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Building a Strong Music Program: How to Hit the Right Notes

By Mark Newmark

For this past half year, I have been asking people I have worked with about excellence in their domains. What makes a good art program? Or a good mathematics program?
Some of the most revealing answers have come from Tom and Barbara Stief, who have been making music together for 25 years and have set up music programs around the world. Tom and Barbara explain that to build a thriving music program, teachers need to believe that success is within the reach of each individual, and that all students can be skilled musicians.
If teachers succeed in taking this approach, they will instill in students a sense of personal empowerment and success that will translate into enthusiasm for music and even for life itself.
Administrative support for a music program also plays a big part, and school schedules should be sensitive to musical needs. A school in which music is sensitively built into the schedule and curriculum will have a stronger music program than one with a music program that is extra-curricular.
A school can build a variety of music programs, including a general music program, structured significantly around music appreciation. The Stiefs contend that students will know more and feel more strongly about music when they actively participate in a performance-centered music program, focused on performance by individuals, a choir, a small instrumental ensemble, or even a full-size band.
To find the right instrument for each student requires a mixture of teacher intuition and experimentation, and student needs must be considered in light of the instrumentation requirements at hand.
In addition, a school need not choose only one type of music program. Tom Stief notes with some amusement how he and Barbara expanded the school music program in Curacao, a small island nation of about 150,000 people just off the coast of Venezuela.
At first the music program at their school was a general one, then they offered a “show and tell” about band and band instruments, using borrowed instruments from members of the community.
Unfortunately that did not yield a full range of musical instruments, so Tom then asked the captain of a cruise ship if he had instruments to be used for demonstration purposes for a day (he did).
We must emphasize here the tremendous advantage of starting musical education early, namely in elementary school. It is now well documented that the playing of music fosters brain development, emotional development, and improved academic performance.
Music programs naturally must also be evaluated and justified, and I asked the Stiefs, How can one gauge the success of a music program?
Quality of performances is one indicator, but there are more quantifiable indicators: How many students are signing up for band or choir? How long are students staying in band or choir? Are they performing in concerts? Does the music program receive media coverage? How many graduates show interest in music-related careers? How many are admitted to music programs at universities or conservatories? Are any offered music scholarships?
A final measure of a music program’s success is assessment by an outside expert.
By way of example, the International School of Curacao, where Tom and Barbara currently work, recently sponsored a weeklong visit by Dr. Rod Harkins. In addition to working with students and teachers, Dr. Harkins assessed all aspects of the school’s voice, band and general music programs.

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