Music Education Isn't What It Used to Be


parente.jpgLocal piano teacher Tom Parente thinks that Montclair and other local schools have dropped the ball when it comes to music education. He remembers a 1978 Montclair High School concert that he can’t imagine today. He shared his views with Barista Kids.

Montclair, as a town of artists, creators and general right brained oriented thinkers, has for at least 20 years watched as its musical education offerings diminish steadily until we currently have a situation where we are doing the absolute minimum for our children (in some cases less).It is by no stretch of the imagination to realize that our children’s need to be creative and to learn through their ear would predominate in a town of such creativity. The research is clear on the subject-the brain needs an enormous variety of diverse sounds in order to develop properly.

As music has played an enormous part in the lives and histories of people all over the world we see and recognize how that need was met through folksong, and indigenous and spontaneous music making of every variety. The modern educational system devised largely by John Dewey recognized this great need and so, to this very day, (even now in the anti-educational age that permeates our budget cutting society) there are still extraordinary pockets of music making and resultant intelligence building in many of the great municipalities throughout the United States.

Montclair was once among these municipalities of greatness. On March 16th, 1978 the high school stage was filled with over 300 choristers and instrumentalists as the great Arthur Honegger opera, “Le Roi David”, was performed along with Poulenc’s Gloria. According to the Montclair Times review of the concert (when was the last time the Montclair times reviewed a high school concert?) “The program opened with Richard Wagner’s ‘Prelude and Liebestod’, and was played with elegance and sensitivity under Mr. McClellan’s (high school music department head William B. McClellan) precise direction”. It is interesting to note that the tenor who performed with this extraordinary ensemble comprised of high school students, town citizens and some paid professionals, was none other than the famed metropolitan opera singer, George Shirley. The Montclair Times continues, “But the night of the performance, with the auditorium packed, when that curtain opened, it was magic. White blouses, dark suits, carefully combed long silken hair, clips gray heads, old heads, Afros, shaggy heads, freshly done coifs, were side-by-side all sitting straight, still, alert, faces shining with an anticipation and experienced no shuffling, no sprawling bluejeans, no bobbing heads, no giggles — just 300 people joined in a united effort with Mac at the helm” (Berenice Grorskoff, 1978).

Can you imagine being one among those fortunate multitudes of high school students as they experienced what was surely a memorable and life altering event! Can you imagine the musical education and camaraderie, let alone the soul, mind and intelligence building, that resulted from such a mammoth effort? Can you also imagine what has gradually been lost over the last 32 years and how many young lives and minds, which could have been touched by the Montclair that was. Our age with its predominant emphasis on that which can be calculated and counted, desperately needs the creative, “thinking out of the box” minds whose neuronal synapses and souls have been touched and driven by such awesome sonic experiences. It is a well known fact that Albert Einstein, stymied in his pursuit of the next breakthrough, would often spend several hours in the kitchen of his Princeton home both improvising and practicing Mozart violin sonatas and concertos in order to provide the font of his genius – his extraordinary brain – the requisite time, space, neuronal connection and above all, inspiration to find the solution. Such a genius clearly understood, intuited and revered the essential fueling of the calculable by the divine and incalculable. Over the last 20 years, we in Montclair through thousands of small decisions having mainly to do with expediency, have been responsible for the unraveling of that which was great. It is now time to think big – again. It is now time to recognize our inherent greatness and to come together to restore or even exceed that which has, heretofore, been lost. The future curer of cancer, the next Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King or the next Leonard Bernstein may currently be here K-12. S/he needs us. We desperately need her or him.

Parente is also an associate professor of piano and voice at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.


  1. I think you may be misinterpreting “lack of audience” for “lack of arts support.” The 1978 you remember had far fewer entertainment and socialization options than today. The fragmentation of attention spans does not affect the value of arts programs in schools, but only affects the number of people in the audience to create that magical experience. To get that now, you have to work much harder to compete with the overscheduled, overstimulated masses …

  2. I’ve always thought it’s odd how music gets short shrift in a town that prides itself on the arts. Kids in the schools get plenty of dance and theater, but when they arrive at poor Mr. Wasko’s door in the high school they’re musical virgins.

  3. 1 day/week music. 1 day/week art. It’s a shame. Could be because seeing the benefits of music and art are not quantifiable. It’s easier to have a math test than a music exam.

  4. Music? No. Instead we get Chinese.
    I’d rather loose the language requirement- make it an elective, and make music and art a basic requirement. But that’s me.
    Jim hits a great point, I would only add that many folks have decided to pay for private lessons.
    It’s a shame that music isn’t as important as it should be. Though, with the virtual orchestra and other methods used to supplant live musicians, perhaps schools need to move to a broader Music education that combines learning to read and play, with the modern uses/jobs available in the field via digital, MIDI, etc.

  5. I had the kind of HS choir experience in SoCal that Mr. Parente describes, and it still influences me today. In fact, last year our group mailing list was moved over to FB so that we could organize a reunion. So far there are 675+ photos uploaded and so many memories it takes hours to read them all. When my era’s director passed away a couple months ago, the response from his former students was so overwhelming that his family had to ask for a headcount so they could accommodate everyone. Many members sang at the service and I’m told it was heartwrenching.
    We competed internationally, won awards, had high acclaim among our peers, and wore formal wool robes with those white scarf like drapes. Those were great times! There was a certain aura about being in the choir. It was an achievement (sorry if I sound a bit over proud of myself.)
    Though my initial impression of the director at Montclair HS is good, and I’m looking forward to my kids having the opportunity to work with him, it just doesn’t seem to have the same emphasis. I wish it could change, but I am not confident given the state of our budget. (sigh!)

  6. Thank you for the inspiring article. I fully agree that music is vitally important to enable creative expression. Being able to improvise and experiment with music is liberating and can allow kids to communicate with one another when they may not otherwise be able to. Ask Ed Carine who has been running Serendipity Cafe in the H.S. for over a decade. Thanks, Ed!!!
    Also,Thank you to all the Montclair teachers who have volunteered to teach kids music through the Little Kids Rock Program that was started last year in the Montclair School District. This program is allowing our kids to learn how to play instruments as well as compose songs and instrumental pieces alone and/or by collaborating with others. Keep up the good work, LKR volunteers!

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