Think Out Loud

Music education inequities deepening during the pandemic

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Dec. 15, 2021 5:52 p.m. Updated: Dec. 21, 2021 7:04 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Dec. 15

RACC's menu of services includes distribution of arts tax revenues throughout Portland's school districts. The cash pays for art and music teachers like this class, in the Centennial district's Oliver Elementary.

A music class in the Centennial district's Oliver Elementary.

Rob Manning / OPB


According to the Oregon Community Foundation, 179 schools throughout the state — or about one in seven — offer no music, theater, or dance classes. Many rural districts in the state are not able to offer music education, and the pandemic has only made that more challenging. We talk with Laura Arthur, who is on the board of the Oregon Music Education Association and a teacher on special assignment for K-12 music at Portland Public Schools.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. According to the Oregon Community Foundation, 179 schools throughout the state or about one in seven offer no music, theater or d ance classes. And the pandemic has fundamentally altered the way many of these classes are taught. Laura Arthur was a middle school band teacher for 12 years. She now works in the Visual and Performing Arts Program at Portland Public Schools and she’s on the board of the Oregon Music Education Association. Laura Arthur, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Laura Arthur: Hi Dave. Thank you so much for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. Before we get to music education in Oregon, I’m curious what your own music education was like.

Arthur: I started my music education when I was in fifth grade. I actually grew up in California, but I had no elementary music classes. They were gutted with budget cuts, well before I got there. But I started playing the clarinet in fifth grade, continued on through middle and high school and through high school knew that I wanted to be a music educator. I loved the leadership of being in front of an ensemble. So I came up to Eugene and got my degree in Music Education at the U of O, spent time in the Oregon Marching Band, in the Oregon Wind Ensemble, playing all sorts of instruments and then transitioned to being an Oregon Music Educator.

Miller: When you were in high school, you knew you wanted to be a middle school or high school band teacher?

Arthur: Yes. The leadership opportunities that you have as part of an ensemble in middle school and high school, they are so broad and I found a niche where I was able to inspire others and knowing that the things that I was saying, the things I was demonstrating to my peers, helps them to get better at their instruments. That’s an addictive feeling. And I knew that would translate to education well.

Miller: So you’re one of those people who achieved your goal. You said, I want to do this, I want to be this thing and then you did that, was it what you expected?

Arthur: Yes and no. When you are in a school music program, it’s a very different experience from being in front of it. All the logistics that go into being a band director or a choir director or a K-5 music educator and running a program and seeing all these students and all the different things that go into that fundraising and safety and working with parents and working with the community and the performance expectations. Those aren’t things that you really touch on when you are just a performer yourself. So all the nuances that go into being a music educator was not exactly what I was expecting, but every day is an incredible challenge. And when you get to do it with students, it’s an amazing experience.

Miller: What do you see as the best arguments for having music classes in schools?

Arthur: A lot of people look at music education and arts education in general as an extra – and I firmly believe that it should not be an extra, it should be embedded, it should be part of the core curriculum, it should be part of a well-rounded education because learning about the arts and learning about music is what makes us human; it touches us emotionally in ways that can’t be experienced through any other avenue. And playing in an ensemble, singing in an ensemble, playing music with other people is an experience that can’t be replicated. Public school education is the way to reach as many students as possible to give them that experience to really be in touch with their own humanity through music and through the arts.

Miller: I’ve seen another argument and this has been made even for sports, but more commonly for humanities subjects at the college level or for performing arts at the K-12 level. The argument being not that it’s about the intrinsic value of these courses, but that an English major can help you earn money after, so studies show in college, or music and arts can help you boost your creativity or be a smarter person. In other words, these arguments aren’t about arts for themselves, they’re about the ways they can make you a quote unquote, ‘more productive’ member of society. What do you make of those arguments?

Arthur: Well, I think there’s value in them, but it’s kind of a correlation/causation sort of thing when you participate in the arts, are you becoming a more creative person? Yes, of course. If you participate in a school music program, are you becoming a person who collaborates better with individuals? Absolutely. But there’s also the argument of art for art’s sake. And there’s all sorts of studies and so many different advocacy tools about what the arts can do to be applied in other things as far as economic value in your community or future careers or how can the skills that you learn in the arts apply to so many different career paths? That’s absolutely true. So this is a ‘yes/and’ situation. All the skills you learn in an arts education can be applicable and the arts are also worth learning about on their own.

