Facing the Music: Why Students Quit the Band After High School
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Facing the Music: Why Students Quit the Band After High School

How the arts as competition is ruining the passion of students.

Facing the Music: Why Students Quit the Band After High School

I go to a school that is made up of some of the best musical performers in the country. On campus, it seems like everybody is involved with band or choir. So there’s one secret I’ve always felt the need to keep. I almost majored in music education. I know that none of my musically-inclined friends would judge me for deciding to quit music in college, but for a while it’s been a story that’s hard for me to tell. Everyone in my hometown assumed I would be a music major. There are still people who, when I run into them at the grocery store, are absolutely puzzled when I say I’m majoring in English. On my college campus, though, few people know that I made a last-minute decision to change my major from Music Education to English.

The reasons for my decision are so intricate and complicated I could never outline them in one blog post, but I think it can be summed up easily in the fact that music is a very competitive field, and I just didn’t have what it takes.

When I started playing music in 5th grade band, I played for myself. I enjoyed practicing and going to band class twice a week. There weren’t chairs to be won, competitions to worry about placing in, and district band auditions (where if you didn’t earn a spot, your grade may suffer). When I was younger, I loved band. My mom won the John Philip Sousa award when she was in high school, and for as long as I could remember I had wanted to win it as well. Both of my parents had played in band, so I wanted to, too.

By the time I got to high school, though, the competition was all I could see. This is mostly my own fault. I’m a very competitive person by nature--I like to feel like I’m in control at all times, that I’m successful by anyone’s standards. Failure has never been an option for me, and my definition of failure is probably defined as success by most people. But I’ve never been one that can stop at “good enough.” If I don’t do something “great,” I’ve wasted my time.

So while I was fighting for first chair (earning the rude comments by other people in my section), working on solos for months on end, and never really taking a break from district audition music, I lost sight of what it was that I loved about music. Sure, I told myself that I liked doing all this stuff for band. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t, right? I was lying to myself, of course. I hated the competition. I hated always feeling like I could never do anything right.

What most people (even my parents, to an extent) don’t know is that band had some negative mental effects on me. I became someone who only cared about being better than the person sitting next to me. My life was no longer about what I could do, the value of Kaytlin--my life was about being someone who was better than Tim or the kids from the other schools in my district. I lost myself because all that mattered was who I was trying to be better than.

Beyond that, the successes never mattered, only the failures. My senior year, I made myself proud by achieving a lifetime goal and winning the John Philip Sousa award. I was a drum major, had the longest list of music accomplishments at our senior band night, made it into All State for jazz, sat first chair in district jazz band, sat second chair in district concert band, made it into two area band days, and got a Division I rating on my trombone duet with a classmate. None of that mattered, though, because I failed. For 7 years, I competed in Solo & Ensemble competition. For 6 of those 7 years, I got a Division I on my solo. My senior year, I barely got a Division II.

I was in one of the toughest rooms that year. The judge was really critical of everyone, and looking back, I know that I did my best. A Division II in his room was realistically a Division I in any other room. But all of me then and part of me now feels like I was just simply terrible at music, all because of one score that I wasn’t proud of. Even knowing how ridiculous it is, I can’t shake the feeling to this day. I cannot see that I tried my best, only that if I would have done more I might have gotten a better score.

Reflecting on music in high school, I remember many of my successes, but I remember every single one of my failures.

That’s no way to live your life. I knew that I couldn’t keep hating myself, and I knew that the competitive nature of music was making me hate myself. Something had to change. Music programs weren’t going to, they were going to get more competitive as I got older, so it was going to have to be me. Two weeks before graduation, I contacted my advisor and changed my major. I haven’t felt regret even once, just a constant sense of cool relief every time I think of it.

All of that being said, though, I’m glad that it happened with music. My failures as a musician pointed me into the direction of writing. I can’t imagine being afraid to write because I’m afraid to be wrong. Music breaking my heart forced me to seek refuge in the one place I ever felt like myself.

I can’t lie, having an amazing creative writing teacher my senior year definitely helped. In his class, I had to complete an extra credit assignment to earn an A for the class, but though he critiqued my work and there was room for improvement, I never felt like a failure. Instead of feeling like I’d tried so hard and had nothing to show for it, I felt that I’d tried very hard and he was going above and beyond to show me how to make it even better. It felt like he was matching my passion with an equal amount of passion. Even with all I’ve written in my college career, my proudest moments with writing haven’t been the times I won writing contests or gotten published, rather the times that I truly impressed him with my work.

Writing is also “artsy,” but I don’t feel the same pressure with writing that I felt with music. When I’m sitting in a creative writing class, I’m not writing to be better than the person sitting next to me. I’m writing to tell my story. I’m writing to learn, to grow, and that makes all the difference. But there’s also the possibility that maybe I’m just better at writing than I ever was at playing a trombone or understanding what a mixolydian mode is.

I think the problem is two-fold. As schools trend towards measuring the worth of teachers by scores on tests, even art programs are being forced to evaluate students. The issue is when you’re being judged for something that is designed for self-expression, that judgement becomes a critique of you, not of your work. I always felt that the arts were a place I could go to express myself. The issue was that I tied so much of my value as a person into how well I performed, because I felt a need to evaluate myself. When my performance became critiqued, my self-worth plummeted.

