It's Time To Change Our Tune
Inequity in the arts is a problem, it always has been. In fact, in the United states access to the arts has been historically utilized to ensure students of color did (and do) not have equal opportunities. As a student I was lucky to be involved with music programs throughout my educational career. I played drums in high school and college bands. I also sang in choirs. As an educator, I’ve worked with countless marching bands teaching students from all walks of life. My passion has always been serving underserved and high need schools/communities. This weekend, these aspects of my personal and professional identity came together over a post circulating on social media. The post is a screen capture from a session at the Texas Music Education Association’s (TMEA) annual conference. The presentation brief is below:
According to his Linked In profile, (Frank Chambers) is the Owner of Chambers Music in Texas and also a former band director at Conroe High School in Texas. His website teachingbassoon.com was offline but I was able to find an archived version of the website. Here is what Mr. Chambers has to say about bassoon instruction. "Teaching bassoon, from the beginner level through advanced high school students, shouldn't be as scary as it is. My goal for TeachingBassoon.com is to demystify bassoon instruction for teachers at any level." -Frank Chambers
Two images from the session are circulating on social media
Hopefully, the reason these images are trending on social media are blatantly obvious, but let me highlight them for you. In the first image, the claims are that intangible characteristics of a bassoonist are “socio-economic status” and “a stable home.” While the explicit statement is that socio-economic status should be “never prohibitive, but should be taken into account when regarding the expense of reeds/lessons” Whether or not he intended the message to come across this way, the presenter seems to be establishing that students of low socioeconomic status can’t afford to be bassoon players and therefore should not be selected in your ensembles. It also seems to suggest that in order to be successful directors should be selective based on students' home lives. “Every bassoon kid is an investment. Will they remain within your community.[sic]” Here the underlying message seems to be that if a student isn’t going to stay in your community then they are not worth your time or money as an educator. With these subconscious messages, the presenter is devaluing those students. To reinforce the messaging, the presenter follows with “Questions to answer: Do they live in an apartment or house? Are they buying or renting? Do they move often? Are their parents transferred for work often? Are lessons a possibility, both from a financial perspective and a mobility perspective? Is the home open to home practice?” He presents these factors as clear barriers to students’ success.
Let me be clear. This messaging (intentional or implicit) is unacceptable, plain and simple. Would he make the same statements about trumpets, or guitars, or drummers? My instincts tell me, no. Although admittedly I don’t know for sure. Let's take it a step further, would he say this about sports, dance, visual art, theater or any other “extracurricular?” Again, my gut says no. With this presentation, the message being relayed is that only certain students, the best of the best, should have access. It is fundamentally wrong. ALL students should be given any and every opportunity they desire. If a student wants to become a bassoonist, we as schools and educators must nurture and support the student in their endeavors. None of the factors presented above either independently or collectively are limiting factors in a student’s success. The statements above are exclusionary, elitist and classist. When we discuss systemic inequity, educational leaders excluding and marginalizing students in these ways is EXACTLY what we mean. This creates a self fulfilling prophecy. Because these students are not being given opportunities, future students won’t see a pathway forward because they cannot see themselves represented in the field.
Last time I checked...a bassoon doesn’t have a coin or bill slot. You don’t need to put money into it to make it work. There aren’t a set of qualifying questions before a bassoon makes noise. You don’t have to submit mortgage paperwork or pay stubs to open the box. Additionally, skills don’t stay in the building where they are learned. A bassoon player that learns to play at Conroe High School in Texas will always know how to play the bassoon. The idea of a bassoon player being an investment is inherently selfish. It seems that this educator only cares about himself and the success of the ensemble, having no regard for the well being of the student. It breaks my heart to think about all of the lost opportunities resulting from this type of closed and privileged mindset. For all we know, the next principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony could have been sitting in these classroom but never been provided the chance to study/learn because they didn’t fit these “intangible characteristics”
To be clear, we do not know what Mr. Chambers’ intent was. All we know is how the message was interpreted. In fact, it is entirely possible that he was unaware of the harmful messaging contained in his presentation. However, that is one of the lasting impacts of systemic inequity. Privilege and bias are engrained so deeply into society and culture that we often can’t see it in ourselves before it is too late. That’s why it is essential to speak up. As educators, and indeed as citizens, we have a moral responsibility to speak up and be agents of change.
To broaden my perspective I reached out to a dear friend and bassoonist, Ashley Dawson to understand EXACTLY what this educator could mean. My fears, suspicion and frankly outrage were confirmed.
“My opinion is that as a grade school and high school educator, your goal should be to encourage and teach music. Socio-economic status? That is not inclusive! He is saying if you are poor you can’t learn the bassoon. By not being inclusive and encouraging he is pushing away students. I understand what he is trying to say, and I know many band directors have limited resources, but if a kid wants to learn the bassoon they should be given that opportunity.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. It isn’t our job as adults to decide who should or shouldn’t play which instruments. If they want to do it we should make it happen. Additionally, she agrees that situations like this are at the heart of the inequity issue. I asked if throughout her experiences as a bassoonist, she felt like most bassoonists met the profile this educator was trying to advocate for.
“I would say yes which is unfortunate but I think that’s why we have such an issue with classical music and diverse audiences. People who are not white and have low socioeconomic status don’t regularly attend classical music. It’s because of ideas this man is pushing. There is no one in the ensemble that looks like them and they haven’t had the same encouragement as their white counterparts. Classical music feels expensive and unattainable and I think that has to do with programming, pricing, and just the stigma of “high art.” Everything he says about a stable home is an issue. He’s recommending educators to pick and choose who plays bassoon based on factors a kid can’t control.”
Students who don’t see themselves aren’t drawn to those fields. Classical music is a source of great joy. In fact, historically speaking, classical music is meant for the common person, not just for the rich. It is our responsibility as educators to broaden our students’ horizons and open doors. This teacher is actively closing doors and gatekeeping.
The presentation in question needs to be rebranded. How about instead of “Build Better Bassoons!”, we ignite music educators’ participation around deepening understanding of how to “Expand Equitable Opportunity for Playing Bassoon!” We need sessions about “Building More Inclusive Ensembles” loaded with strategies for recruiting students of low socioeconomic status. Present resources and strategies to generate opportunities for students that facilitate creation of ensembles representative of the diverse population of students in your education community. I truly hope that Mr. Chambers takes into account the feedback he has received from outraged educators (and non-educators) across the country. After all, it’s never too late to grow and change. However, the responsibility also lies with us. When inequity of practice is revealed, work to resolve it as catalysts for social justice. It takes all of us, all the time. Speak up and speak out. Share your thoughts. Advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.
*** At the time of writing, TMEA has removed the session from their archives. Teachingbassoon.com appears to be offline for maintenance purposes. TMEA posted the following statement to their twitter account @tmea. I was unable to find any statement from Mr. Chambers.
Andrew Cress is a Director of Professional Learning and Development at Collaboration Nation. He will be in his 8th year teaching during the 2020-2021 school year. He currently serves as a 4th-grade teacher at Duquesne Elementary School. Since earning his bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University he has been passionate about underserved and struggling school districts, and he believes that collaborative and social-emotional learning is the key to changing the stigma in underserved and struggling districts. With this passion in mind, he has gone on to earn his M. Ed in Educational Leadership from California University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Elizabeth, PA with his wife, Dana, dog Franklin, and their two cats Ernest and Stella. He is a lifelong Penguins fan, amatuer musician, and an avid reader.