Miller: I want to play a voicemail that came in from one of our listeners:

Caller: ‘My name is Patrick. I’m a parent of a second grader in the Roseway neighborhood of Northeast Portland and our son’s school opted to get rid of music the year prior to him starting. And as far as we know, there was a vote of some sort to retain either art or music, and I think it’s a shame. I’m a quasi-professional musician myself. I just think it was an avoidable shame.’

Miller: What are the reasons in general that music classes have been cut over the last few years, or over the last few decades?


Arthur: That is such a complicated answer, and there’s so many, as you speak, acronyms that I could throw at you right now, that would make everybody listening fall asleep. But in general, a thing that we try to do is not value one art form over the other. Now, I am a musician and I am a music educator, and so I have a lens that is very music specific. But the power of the arts in general, like any exposure to that, is going to be great for kids. However, when budgets get cut, when Principals and school communities have to make really hard decisions based on so many factors that aren’t visible to either teachers or the public or the school community. It’s an impossible situation. Nobody wants to cut the arts, nobody wants to do that. It’s so popular. We know what it does for kids. So when it happens, it’s really hard for stakeholders to get down underneath that next level at the why’ and sometimes it’s completely out of control, like, they literally don’t have space in the school, they don’t have money to fund a teacher, they couldn’t find a qualified candidate. There are so many different ways that those unfortunate things happen and I will say that It’s getting better, and people are starting to really recognize the transformative power of an arts education, specifically, a music education for students, K-12. So the pendulum is swinging the opposite direction. It’s no longer the arts are the first to be cut. I think administrators and school communities are getting really creative in order to preserve those programs so that all students have access to those high quality and comprehensive programs.

Miller: The Oregon Community Foundation that I mentioned earlier, in fact, they did note in a report two years ago that the number of arts courses broadly, so not just music, the number of arts courses in schools has slowly but steadily increased since 2012.  How do you explain that?

Arthur: As a society, as we connect more as humans- and I think the pandemic has really put that into very, very clear perspective. People are understanding the value of this again, not just because it increases math scores as a very popular byline. Yes, it does that, and it’s important to learn about, but I totally lost my train of thought. Can you say your question again?

Miller: The question is, why do you think it is that Oregon schools have slowly but steadily, according to this study, been adding arts courses, broadly, since the 2012-2013 school year?

Arthur: I think as a shift in Oregon, as a very artistic society, in a very artistic state, we are trying to make our values very present in our school communities. So as we are valuing the arts, they’re becoming more present in our school communities, we also have incredible advocates all around the state, including the Oregon Community Foundation, including the Oregon Music Education Association and including our politicians. Our local Congresswoman, [Suzanne] Bonamici has sponsored an Arts Education for All Bill in the United States Congress and she is a champion for arts ed, and we are, we’re really happy to back that bill.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the state of music education in Oregon schools. Laura Arthur is our guest, she’s on the Board of the Oregon Music Education Association and she was a middle school band teacher for 12 years. I want to go back to something that Patrick said in that voice mail, because the implication is that and this is you said, you don’t want to get into a debate pitting different arts genres against each other, but that he saw this as a kind of competition between visual arts and music or other performing arts. To what extent is that a real issue in Oregon schools, if they’re dealing with limited funding?

Arthur: I think it has to do with educating those who are in the position to make those decisions on the power of all art forms and we don’t want our leadership to ever be in a position to pit an art form against each other. We want to create conditions that will allow all of those things to happen, and I will say from the music perspective, we are in a really unique situation where we have a really strong national advocacy network. So the Oregon Music Education Association is actually a state chapter of our National Association for Music Education that has incredibly comprehensive advocacy programs that advocate for a high quality K-12 music education and the infrastructure for a lot of the other art forms, especially dance and theater are starting – they’re just not as active. And a music program is extremely visible in a school. You go to a high school football game, you see the band, there are choral performances at assemblies and at concerts. So it’s visible in a way that hasn’t been in the past as elevated or publicly been able to showcase as a lot of the other art forms. So the infrastructure to advocate for Music Ed is there. We want to lift up all the other art forms so they could be on that equal footing so that everybody can find their art niche that they would like to; not everybody is going to be a musician. We want everybody to appreciate music, but somebody might be an artist or a thespian or a dancer. So we want those conditions to be there, so people have the choice in what they want to experience.

