Why fine arts teachers say AP Music Theory isn’t happening

(Photo by Aidan Cunningham)
Band director Bob Ratcliff conducts his band elective, which takes place during Elective II from 12:45 to 1:55 p.m.

The school offers a wide range of electives, from AP classes to the analysis of scientifically inaccurate movies.

Yet the debate over adding an AP Music Theory class next year makes it evident that some electives require more commitment, focus and, more importantly, time, than others.

Over the years, students have come to band teacher Bob Ratcliff asking for that class. But it hasn’t happened and is currently being put off due to scheduling problems.

One of the main obstacles is the timing. Few students want to stay after school or come in on weekends, and in a Dec. 13 Octagon poll, most who were interested in AP Music Theory said they preferred scheduling it during the elective period.

Yet those who teach more rigorous classes during the bi- or tri-weekly elective periods, say it’s hard to teach serious content-based courses during that time.

AP Music Theory must cover complex topics and adhere strictly to a textbook, Ratcliff said.

And the elective time slot, some teachers say, provides barely enough time for their non-AP classes, let alone AP’s.

Even though Ratcliff said that things had improved under former head of high school Sue Nellis, there still are many holidays, three-day weekends and teacher workdays.

In fact, according to Ratcliff, it’s more common for electives to meet only twice a week than three times.

“Look at how many times we have four-day weeks,” Ratcliff said.

Furthermore, Ratcliff said electives usually come last on the priority list. When students miss tests, they often make them up during their electives.

And Ratcliff isn’t the only teacher who feels that way. AP Studio Art teacher Patricia Kelly does, too.

“I challenge any (academic) AP teacher to teach every other day for their AP class, regardless of having an hour and 10 minutes,” Kelly said.

“See if they can establish consistency, regularity – if students can stay focused.”

Kelly pointed out that as AP Studio Art starts at 12:45 and finishes at 1:55, about 70 minutes per class. In the typical two-class week, that adds up to 140 minutes of instruction.

However, the academic AP classes meet for 45 minutes five times per week, totalling 225 minutes – or more if the week includes a long period.

So why are our elective classes so short-changed time-wise?

According to Kelly, SCDS is a “high-academic-performing school,” so students’ priorities are primarily their grades, with athletics and the arts following in that order of importance.

“If anything’s gonna give in terms of cutting time short, it’ll be us,” Kelly said.

Choir and orchestra teacher Felicia Keys agreed, saying that she believes electives aren’t taken as seriously as academic classes. She cited the frequent make-up-induced absences and tardies as evidence.

“Of course, you have to take tests, but teachers shouldn’t use my time,” Keys said.

But both Keys and Ratcliff said the major difference between students missing regular classes versus band or orchestra classes is that when students underperform in (or frequently miss) an academic class, they are hurting only themselves.

But in band or orchestra, the whole group is affected by one person’s absence.

Furthermore, Ratcliff said that the band and orchestra electives have very different needs.

“In most classes (if teachers) have fewer students in the class, that’ll make the class easier to teach,” Ratcliff explained. “But for the music program, it’s exactly the opposite.

“The orchestra has (only) four or five parts, but it still benefits them to have a bigger orchestra to prevent intonation issues that are inherent to string players.”

A wrong note will not stand out as much in a group of 15 violins all aiming for one pitch as it will in a group with only four (like the SCDS orchestra’s first and second violin sections).

Ratcliff added that the large number of electives contributes to the problem.

“When you offer so many elective choices, it dilutes the number of students that would take our class,” Ratcliff said.

“Also, because music is progressive, (as students) continue improving, it’s hard to maintain steady numbers. It’s incredibly difficult for a beginner to walk into a band.”

And parents can add to the problem.

“I heard a parent say to their child one time, after they got a B in orchestra, ‘How dare you get a B in this class when it’s just an elective?’” Keys said.

“(Some) parents don’t place the same importance (on) music classes (as) academic classes.”

Ratcliff agreed that music wasn’t the priority, but argued that the public’s, (and parents’), views on music could be influenced by the entertainment industry.

“People think (music is) expressive; it’s artistic; it’s very emotional,” Ratcliff said. “I say no. It’s academic. You have to study it.

“When (people) talk about music and musicians, they use terms like ‘gifted.’ Someone will say, ‘He/she’s so gifted.’ No, he doesn’t sound great because he’s gifted; he sounds great because he worked really hard.”

He said this attitude leads parents to consider music is their child’s pastime, propagating a “play-your-trumpet -(after)-you-do-your-homework’ attitude” inside their homes.

Kelly, Keys and Ratcliff said it would be beneficial for their students to have more time.

But because of the interlacing of the middle- and high-school schedules, teachers in the elective slots can’t change their schedules or possibly teach actual classes in the rotating schedule without running into conflicts.

Thus the electives won’t be able to have more time. And AP Music Theory won’t happen, at least not next year.

To compensate for time, Kelly used to run summer workshops, but even then she was forced to compete for her  space with Breakthrough, never knowing when her room might be unavailable.

“We play second fiddle as electives,” Kelly said.

By Chardonnay Needler

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