want,” Rosalez said. “Some of them take it outside of the camp week and keep playing with their bands.”

Another program doing similar work is the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids, with three locations in Southwest Area Neighbors, South East Community and Garfield Park offering drum, guitar and other music lessons for youths ages 6 to 18. Additionally, Walk The Beat in Grand Haven arranges lessons and donates instruments and money for children and young adults. In order to do so, the nonprofit organizes benefit shows with local bands across West Michigan. The main event takes the form of a benefit festival in Grand Haven, featuring 70 music acts across 36 venues, but Walk The Beat is expanding to other cities like Albion as well.

These organizations bridge the systemic gaps and divides of the region in more ways than one — it’s not just about the music, but the programs themselves. Rosalez said the Girls Rock! GR album release party this year illustrated just that. 

A wide variety of families came together, as the program hosts girls from all over the city, not just the Grandville Avenue neighborhood. The event, which took place just days after the 2016 presidential election, allowed for disparate families to hear each others’ stories, both through music and conversation. 

“When people heard these narratives, they were like, ‘Wow! I didn’t realize people were living out these things,’” Rosalez said. “Rather than telling people what to believe, sharing your own stories and listening to other people is the best thing you can do right now.”

Cook Arts Center students working in the Fun With Music after-school class. Photo by Katy Batdorff.


With a new presidential administration taking office in January, music education faces uncertainty in the times ahead.

The problems educators face now are nothing new, but it’s impossible to say what’s next, according to Kevin Tutt, associate dean of curriculum, pedagogy and academic opportunities for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University.

Tutt, who also serves as a professor of music, cited the fact that President-elect Trump “has floated the idea that he will eliminate the Department of Education” as a driver of that uncertainty.

“There would be pretty large ramifications of that,” Tutt said. “There are a lot of programs that are administered by the DOE.”

Since anything could happen, it’s the current state of not knowing that makes everyone nervous, Tutt said.

That anxiety, including with policies at the state level, can also cause educators to burn out quicker, according to Scott of Jenison.
“We’re expecting an attack on our pensions during (the Michigan Legislature’s) lame duck session coming up, so if we’re stressed about that, it makes it hard to approach your job with the same energy every day,” he said.

With that kind of looming uncertainty, sources found it difficult to advise any one course of action for the future.

There’s always the obvious answers: Give to an organization you believe in, whether it be a school, youth symphony, arts center or advocacy group. You also can volunteer, especially with the smaller nonprofits that rely on the help. Or simply support the arts with your patronage.

However, some of the problems with music education run deeper than funding. There’s a disparity present, a divide between communities founded in complex issues that can’t be solved by solutions as simple as introducing “diversity.” It’s not easy to solve — it’s not even easy to talk about, especially in today’s sociopolitical environment, but communities like Greater Grand Rapids have to acknowledge it, Rosalez said.

“This is a result of systems we’ve created and these systems impact very specific groups of people,” she said. “We have to start looking inside of ourselves to see how we might be contributing to it. It might be the way we’re talking about (marginalized) communities. It might be the way we don’t talk about it at all.”

Just telling the same tired story of an “inner city” school struggling through the lens of middle-class whiteness doesn’t accomplish much — instead, we need to build new narratives, Rosalez said. People need to force themselves to reflect on oppressive systems and marginalized people’s fears, beliefs and daily experiences that may be uncomfortable or difficult to understand, then talk about them in a new way from a new perspective, she added.

Rosalez believes the rhetoric people use to frame these stories is “hugely important.”

This work, as challenging as it may be, is worth more to Rosalez than any number of donations.

“People want to say, ‘Oh, well if I just donate $20 then I’m doing my part,’” she said. “But really, everyone’s part is self-reflection and thinking about your assumptions and challenging those. ... That’s a lot harder than donating $20, and that’s what people need to do. I would rather everyone do that than give us money.”

Rosalez paused, then added, “But believe me, I need their money, too.”

Jane Simons also contributed to this story.