Miller: I imagine there is some local variation from place to place, but in general, how does the availability of music education compare in urban Oregon versus rural Oregon?

Arthur: That’s the big question, and something that we’re struggling with in OMEA, the Oregon Music Education Association, is data collection around that, and how can we connect with those music teachers who are in rural parts of Oregon? And how can we support them? And how can we support music programs in very small schools? Because if the school is very tiny or if it’s one building K-12 program, they might have one music educator for every grade. So if somebody goes to college to become a band director and learns all the nuances of all the different instruments and is now suddenly teaching kindergarteners how to keep a steady beat, one of the jobs of the OMEA is to prepare those teachers to be able to reach all of those students. But because it varies so greatly between very rural Oregon and very urban Oregon where you may have, like I was, a specific band teacher for just middle school, I was very blessed in the community that I was in. But that’s not the case statewide. And we want every single student to have access to comprehensive, high quality music education taught by somebody that we can support with professional development.

Miller: Let’s listen to one more voice mail that came in.

Caller: ‘Hi, this is Jim Craft from Eugene, Oregon calling. We do have a band program here in our middle school and high schools, but they’re not very well run. So the students who are good players and who want a good jazz band or competitive jazz band, those kids are all quitting. They’ve all quit the high school band in South Eugene High School. So people need to remember that it’s not enough just to have a band program. We need to have a good program and one that values excellence and not just participation for all, or an opportunity, but one that is good and that challenges students, not just having an opportunity is enough. We need to think about all students.’

Miller: Laura Arthur, What’s your response to Jim who’s concerned, not about the availability of a program, but the quality of a program that he sees?

Arthur: Something that music educators and arts educators experience a lot is they’re often the only person at their building teaching their subject. They often have no partner in the building that they can go to and ask questions. So if they’re a new educator straight out of a pre-professional program at a college or even if they’re a very seasoned educator, there’s not necessarily those hallway conversations you can have with your colleagues. Like I’m having this issue. How can I best serve my students? So that’s where OMEA comes in as the statewide network for support for music educators. And while we do our best to try to connect with everybody and offer really relevant professional development to help people work on a specific skill, the caller mentioned jazz band – so if somebody has not had experience leading a jazz band, we want to offer them opportunities to talk with experts about leading a jazz program and how can they get better. So OMEA’s job is to try to provide those opportunities for everybody and to connect with all of our music educator so everybody has the opportunity to do that. OMEA also offers incredible opportunities for students at our allstate events where students audition for and are placed in these mass bands from students from across the state, conducted by incredible people. And it’s showcased at our annual conference in Eugene in January. There’s jazz bands and choirs and bands and elementary bands and middle school bands and orchestras and choirs. It’s a gala experience celebrating student excellence.

Miller: How has the pandemic affected music education in Oregon?

Arthur: Well I think it’s changed the perspective of a lot of teachers. The big question last April was, how am I supposed to teach music online? How am I supposed to do this? How am I supposed to teach somebody to start on the clarinet, over a screen – when I can’t help them? When I can’t show them what the orifice of the mouth shape looks like with a mask on? How am I supposed to do this? And an underground system of support sprung up from our national leadership in music education to our State Organization to District level organization. Let’s create lesson plans, let’s adapt what we normally do into something that might work on the screen. But the undercurrent through this time was that people were mourning the loss of making music together with their students, with their colleagues. There’s something magical that happens when you play or sing with someone else in a group. It cannot be explained by anything else I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s magical. It’s addictive, it’s incredible. So that was the extra feeling of loss during the pandemic – that we couldn’t be together to play. So when schools reopened this fall, it was kind of a groundhog peeking out of the ground situation. Like we get to play together? We get to do this and listen to each other and engage and play off each other. And man, we sound terrible because we haven’t played together in a year, but let’s get better. And any time I get to see music now, it’s incredibly emotional and I cry, like I will cry at a 6th grade band hot cross bun performance.

Miller: Laughs quietly.

Arthur: So happy to hear kids playing together.

Miller: Well, here’s to more of it, Laura Arthur, thanks very much.

Arthur: Thank you so much, Dave.

Miller: Laura Arthur is part of Portland Public Schools’ Performing Arts Staff. She is the Music Advocacy Co-Chair on the Board of the Oregon Music Education Association.

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