Social Class & School Music – Article Review

As my second day of the writing challenge, I have opted to check out an article that I feel is related to my own dissertation interests: SES and continued participation in strings.  This article immediately suggests the need for a free and equal music education.  While I agree that it is certainly ideal to provide a free and “equal” music education, the variations of “equal” are massive and may need further exploration in order to actually make this happen.  Inequality 1

Bates, Vincent C. “Social Class and School Music,” Music Educators Journal, May 2012, Vol. 98, no. 4, pp. 33 – 37.

Within this article, the author cites “Bruce Biddle” (2001) who says that 1/5 of all students in public schools are experiencing some poverty-related situation.  This article also mentions that the disparity is even growing.  Within my own research, I have found a disparity between students per year to be over $1000 between high and low SES students.  This disparity truly is shocking…  At one point, Bates says “The markers for success in music education–participation in select ensembles, first-chair placements, leading roles, high scores at festival–will be reserved for middle-class and affluent students….”  I believe that this is incredibly true and that it will continue to be true until we find ways to gain more equality on the playing field for students from low SES backgrounds.  Bates also attacks educators for the blatant perpetuation of the belief that students can overcome anything as long as they work hard.  The truth of the matter, however, is that in spite of any amount of extra work, students from low SES backgrounds are behind from the very beginning.  They often start off with the least expensive instrument (if they can afford one at all), no private lessons, and a much greater challenge regarding the procurement of new music.

The obsession over large ensembles and their need for reproductions of Western art music is also brought up as a possible oppression of the low SES culture and a way to change students from “vulgar” and “uneducated,” into classical students… It reminds me of the cities who have begun to blast classical music in order to keep ruffians out.  How sad is it that classical music has become something once again to exclude… This elitist mindset has always been an issue for me.  I always did enjoy classical music, but it was never the “end all, be all” and I certainly never wanted it to be only for the wealthy, or the privileged.

This article also touches upon the popular trend among teachers to gravitate toward the more affluent schools and school systems.  People are often shocked to hear that while I teach in Fairfax County, I teach at a school with a free and reduced lunch rate that is over 60%.  They are even more shocked to hear that I have turned down the opportunity to teach at much wealthier schools.  It is a sad state of affairs when even educators maintain and, dare I say, perpetuate the belief that richer is better.  I don’t know about them, but I certainly did not take on this job to be surrounded by the privileged… I started upon this path to make a difference, and that is exactly what I intend to do.  I want to make a difference for those who need it the most…

Okay, off of my own tangent and back to this article…  Woohoo!  We are finally to the point where Bates suggests methods for equality.  Here are his main suggestions:

  1. Provide all students with access to high quality instruments, private instruction, transportation, free access to uniforms, and free admission to performance/competition opportunities.
    1. Yes, of course this would be amazing.  But how much money would this cost?!  I am thinking about my own situation right now and cannot even fathom how much it might cost to provide all 130 of my students with equal access to the above items.
    2. Now… that being said, it doesn’t mean that I won’t look into it.  Because there is no mountain too high and equality is worth every single effort.  Perhaps I will look into more of this this afternoon…  But still, this is quite a tall order!
    3. Julia Koza – sustainable musicking without any consumptive practices.  Singing is free, if we must, we can make instruments out of trash.
  2. Consider less expensive and more popular instruments: guitar, ukulele, etc.
  3. Greater understanding and respect of one anothers culture:
    1. We are not necessarily here to “save” students from their own culture, but rather to expand it.  It is so important that we respect where our students came from, what they value, and how they interact with one another.
    2. Consider also the kinds of music that they value as well as the instruments deemed valuable within their culture.
  4. A greater recognition of the forces which perpetuate poverty
    1. I’m not sure how I feel about this one.  While I think it is essential for change that we all recognize the forces which control our society, I think there is an essential balance which must exist among students.  Bates suggests that there is some open dialogue regarding the untruth of “If you work hard, you can achieve your dreams.”  I’m not really sure at what age this is appropriate however… I fear a defeatist attitude if there is no chance of “success” in a students’ mind.  It reminds me somewhat of the idea of religion and Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy.  Certain beliefs and myths (whether true or not) may shape us into the person we need to become… I am not encouraging teachers and parents to lie to their children (although isn’t that what we do every Christmas with Santa Clause), but I am saying that there must be a carrot somewhere in front of a child to push them to continue to work.  And even if they never actually reach the carrot, perhaps they will get closer and closer and experience more growth than if they were to just sit still… Ah, this may be my topic for tomorrow…
      1. Ang – Do NOT forget to write about the importance of the proverbial carrot

So overall, I rather enjoyed reading this article.  It is a basic and short lit. review, but has given me some good things to think about and a whole list of additional sources to look into (I will literally copy and paste the works cited below).  I definitely have things to consider in the future!

P.S. – Yay for Day 2 of my writing challenge.  Yayer (new Ammermanian word) for doubling the word count today!)

Music appreciation student, Northwest Missouri State University, 2008; quotation used with permission.

2. In 1985, when I graduated from high school, my family’s annual income was just over $7,000. The federal poverty threshold that year for our family of nine was $24,000.

