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Nobody sits on the bench in band: Advocacy for music funding in Bloomington-Normal

Jonathon Breen and Katie Helgeson in Washington D.C. for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) fly-in. The United States Capitol is far away in the background.
Katie Helgeson
Jonathon Breen and Katie Helgeson in Washington, D.C., for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) fly-in.

Is there any room for more music education funding in Bloomington-Normal?

“The answer to that is always ‘yes!’” said Jonathon Breen, owner of The Music Shoppe in Normal.

Breen and Music Shoppe operations manager Katie Helgeson recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress about funding for music education.

Helgeson said the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) sponsored their fly-in to Washington, where she and Breen had meetings with members of Congress and their staff for three days. The meetings were set up to ask lawmakers for music education funding.

Every year members of NAMM ask for something slightly different from the lawmakers, said Breen. This year, the ask was for full funding of Title I, II, and IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA was put into place in 2015 to supplant No Child Left Behind. The best part of ESSA, said Breen, is that it recognizes music as part of a well-rounded education and makes music a core subject.

Importance of music

“There are so many studies out there that suggest that participating in an instrumental music program teaches so many different forms of discipline,” said Breen. “There's a direct correlation between kids who take part in instrumental music programs, and test scores and grade point averages. We know that the kids who participate in instrumental music in general do better.”

“[Music] connects the two sides of your brain,” added Helgeson.

“For some students, it's the only place where they really shine,” said Breen. “Nobody sits on the bench in band, man. Everybody plays.”

If someone in Bloomington-Normal wants to learn, play, or participate in music, there are plenty of outlets to do so, said Breen.

“There's certainly opportunities for more people to participate," Breen said.

Funding challenge

One problem that Breen and Helgeson said they have seen in the community and across the U.S. is that music educators are leaving their practice.

“Teacher burnout is very real. And keeping music educators engaged and involved with their classes, and providing them the necessary continuing education, the necessary support, and the ability to kind of divide and conquer. So many of the programs that we see in our immediate area are just understaffed, and it's very common,” said Breen.

Helgeson said, “Yes, there's room for [music] funding, but at what cost?” Teachers are already overloaded and do not always have the time to apply for the ESSA Title I or Title II funding they need.

“Having additional resources, additional support, additional staffing would make a huge difference for some of those folks,” said Breen.

Pushing for funding

While in Washington, D.C., Breen said they pushed for funding to help support music educators at the local level.

Jonathon Breen and Katie Helgeson in Washington D.C. for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) fly-in. The United States Capitol is in the background.
Katie Helgeson
Jonathon Breen and Katie Helgeson in Washington D.C. for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) fly-in.

“We're pushing for full funding for Title IV specifically, which is the funding that goes into the buckets that pay for music instruction, music equipment, all of the things that happen at the public school level within the states,” said Breen.

“Along with that is Title II funding, which is for education of the educators. And then Title I funding, which helps to fund and provide support for students who are underprivileged or at risk.”

In the case of Title IV, $1.6 billion is allocated for national funding.

“Things are very contentious in Washington, there's a lot of arm wrestling back and forth about what things are being funded within the budget,” Breen said. “Usually what will happen is that they'll partially fund different parts of these laws as a way to make sure that they're still supporting the event, but maybe not to its full effect.”

Why push for funding?

About two years ago, Unit 5 school district was at risk of losing parts of its music program. The beginning band and orchestra programs were “on the chopping block,” said Breen. “The outpouring support of the local community was amazing.”

“It was so powerful to see,” said Helgeson. Members of the community, including children, spoke at a school board meeting until nearly 2 a.m. “That meeting is why I’m here.”

Breen added, “We found the irony is that a community that had been recognized as being a ‘best community for music education’, in the middle of music month in March was at risk of losing their starting band and orchestra programs. Fortunately, that didn't happen. But it was really scary there for a bit.”

Music careers

“The NAMM foundation is also pushing for 'consider a career in music,'" said Helgeson, “which goes along with the More to Start, Fewer to Quit. Showing that music can be a profitable job choice.”

Breen said, “[Music] really is a viable career choice and there are lots and lots of options to have music involved in your life, even if you're not playing every day or teaching every day.”

Emily Bollinger is a graduate assistant at WGLT, focused on photography, videography and other digital content. They're also a graduate student at Illinois State University's School of Communication.
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