Early spring is audition time for high school seniors hoping to get into the music departments or schools at colleges, universities or conservatories around the country. Unlike their peers who aim to major in liberal sciences or other fields, music majors need to perform a rigorous and competitive audition to be accepted.
Acceptance rates vary from 5 percent to about 40 percent in the US. In the past few weeks at Northwestern University, I listened to 50 hopeful candidates perform and interview for a slot in music education, where each year more than 1,100 high school seniors apply for approximately 100 slots throughout the school.
What is striking is the lack of diversity of candidates as well as the music they are allowed to play in these auditions. While Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce earned accolades at the Grammys, the diverse faces and music of the pop world have made few inroads in college music arenas. Many see that the most commercially successful music entertainers bypass college music education.
Why the divide?
A 2015 study from the University of Maryland revealed that of 20,521 music teacher candidates surveyed, 86 percent identified as white. Less than 8 percent of the teachers identified as black, and fewer than 2 percent of the teachers as Hispanic.
Researcher Connie McKoy provides an analysis of the 2010-2011 “Higher Education Arts Data Services Project” revealing that of college graduates who received degrees in music in the 2010-2011 academic year, 72 percent were white. Less than 7 percent were black, and less than 8 percent were Hispanic.
The disparities may have to do with the availability of music education in public schools compared to private schools, and the costs of private musiceducation.
While 12 percent of white children under 18 live in poverty in the United States, 36 percent of black children and 31 percent of Hispanic children do. Students who audition and attend music schools often have had 10 years or more of study in standard Western European Art Music. This costs money.
Researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Miami note that the difference in socioeconomic status plays heavily in which students are enrolled in public school music programs (namely band, orchestra, and choir). Students enrolled in public school music programs tendto come from families with higher socioeconomic status than do non-music students.
Another issue involves the kind of music recognized as “legitimate” in college schools of music and conservatories. More often than not, audition acceptances are driven by maintaining a balance in the school’s orchestras, bands and choirs.
If you play or sing one of the classical choir, band or orchestra instruments (and styles), you are welcome to audition. However if you play the iPad or are a talented rapper, there is no place for you. One of the greatest singer-songwriters and musicians of contemporary culture, Paul McCartney, wouldn’t have passed a school music audition because he reportedly cannot read standard music notation.
Of the over 600 National Association of Schools of Music accredited music schools in the United States, there are only a few that cater to pop, hip hop, jazz, contemporary music. For instance, Belmont University in Nashville and the Frost School of Music in Miami offer commercial musicdegrees.
To address these issues, there are potential solutions.
Access inequality can be addressed by assuring that music education is offered in all public and private schools. And if that is not available, parents and guardians need to aware of opportunities for music lessons in music centers and private schools. Affordability of instruments and transportationto instruction are other issues that need to be addressed.
A more difficult, but potentially more fair solution is to welcome more diverse types of music and specialties into more music schools.
Universities and conservatories need to open their curriculums and doors to talents in popular music such as jazz, electronic, pop and rap. This can only start from making sure we have more diverse musicians talented in these areas working as teachers in K-12 schools to help funnel this talent into universities.
As music school acceptance letters arrive in the mail in the coming weeks and months, many young musicians will be elated, or dejected by decisions made for them that may decide their musical futures. But it is up to educators in this country to change those outcomes for the future by becoming more inclusive now.