3. This definition and the categories of financial, cultural, and social capital reflect the widely referenced work of Pierre Bourdieu. See, for example, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

4. Bruce J. Biddle, ed., Social Class, Poverty, and Education: Policy and Practice (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001), 3. It is also important to note that this disparity is increasing. See Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, 7th ed. (Los Angeles, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2008).

5. Ellen Brantlinger, Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003), 1.

6. A summary of research that, among other things, links relatively low socioeconomic status with lower levels of participation in instrumental music is provided by Daniel J. Albert, “Socioeconomic Status and Instrumental Music: What Does the Research Say about the Relationship and Its Implications?” Update: Applications of Research in Music Education 25, no. 1 (2006): 29-45. This negative correlation between socioeconomic status and participation in school music has also been observed by Kenneth Elpus and Carlos R. Abril, “High School Music Ensemble Students in the United States: A Demographic Profile,” Journal of Research in Music Education 59, no. 2 (2011), 128-45.

7. As someone who grew well into adulthood with crooked teeth, I can imagine students without adequate dental care having difficulty forming some consonants and vowels or, in an effort to hide their teeth, being unwilling to open their mouths as much as may be needed to sing effectively.

8. A summary of research about social class in schools, including an extended discussion of ability grouping, is provided by Jennifer L. Hochschild, “Social Class in Public Schools,” Journal of Social Issues 59, no. 4 (2003), 821-40.

9. See Gilbert, The American Class Structure. Rather than stemming from innate intelligence or hard work, poverty is directly attributable to societal and economic trends, such as job scarcity, low wages, and an increase in single-parent households.

10. Ibid., 2.

11. Brantlinger, Dividing Classes, 3.

12. Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, rev. 4th ed. (Highlands, TX: aha! Process, 2005).

13. Charles Seeger, “Music and Class Structure in the United States,” American Quarterly 9 (1957): 281-94. Seeger described how music education was instituted in part as a means for overcoming the “rude nonconformity of rural, backwoods and pioneer America” (p. 285).

14. A Harris poll in 2008 was purported to link music education with social mobility. Catherine A. Olson, “Research: Harris Poll Makes Case for Music Education,” Teaching Music 15, no. 4 (2008): 22. However, the poll did not take into account the possibility that higher-income Americans have enhanced access to formal music instruction. According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, social mobility is influenced primarily by attaining a high school diploma, working full-time, and marrying before having children; see Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins, “Five Myths about Our Land of Opportunity,” Washington Post, November 1, 2009.

15. Michael S. Gibbons, “White Trash: A Class Relevant Scapegoat for the Cultural Elite,” Journal of Mundane Behavior 5, no. 1 (2004), (accessed April 4, 2010). For research showing a correlation between social class and musical preference, see Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves, “Lifestyle Correlates of Music Preference: 3. Travel, Money, Education, Employment and Health,” Psychology of Music 35, no. 3 (2007): 473-97. As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points out, musical taste may be the most reliable cultural indicator of one’s income and occupational level; Bourdieu, Distinction.

16. Beth Hatt, “Growing Up as Poor, White Trash: Stories of Where I Come From,” in Late to Class: Social Class and Schooling in the New Economy, ed. Jane A. Van Galen and George W. Noblit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 19-28.

17. Gilbert, The American Class Structure.

18. Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (New York: Crown, 2005).

19. Gilbert, The American Class Structure.

20. Martin J. Bergee, “Validation of a Model of Extramusical Influences on Solo and Small-Ensemble Festival Ratings,” Journal of Research in Music Education 54, no. 3 (2006): 244-56.

21. Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg, “Cutting Class in a Dangerous Era: A Critical Pedagogy of Class Awareness,” in Cutting Class: Socioeconomic Status and Education, ed. Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 11.

22. Julia Eklund Koza, “‘Save the Music’? Toward Culturally Relevant, Joyful, and Sustainable School Music,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 14, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 23-38.

23. This approach is recommended by Thomas A. Regelski, Teaching General Music in Grades 4-8: A Musicianship Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

24. Ana Maria Villegas and Tamara Lucas, “Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers: Rethinking the Curriculum,” Journal of Teacher Education 53, no. 1 (January/February 2002): 20-32. They discuss that a culturally responsive pedagogy (a) is socioculturally conscious, that is, recognizes that there are multiple ways of perceiving reality and that these ways are influenced by one’s location in the social order; (b) has affirming views of students from diverse backgrounds, seeing resources for learning in all students rather than viewing differences as problems to be overcome; (c) sees himself or herself as both responsible for and capable of bringing about educational change that will make schools more responsive to all students; (d) understands how learners construct knowledge and is capable of promoting learners’ knowledge construction; (e) knows about the lives of his or her students; and (f) uses his or her knowledge about students’ lives to design instruction that builds on what they already know while stretching them beyond the familiar.

25. Brantlinger discusses this propensity of the middle class to attribute success to inherent superiority rather than to economic, cultural, or social realities. Brantlinger, Dividing Classes.

26. This verse was accessed at, a site that also includes curriculum materials and lesson plans.

27. In challenging economic times, such as the recent Great Recession, inevitable cutbacks in government services tend to disproportionately affect low-income children and families. See the 2010 Kids Count Data Book: State Profiles for Child Well-Being (Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2010). A current example of this reality in the field of music education is discussed by blogger Thomas J. West, “Pennsylvania Education Cuts Already Hurting Rural and Underfunded Schools” (June 30, 2011),

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