The boys are not back in the band

By Anna Calkins, Staff writer

National interest in band programs has been declining. Why, and what does this look like at Payton?

Payton’s winter band concert.

More than 90% of high schools in the United States offer band courses to their students. A much smaller percentage, about 35%, offer orchestra courses. However, enrollment in these classes is about 10% nationwide-down from 25% a few years ago. Since the 2019-2020 school year, the music programs are down to half their size. Mr. Ashworth, Payton’s band teacher, explains, “interest in band declining is not unique to Payton. It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s actually a nationwide issue.” Performance arts classes at Payton for musicians include Modern Band, Advanced Band, Orchestra, Beginning Guitar, and Piano. Although the school offers many pathways for students to get involved, not many people are taking advantage of these opportunities. 

The pandemic reduced interest in musicianship-there is little appeal to bands if musicians can’t gather and rehearse together. A large part of the magic of music is being able to create it together in a space. Quarantine and Covid restrictions made this impossible in many cases, or at the very least much more difficult. As one sophomore in the orchestra shared, “getting back with the group after taking the class online was my favorite memory.” For people already involved in the ensembles, absence made the heart grow fonder. For students considering getting into music for the first time, the pandemic all but guaranteed they wouldn’t join. 

Mr. Ashworth pointed out the less obvious reasons. As he said, teens tend “to want to play guitar, bass, keyboard, or drum kit” largely because the music we consume over the internet has more of these instruments. Very few high schoolers listen to classical music, let alone that exclusively. “The music that would be performed in our ensembles is far removed from what the vast majority of young people consume,” he explained. As a result, students’ interest in music is focused more on modern instruments. Payton’s music department accommodates this with Modern Band, a new class this school year that Mr. Ashworth said “allows players to experience something that’s different than a traditional wind ensemble.”  

Another issue is that the most dedicated students tend to stray away from their school bands. In a city like Chicago, organizations offer extraordinary opportunities for devoted musicians. Programs like the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) or Merit School of Music attract students, who then leave their school bands because they engage in music at a high level outside of school. Mr. Ashworth referred to this phenomenon as a citywide epidemic. For students interested in going into music after graduation, being a part of their school’s band, though, is necessary.

Band classes, despite this decreasing interest, receive glowing praise from the students involved. As senior Evan Birks said, “the reduced interest is bad. People are missing out on some incredible experiences and opportunities by not engaging in band classes or enrichments.” Sophomore Coltrane Douglas, who plays the guitar in the jazz band and saxophone in a band class, shared that “it’s great to build relationships with the other people in the band- I’ve gotten way closer to a lot of people through it.”

Although there are still many people who continue to engage in and enjoy band classes, the significant decline in high schoolers’ involvement in music is clear both across the country and at Payton. Although the pandemic has cost many students from the classes, now that we are returning to normalcy, students can rediscover the magic of live music and of making music with others.

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