Backstory: Pop! goes the curriculum

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

Teachers incorporate aspects of the show by having students offer friendlier critiques than those seen on TV and by blending pop with more traditional fare. Even so, there's plenty of downside to this type of educational idolatry: The show's focus is vocals and pop and rock styles. Other genres - from blues to classical - simply aren't touched.

"I suppose it's OK that this show teaches people there was once a popular singer named Barry Manilow," says Robert Thompson, director of The Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "They could do a lot more with it."

Possibly more troubling than the dearth of varieties and styles used in the show are the early rounds of auditions where delusional applicants display a bent for self-immolation by disastrous torch singing even as the judges moan in horror and wave off performers long before the chorus can be reached.

"When I asked my students about the show, they were very adamant," offers Sandra Pixley who teaches at a New Mexico native American reservation. "They don't like seeing [contestants] being made fun of.... If it is truly a legitimate competition, they wouldn't have some of those people on there. It's just a comedy factor and that's not how you learn."

But other teachers see no harm in featuring both sublime and awful vocals alike.

"I actually think it has affected music in a positive way. It shows kids that ordinary people can do amazing things," suggests Nancy Stover, a band and chorus teacher at Madison Middle School in Marshall, N.C.

"Idol" producers and judges offered no comment to Monitor queries about the show as teaching tool. To be fair, "Idol" never billed itself as educational, nor did it promise to spur the nation's musical I.Q.

"As it is now, I don't think 'American Idol' has been an inspiration for music education beyond singing in the shower," observes Morris Reid, a Washington D.C.-based branding and youth/pop culture expert. "If they [Fox and Idol producers] were smart, they would figure out a way to associate themselves with a great music-based charity."

Money, of course, is as important in the music education debate as inspiration is. As many parents, teachers, and students already know, arts and music programs are among the first cuts made by cash-strapped school districts. These cuts continue despite public entreaties and cascades of studies noting the benefits of students who participate in music programs: better discipline, better performances in math and science, and so on.

So even if "American Idol" spurs a bit of interest as well as a spark in junior-high talent shows, it won't soon be putting any money into education - or ushering in new curriculums.

"What Simon says is, 'We're looking for someone we can sell,'" says Larry Gross, director of The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "No responsible music teacher would encourage their students to do that, to just major in melisma."

Not so fast, my feckless Fantasia-fantasizing friends. If melisma means motivation, even Justin Guarini - an early Idol flash-in-the-pan finalist - becomes fair game for a study session or two.

Perhaps public education has found an elixir. Who among us can resist the inevitable future classroom debates over who was the better orator, Martin Luther King Jr. or Ryan Seacrest?

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