Laid-off music teachers perform farewell concert, hope for encore in Philly classrooms

An 80-piece orchestra performed a farewell concert Monday in the administrative offices of the Philadelphia School District, bidding adieu to themselves.

The performers were mostly music teachers, whom the district budget, as it stands, will eliminate.

Many Philadelphia schools lost their music teachers years ago, but the district had a backup plan: to parachute a music teacher into several schools each week, for a few hours. These “class” teachers, or itinerant teachers, provided instrument instruction, developed ensembles, and conducted recitals.

The district had allotted $7 million to maintain 66 full-time itinerant music teachers. Now, to fill a $304 million deficit, the district is asking $60 million from the city and $120 million from the state. The $7 million music education line-item was a casualty of budgeting cutting.

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“Some of our students just don’t believe us — that we’re not coming back,” said Hugh Williamson, an itinerant teacher assigned mostly to schools in Roxborough. “Sometimes we issue instruments over the summer, so kids can practice. They didn’t believe it until we said, ‘No, we can’t issue you an instrument because the program’s been cut.’ Unless things change, there will be no program in the fall.”

Williamson believes the School Reform Commission could recalculate the $7 million line-item to at least retain some music instruction.

Sitting in with the teachers at the farewell concert were current students and former students lending support, and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s assistant principal bassist, Joseph Conyers. The organizer of the event is a project manager for the school district, Virginia Lamm, who hopes the music will prick up ears in City Hall and all the way in Harrisburg.

Raising awareness with performance

“We hope it’s not a farewell,” said Lamm. “We’re using this concert to raise awareness, to bring back $7 million to restore instrumental music teachers. We’re going to hear light classical, pop tunes, some medleys. Keep it light and positive.”

The band started with the ominous “Russian Sailor’s Dance,” followed by the much perkier “Bacchanale” by Saint-Saens, and Conyers played the melancholy Bach bass solo from “Arioso.” The hourlong concert was interspersed with comments on the importance of music in schools.

Doreen McNeil, a rising senior at Masterman, says she applies what she learns from music teachers to other aspects of her life.

“They encourage us to keep trying in whatever we do,” said McNeil. “They help us apply different mantras we use — like, keep practicing — in other things like sports, or math homework.”

Some Philadelphia high schools with a mandated interest in arts, including the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, had used itinerant teachers to complete their music programs. Many other schools, such as elementary and middle schools, relied entirely on itinerant teachers for music instruction.

Williamson, the itinerant teacher who until two years ago was the full-time band director at Shawmont School in Roxborough, said music is the only academic department that will be completely eliminated in the new budget.

The School Reform Committee may still change its tune before September, pending an allocation in the state budget.

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