Can Ga. Music Industry Thrive If School Music Programs Don't? | WABE 90.1 FM

Can Ga. Music Industry Thrive If School Music Programs Don't?

Jun 21, 2017

Georgia's music industry generates about $3.7 billion for the economy each year, and a new state law seeks to grow that number.

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But a lot of people who work in the industry have come from Georgia's public schools, and many of those schools have cut back on – or even eliminated – music classes. The question, then, is whether the state's music industry can continue to thrive if school music programs don’t.

Frederick Douglass High School

Atlanta's Frederick Douglass High School is a good place to start to answer that question. Killer Mike, Lil Jon, T.I. and some backup horn players for Outkast went to the school. That’s probably not a coincidence.

Douglass Band Director Micah Wynn gave a tour of the trophies that line his classroom walls. "Over here on the right-hand side, these particular plaques are the most important,” he explained.

They're from when Douglass bands won top state honors. The school still brings in awards, but not at that level anymore. One reason for that represents a broader trend in Georgia: many elementary schools in the state have cut back on music.

"The middle schools, they start getting the ax next, and, of course, they're the ones that feed the high schools,” Wynn explained.

Nashville Schools 

Research is hazy about whether cuts to school arts programs will hurt Georgia's music workforce because it’s unclear whether, for example, former band students make better concert stage hands. 

The schools in Nashville could offer some insight. Georgia leaders say they want the music industry here to compete with the one in that city. But Nashville has a nationally recognized music education program called Music Makes Us. Among other things, Nashville schools have music classes for all elementary students and even a high school record label with student singers.

“As we prepare students for workforce readiness, we're thinking about what careers are available here in Nashville," Music Makes Us Director Laurie Schell said.

Nashville's music businesses help pay for the program. 

Schell said the initiative is too new to know it will produce skilled workers for Nashville's music industry, but added that "I think that was part of the motivations, absolutely, for them launching this work. I think the vision was a long-term vision. It wasn't just good for the community. It would be good for the industry.”

Atlanta Music Project

In Georgia, some nonprofit groups are trying to step in where schools leave off. 

A group of kids meets at Zaban Recreation Center on Saturdays for a choir rehearsal that’s part of the Atlanta Music Project.

Khelsei Dorsett-Wilson is going into the ninth grade, and she’s been singing with AMP since it offered choir at her elementary school.  Her current school doesn't have any music classes.

"All my friends in elementary were in [the AMP choir] with me,” she said.  “Now I know maybe one person that sings, other than here, of course.”

That's because nonprofit groups can't reach as many kids as schools can.

Dorsett-Wilson said that if she could talk to state leaders, she'd tell them this: "I don't think people understand how important it is for us to have music as children. It's an outlet. And, it helps improve behavior and grades.  There's studies on it.”

She's right about those studies. Researchers have found students who study the arts are much more likely to stay out of trouble and go to college.

Georgia Leaders

Georgia Superintendent of Schools Richard Woods said he's familiar with those studies Dorsett-Wilson mentioned.  He said arts education is important to education, the economy and society.

"Anytime you have fine arts community, it really sends a message about the heartbeat of the community,” Woods said.

But school budgets are tight. Woods said the state won't mandate more music in schools, but he said he’s exploring other ways to get it into the curriculum.

The clock for that might be ticking. Georgia's new law to support the music industry is supposed to spur at least $600 million in economic growth in three years. That requires skilled workers.