The Survival Of Art


By Beckie Strum

A mixture of incoherent toots and honks sounds from dozens of band students as they tune their instruments. Worn down after years of lessons at Nottingham High School, trumpets, trombones, and saxophones are scratched and pitchy. Rusted relics of instruments from richer years decorate the walls of Nottingham’s single band room.

With a flick of his wrist, band teacher Ray Sturge ends the racket and draws the students to complete silence. With a second signal, sound bursts from the crowd into the haunting din of “Phantom of the Opera.”

After Sturge led the band through several measures, the slim, bald man dropped his arms in exasperation and stared, with stern but kind eyes, out onto the variety of youth before him: Hipsters in beanies and flannel; thugs sporting Timberlands and Rockawear; one freak in a top hat and full white skirt.

“This is me yelling at you,” he said, eyebrows furrowed. “You can’t miss the first six flats and then fix them later. It sounds like poo.”

The bustling, somewhat chaotic music department at Nottingham, on 3100 E. Genesee St., offers sanctuary from the pressures of high school for a range of students. Some spend three or four consecutive periods in the cluttered, dusty band room, taking advantage of a study hall, or skipping class entirely. Others wouldn’t have come to school at all that day if not for a music

lesson. Sturge, who graduated decades ago from Corcoran High School in the South Side of Syracuse, knows this all too well. “I was a terrible student. If it wasn’t for music in high school, I’d be flipping burgers,” he said.

On any given afternoon, Nottingham’s hallways slowly fill with students waiting for classes to end. Carelessly ignoring the deep calls of the school’s monitors to get back to class or leave, thuggish young guys and their friends loiter through the halls. Student apathy at Nottingham, like in many schools in economically depressed cities, leads to plenty of behavioral issues as seen in the school’s 20 percent suspension rate in 2007-2008.

Back in Sturge’s band room, orchestra teacher Jana Rogers, a short woman, harried from her rush over from one of the local elementary schools, rearranges a few warped and teetering music stands with her modest class.

“They might be struggling with grades or their behavior,” she said, “but they find this is a place where they will do well.” From her experience, teaching kids to play an instrument can lead to remarkable improvements in behavior and self-discipline.

“Sometimes they have a parent at home who leaves it up to the kids to come to school or not,” she said. “But a lot of them make sure to be there on their lesson that day. Music is a really big tool.”

She isn’t exaggerating. The National Association for Music Education, which advocates for the protection of music programs in school, released a study in 2006 that found the average graduation rate among schools with music programs was 17.3 percent higher than in high schools without music programs.

But this incentive faces increasing threats from a district choked for money. A single look around one of the band closets and Brieanna Hunt, a Nottingham senior and band room regular, can pick out a number of things that could use replacing—a rusted music stand, a pair of dollar-store headphones, a few broken instruments.

In the face of massive budget cuts, the Syracuse City School District and Superintendent Daniel Lowengard must draw up a budget short by $63 million and cut about 500 district jobs. In February, Lowengard outlined a budget that could eliminate 15 to 20 percent across all departments, including the fine arts, if it passes completely in April.

Of course, the hype over cutting fine arts at inner-city schools has been a trend for about a decade, said Ross Rubenstein, a political science professor at Syracuse University. He notes that this has mostly been a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, which put a greater emphasis on math and English.

In his final year as superintendent, Lowengard leaves a five-year record of protecting the arts. To him, their power to keep these kids in school dwarfs that of standard

academia—namely math, English, and science. “If I could get every student into sports or the arts, our graduation rates would boom,” Lowengard said.

And though Lowengard’s educational values are noble, they’re hardly a quantitative measure of success. Impoverished districts like Syracuse struggle with an imposing emphasis on test scores in math and English put on by the state and federal government. Strapped for resources and fearing the title of “failing school,” many of America’s poorer districts redirect money away from the arts to math and English in the hopes of improving their evaluation.

The state has identified all four Syracuse City high schools as in need of progress. Nottingham alone has collected a variety of labels: “Under performing,” “requiring progress,” and “school under review.”

“It’s like soup,” Sturge laughs about the various labels governments give public schools.

But district officials and teachers defiantly assert that music and the arts play a significant role in student success and eventual graduation, even in the face of lagging test scores.

As of these dedicated art teachers, Rogers travels between Nottingham and two elementary schools to teach strings. Rogers came to the district from the suburbs. Working in the city schools, she feels she is sometimes the only one exposing students to classical music. And many would never play if they had to buy thousand-dollar instruments of their own. Nottingham charges students $8 per month for instrument rentals, which proves too much for some families. Comparatively, a $30 monthly fee from outside renters wouldn’t prove viable for most.

“With the kids in the more affluent areas, you got the feeling they were still going to play the violin whether I was there or not,” she said. In many cases parents could afford private tutors. “In the city, there’s absolutely no way they would have any exposure.”

The new budget calls for Nottingham to terminate seven and a half teachers, Sturge said, bereaved. He said he hopes none of the cuts are in his already modest department.

“I’d hate to be that half a teacher. It sounds painful,” he said, dryly.

Regardless, 2012’s budget will likely cut 15 percent of the fine arts staff, Lowengard revealed. Fine Arts Coordinator, Kevin Mixon, said untenured teachers and assistants could expect termination first. The district employs a large amount of probationary staff, those who are new to the district, he explained. The lowest on the hierarchical totem pole, many of them may lose their jobs when the final budget is decided in April. “Historically, Syracuse city is well beyond staffing levels of other districts. They have supported the arts here compared to other urban school districts, markedly so,” Mixon said.

A 90s Yamaha poster hanging on one of Nottingham’s band room reads, “Success in music. Success in life.” Many of the school’s band room regulars prove this statement true. Ed Smith, a senior at Nottingham, escapes to the band room whenever he can. The room and its regulars have recently helped quell pressures of college planning. “I like this more than any other classes,” he said. “Like writing, it’s another way to get your feelings out. If you listen, you get to understand what music really is: It’s life.” Smith plays the trombone and is a self-taught percussionist. Despite that, music doesn’t appeal professionally to Smith at all. He plans on attending Onondaga Community College for criminal justice, hoping to pursue a career in law enforcement. He joked that he’d fuse his love of music with his future career—“Music police officer trombone players!”

Music will ultimately remain a hobby for him, one that has helped him focus on education and his future. “Out of doing all the serious work, college stuff and things like that, you come here, and you relax, you get along with everybody and you just have fun,” he explained. “It’s a music family right here.”

Regardless of student enthusiasm at inner-city school districts, the argument comes down to this: Do we make students more prepared to get a job or more well-rounded citizens? said Professor Rubenstein. “Such an emphasis does take some of the priority away from things like band,” he said. In their defense, cuts to the arts are often backed by a rational justification, he said. Schools need to give students skills to succeed in the labor market, and math and English are considered those essential skills, he said.

Still, there exists little to no evidence that pumping more money into the core subjects significantly changes student performance. And after a decade of debate, it is clear many school districts, like SCSD, have discovered music and the arts don’t just make rounded citizens; arts and music can provide the only motivation for students to become active citizens at all.

Mixon, having taught in the district for a number of years before becoming coordinator, disagrees. A right-side-of-the-brain type of guy, he said the arts are some of the best and most natural tools for learning.

“If you think about what little kids do when they come into pre-k or kindergarten, do they come in doing math and reading? No,” Mixon claimed. “But you know what they do, do: They come in dancing and singing and drawing and coloring and dramatic play. These are the four areas of the fine arts.”