This behavior is learned largely due to constantly being evaluated by tests. I know I’m a good student because I always get straight A’s. With self-expression, there is often no way to tell how good you are, even when you are tested over it. Unfortunately for me, the way to tell if someone is good at music in high school is seeing how they measure up to others. To determine my worth for myself, I had to evaluate everyone else's first.

Basically, teachers shouldn’t be expected to evaluate how well someone can “art,” but students also need to learn that not everything has to be a measure of how great you are. You are allowed to do things simply because they make you happy.

Educators of the arts are in a really tough position. On the one hand, their bosses are pressuring them to evaluate their students. Their bosses demand proof that the arts are “worth it,” that students are actually learning. On the other hand, I know that many of them feel backed into a corner by these restrictions. Many educators feel similarly to how I do--that expression shouldn’t be something that is measured and evaluated in a numerical score out of 100. The challenge is in finding ways to keep the arts fun, even when your boss is breathing down your neck for some proof that you deserve funding.

For me, that area of “fun” was jazz band, when we would perform at basketball games. I don’t think anyone at those games really cared what we were playing (except for our parents), but I’ll never forget the way I felt when I would play a really good solo or when we would play a song by Bruno Mars. In that space, where no one in the audience cared, I was allowed to play for my own enjoyment. Unfortunately, because I was so involved, that one space was entirely overshadowed by the competition of every other music event I was involved in.

While I felt horrible about myself because of music in high school, I didn’t feel horrible about my music teachers. While I was struggling with myself, I always knew that my high school band director cared. I knew that he would be proud of me even if I didn’t go to all state, make it into district band, or play every song perfectly. I knew that if he knew what I was dealing with in my section because I challenged for first chair, he wouldn’t have let me feel so terrible about myself. When I did pit band for our spring musicals, I knew the choir director (who was also in charge of the show) truly believed that I could play such difficult music in such weird keys. Even when I missed key changes, which happened often, he understood that the music was hard and never made me feel bad about it. A band director from a different district spent hours giving me lessons so that I could perform at district and solo competitions better. One year he was the judge of my solo, and his remarks still fill me with a sense of pride when I think of them. I know that under his direction, I went from a trombone player who had pretty terrible tone and technique to someone who was maybe a fourth as good as he is. These are just a few of the music educators I met over the years, and I can attest that music teachers are not responsible for creating an environment where I felt terrible about myself.

All of the music teachers I’ve worked with have been pretty amazing, but there’s one in particular that will always have a special place in my heart. I cannot finish this piece without thanking him in a way. The director of my municipal band is the only reason I’m involved with music in any capacity to this day. After high school, I just wanted to quit. I did quit everything music related, except for one thing. Throughout the years, municipal band is the one program I never felt bad about, mostly due to the director. When I auditioned the summer before high school, I know that I was honestly pretty bad. Despite that, he gave me a chance and let me join the group. He’s an old-timey music teacher--a relic of the times before strict standardized testing and constant evaluation. I never had to achieve a certain level to feel okay about myself when I was performing with his group. With him, doing your best is always enough. I always knew that every year, despite what failures I’d encountered during school, when I walked into municipal band that summer, I was enough. Municipal band was always meant to be fun. After all, the only purpose to our group is to entertain the people that come to our concerts. Free of all the pressures of competition, I could allow myself to truly enjoy performing. As the only performing I do anymore, it’s still one of the highlights of my life, and that’s largely due to my director.

My experience with music wasn’t the highlight of my life, but with great instructors like these, I know it’s one of the greatest experiences of many students. It isn't their fault that my personality just didn't jive with the competitive nature of music, and this piece isn't designed to criticize teachers who are doing the best they can.

For those that are involved in music, I want you all to know that you are so much more than the chair you sit in or how well you can play a scale. Art shouldn’t be a competition. You are so much more valuable than how well you score on a playing test. Administrators may think these tests can determine if you’ve learned anything, but they’re mostly wrong. You can be awful at playing your horn and still have learned something valuable sitting in band class every day. If you grow as a person in any way, it's worth it.

Tests and competitions cannot measure your character. They can’t measure how dedicated you are to doing a good job. They can’t measure how much you’ve grown. They can’t measure how kind you are, how much passion you have, or even how intelligent you are. No matter how great you are at taking tests or competing, I promise you are even better than what your scores reflect. You are not some number, or just a name to be ranked. Whether you’re the best in your district or the worst, it shouldn’t matter.

If you’re involved with music, I hope you’re doing it for you. Having been on both sides of the fence, I can tell you with no reservations that to create art that doesn’t make you feel good is the most soul-sucking thing you can ever do. If you're being attacked by others for trying to succeed, talk to someone. I wish I would have told my band director what I was dealing with. Even if nothing changes, you'll still feel better that someone knows. If you feel like you just aren’t happy with art, I urge you to find ways to do it for yourself. Even if you’re just printing pop songs off the internet to play on your clarinet, if it makes you happy, do it. Have fun. The best art comes when you’re having fun.
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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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