Reader view: From a former MTHS band student — don’t cut music programs

Editor’s note: The following was sent to Mountlake Terrace High School Principal Greg Schellenberg and members of the Edmonds School Board. It is being published here at the author’s request.

My name is Nathan Irby, and I am a 2006 graduate of the Mountlake Terrace High School band program. It has come to my attention that the music program at MTHS, along with several other programs in the district, is at risk of receiving cuts to funding that will cause irreplicable damage. As a public school teacher of 10 years, I understand firsthand the difficulty that administrations often face when deciding how to allocate funds, but I believe that the decision to make cuts to MTHS’ music program is short-sighted and puts the needs of students last — which is the exact opposite of the mission that your administration strives to uphold.

I am sure the quality of MTHS’ band program and the level of instruction from Darin Faul is no secret to you. Under Darin’s direction, Mountlake Terrace’s band has been recognized on a local, regional, national, and international level. The reputation of MTHS’ band program is one of musical excellence and inclusivity, pushing the artistic boundaries and capabilities of its students. Several dozen MTHS band alumni have graduated and gone on to be positive contributors and leaders in the field of music, with career accomplishments that include public school music instructors, university professors, major symphony orchestra appointees, and freelance performance and recording artists. The web of MTHS alumni that have successful careers in music is wide, and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our time spent in Darin’s tutelage.

I myself have led a successful band program for a decade and am currently pursuing a PhD in music education from Ohio State University in a direct response to the inspiration and encouragement I received — and still receive — from Mr. Faul. One of my undergraduate professors used to say that young music teachers most often begin their career imitating the style of their high school director — essentially “teaching how they were taught.” How fortunate am I — and how fortunate were my students — that I was taught by Darin Faul? It has been 17 years since I graduated from his program, and I can say with absolute certainty that Darin and MTHS bands prepared me to be a successful educator. When speaking with others in the music education world, I still make a point to talk about my roots at MTHS. The experience I had learning, performing, and travelling in high school were truly exceptional compared to the experiences of my peers, and the thought that the experiences of current and future MTHS students will be dissimilar is, for lack of a better term, depressing.

While the success of MTHS’ alumni who have pursued music is nothing to scoff about, Darin has had many more students who have pursued other career interests but are able to fall back on their experiences and skills they gathered while in the band program. Non-musical skills such as active listening, collaborative problem-solving, conflict resolution, event organization and management, advocacy for self and others, and engaged citizenship are just a few of the skills that are of emphasis in the MTHS band program.

As we come out of the pandemic, educators are dealing with students who have experienced trauma. Students are still struggling to connect with others and process and articulate their emotional and social needs. We should be looking to increase the places where this kind of social emotional learning is already successfully taking place. In Music Education and Social Emotional Learning: The Heart of Teaching Music, Dr. Scott Edgar writes: “Cooperation, communication, positive peer interactions, recognition and support of the rights of others, dependability, responsibility, focus of attention, impulse control, delayed gratification, and acceptance of consequences are some of the skills students can learn in a music classroom.” Aren’t these the very skills we are hoping to help our students regain?

Looking beyond MTHS, something else needs to be said: Students need and deserve music. The Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA), the law of the land, places an emphasis on the well-rounded education, which includes access to rigorous and high-quality music instruction: “The term “well-rounded education” means courses, activities, and programming in subjects such as English, reading or language arts… art, history, geography, computer science, [and] music…with the purpose of providing all students access to an enriched curriculum and educational experience.” Reducing access to music education goes against this act.

Looking at the success of the MTHS band program — both musical and otherwise — and the awards and positive recognition brought in by its students — both while in high school and post-graduation– the question must be asked: What more are you expecting Darin and his students to do to prove that music at Mountlake Terrace High School is worthy of funding?

To be honest, it must be exhausting to be Darin Faul.

Not only is he doing his job to the best of his capabilities while constantly learning new ways to improve his teaching practice from others, he is once again having to justify his professional existence in a way that escapes understanding. Mountlake Terrace has been a flagship of performing arts for the Edmonds School District for decades and used to offer a full compliment of band, choir, orchestra, and theater courses. The district has been slowly chipping away funding over the course of several years, yet Darin and MTHS continue to be among the leaders of the field. Imagine what he could do at MTHS if fully supported. Imagine if Darin were to have one, two, or three assistant band directors like many of his peers throughout the country do? How many more students could he reach? How much more positive publicity and acclaim could he bring back to the school and district that are willing to further slash his program that constantly overperforms given the means they are afforded?

Financial cuts are hard on everyone, and I understand and empathize that you have several difficult choices to make before the end of the school year. I implore you to reconsider making further cuts to an already under resourced music program. A music program that, despite previous cuts, is still Mountlake Terrace’s crowned jewel.

— By Nathan Irby

Nathan Irby (MTHS Class of 2006) is a graduate teaching associate at Ohio State University School of Music

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Real first and last names — as well as city of residence — are required for all commenters.
This is so we can verify your identity before approving your comment.

By commenting here you agree to abide by our Code of Conduct. Please read our code at the bottom of this page before commenting.