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Backstory: Pop! goes the curriculum

'American Idol,' for better or worse, is filling music classes with eager singers.

By Erik SpanbergCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 8, 2006


When Jane Waldrop's fifth- and sixth-graders report for her mandatory music classes, they are rarely eager to volunteer for performances of any kind. Or, rather, they weren't eager to perform before Ms. Waldrop turned her kids into believers by adding a dash of "American Idol" reality to the curriculum.

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It seems the students at Clearview Elementary in Herndon, Va., just needed a bit of prodding, reality TV-style.

"We actually call it 'American Idol' and have kids come up and serve as judges and have others volunteer to sing," Waldrop says. "They get up there and really ham it up. It makes them interested in music in a whole new way."

Can Simon Cowell save the music?

If the music being saved is overwrought pop singing, then the answer seems to be yes. And if it brings attention to the oft-overlooked notion of honing a craft, all the better.

At a time when music education budgets are in constant peril, even the unabashedly shallow Top 40 machinery of "Idol" makes some teachers cry for an encore. The smash Fox show - known for crowning newly minted pop stars as well as for the critiques offered by the snarky Mr. Cowell - is a cultural touchstone, for better and worse.

"The fact that so many kids dream about being on ['American Idol'] shows that music is a draw," says Sue Rarus, director of research at MENC: The National Association for Music Education.

"Children all across the country are watching and dreaming. Kids are looking for something to strive for - and as superficial as this show may be, it's holding that out to a lot of people."

Now in its fifth season, "Idol" has made students more interested in singing and in school music programs, say teachers on the front lines of auditorium risers across the country.

Yes, be very afraid, America. The likes of Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, and even lowly William Hung are shaping musical perceptions in many schools. Suddenly, Michael Bolton doesn't sound so bad anymore - well, yes, he does.

No, really, there are benefits to these inanities, though they may not always be apparent. "Idol"-ization has renewed enthusiasm for music education at the grass-roots level. And while some of that newfound demand may be old-fashioned stargazing, it also opens a new vista for students to behold. A vista, that is, filled with educators ready to share the wonders of sheet music, hitting notes high and low, and the answers to assorted other magical musical mysteries.

"More students want to be in choir than I have room [for]," says Annice Shear, the vocal-music director at Nathan Hale Middle School in Cleveland. She sees evidence that the students want to improve their singing and believe they could have a career in music performance. She attributes the spike in interest largely to Cowell & Co.

Teachers nationwide are happy to incorporate the "Idol" milieu and expand on it. Waldrop has even gone so far in her elementary school classes as to name-drop Il Divo, an operatic group founded by Cowell."I tell them, 'See, Simon has classically trained opera singers, so it's a cool thing.' "

"Idol" does transcend the mere notion of instant stardom, suggests Rhonda Schilling, a music teacher at Thoreau Elementary in Madison, Wis. "It also has a bit of reality in it," she says. "It puts perspective on things - not everyone can be a star, but everyone has a chance. That's important. Too many kids grow up thinking they're going to be football stars or whatever without realizing how hard it is or how much you have to practice."