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Music Education in Seattle and How it Needs to Change

    I know from experience that music education is a very important aspect of school life and just everyday life. When kids start playing an instrument in elementary school and middle school, not only is it proven to improve math skills in the classroom, but it also gives kids something to look forward to and the ability to express themselves.

Starting to play a musical instrument in elementary or middle school also creates an entire world of opportunity. There are honor bands, college scholarships, careers, professional gigs, festivals, clinics, and so much more that makes itself an option when a kid starts playing an instrument.

    However, as I've gotten older and made my way up through the musical world of the Seattle schools, I’ve realized something is very wrong: there are soooo many white people and not nearly enough POC (People Of Color).

    Things like professional orchestras and symphonies have known to be historically very white and of course, that needs to change. However, what really makes me sad is the lack of Seattle POC youth in jazz. Jazz is a Black American art form that was (and continues to be) a source of empowerment and celebration in the Black community.

    I am a multiracial student from Beacon Hill and I live in a neighborhood of mostly low-income Asian families. I got very lucky with the music teacher I got in elementary school and middle school. She motivated kids to practice and get better at their instruments and pushed us to do our best. The very large majority of the students in band, including myself, could not afford to rent our own instruments or pay for private lessons. This meant that our forty-five minutes of band class once a week was all we got until middle school.

    Of course, this all seemed completely normal at the time because that was all we knew. We had no idea that over on the other side of Seattle, our musical opponents of the future were already enduring private lessons and top class instruments.

    Now that I’m in high school and often at Garfield for band (which is one of the top music/jazz programs in the state), I see very clearly what happens.

So Here’s the Deal

    Elementary School. When kids start playing an instrument in elementary school, kids from the wealthier parts of Seattle get to rent their own new instruments while kids in low-income households (many POC) must borrow used and often really old instruments from their school’s limited supply. If their school doesn’t have enough instruments (which happens a lot because of the underfunding of schools), then kids either have to share or not be in band.

    Middle School is the time when kids start deciding if they want to be serious about their music or not. If you have a nicely funded music program and facility, then the answer is often yes. In middle school, kids start getting private lessons after school days or on weekends with some of the city’s top musicians and educators. If you play an instrument, you know that most lessons are about $60 per lesson. So you can see why a lot of families might not be able to afford that.

    Private lessons are great because they give specific kids special attention to things like sight reading, tone, and range, which are all aspects of a good audition. However, shouldn’t all kids be becoming great auditioners and not just the kids on the higher income part of the scale?

    Eighth grade is when students prepare to move on to their high school bands. This becomes crunch time for preparing for, often, multiple auditions for sometimes, several bands. Kids from Hamilton will audition for Garfield or Roosevelt bands and kids from Asa Mercer will audition for Franklin or Cleveland bands.

    High school
is where the divide becomes apparent. Garfield has Jazz C, Jazz B, Jazz A, intermediate marching/concert band, advanced marching/concert band, an orchestra, JV drumline, and varsity drumline (not to mention a choir and vocal jazz program). Franklin has one marching/concert band and one orchestra of about six people. Many many kids stop playing their instrument freshman year in general, however, it’s way more likely for kids to quit if their school has 1,300 people and 15 of them are in band. South Seattle kids in the APP program or who are on the waitlist, can go to schools like Garfield. However, when they get there, the competitive and very white atmosphere can be intimidating.

    When students become juniors and seniors they begin applying to and looking for colleges that interest them. Music and arts schools are very difficult to get accepted into and the majority of them are very expensive. Low-income students have to get scholarships in order to attend while upper-class students can just pay their way through. Music and arts also just isn’t a realistic option for a lot of low-income students. Lots of upper-class people don't have to worry about their career choices affecting their quality of life if they are already well-off, while low-income students have to take into account stuff like shelter and food when choosing between studying something they are passionate about and something that will create a good career for them. These factors all end up creating a music system where POC are sparse in the professional Seattle music community.

A Quick Recap

Stage 1. Kids pick their instruments and join band in 4th or 5th grade. Upper-class students can afford their own instruments and their schools have better facilities. Lower class students may have to borrow from a limited supply of instruments from their school which are already often times underfunded.

Stage 2. In 6th and 7th grade, upper-class students can afford to have private tutors and lessons which significantly put them ahead, while lower class students cannot afford or don’t have access to such resources.

Stage 3. Lots of POC quit their instruments going into high school because of the low quality and underfunded music programs in the southside schools while upper-class kids get to automatically go to schools that are known for their winning music programs just because they live in the right area. This is also a time when the white kids start to take over the music scene.

Stage 4. Because of all of the resources they have access to, upper-class students end up attending expensive music schools. Lower class students options are limited/nonexistent if they don’t get a scholarship.

Stage 5. The Seattle music scene is very white (and male--there is currently one female identified musician in the entire official Seattle Jazz Orchestra) and it just keeps on getting whiter.


    Donate to programs that make music education accessible to all youth! This would include programs like Seattle JazzEd, Seattle Music Partners, or just donate an old instrument to a local elementary school band program. Seattle JazzEd also has jazz combos up for hire so hiring a combo for an event not only gives money to the program but also promotes young musicians and gets the word out about the facility.

    Participate in Seattle Music Partners. SMP needs high school volunteers who want to work with kids and give private music lessons. They give you service hours for school and it looks great on resumes and college applications!

    Motivate the youth in your community. A lot of the time what motivates kids to keep playing music is just having an inspiring role model. Go help out at middle school and elementary school bands. It gives young aspiring musicians hope and bridges the gap between middle school and high school bands.

This photo is of the Kashmere Stage Band (also known as Thunder Soul), an all Black high school band from Texas in the 1960s. They are known worldwide for their amazing sound and talent. They shattered stereotypes and racial barriers by winning many competitions that were always predominantly white, traveling and touring around the world, and recording records and albums which are still adored by jazz musicians everywhere to this day.

Seattle Jazz Ed

Seattle Music Partners