Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more…


In 1999 my band’s competition show was Shakespeare’s Henry V. We took the music from Kenneth Branagh’s iconic film score and married it with Shakespeare's text to create an unforgettable production. At one point, the entire ensemble actually recited one of the play’s most iconic lines, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.”

This iconic soliloquy is among Shakespeare’s finest. The literal meaning of this phrase is “Let us try one more time,” or “Try again,” but also speaks to perseverance, brotherhood, and fighting for what is right.

This applies to more than just war, it applies to music and education.

In their recently published book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, researchers Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine spent six years traveling to some of America’s highest performing high schools in search of excellence and innovation. 

Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Fine, who runs a teacher preparation program at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, were convinced that they could and would find commonalities among these standard bearers that could be qualified, quantified, and replicated in other lower performing schools. They were convinced that high performing schools would be incubators of innovation and would have the answers. 

They were wrong.

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They found that, “In lower-level courses, students were often largely disengaged; while in honors courses, students scrambled for grades at the expense of intellectual curiosity." When they asked students to explain the purpose of what they were taking and learning, their most common responses were “I dunno.” and “I guess it’ll help me in college.”

They went looking for excellence and innovation but were unable to find it, until they happened upon it by chance.

As they spent more time in schools, they noticed that “powerful learning was happening most often at the periphery — in electives, clubs, and extracurriculars. Intrigued, they turned their attention to these spaces. They followed a theater production. They shadowed a debate team. They observed elective courses and extra-curricular activities.”

They noted that, “Students who had slouched their way through regular classes suddenly became capable, curious, and confident. The urgency of the approaching performances lent the endeavor a sense of momentum. Students were no longer vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather people trying to produce something of real value. Coaching replaced ‘professing’ as the dominant mode of teaching. Apprenticeship was the primary mode of learning. Authority rested not with teachers or students but with what the show demanded.”

More radically, what was powerful about extracurriculars is that students were supported in leading their learning. They were taking responsibility for teaching others and gradually becoming the ones who upheld the standards off the field. The researchers concluded that the" more we can create similar opportunities in core subjects — giving students the freedom to define authentic and purposeful goals for their learning, creating opportunities for students to lead that learning, and helping them to refine their work until it meets high standards of quality — the deeper their learning and engagement will be."

After reading this I was truly shocked. (And I say this with genuine sincerity and without sarcasm.) I was SHOCKED that they were shocked. I was stunned that with all of their training and experience that they were unaware and did not understand that:

  • Innovation and excellence were exclusive to high performing schools. 

  • Advanced rigor does not necessarily mean advanced achievement.

  • Students are being shepherded towards classes for academic prestige.

  • Students in the arts are more successful in school.

  • Student ownership and engagement are increased in the arts.

  • true learning and education does not begin or end in a classroom.

  • Life-learning replaces wrote-learning in the arts.

  • That leading (in the arts) is as important as learning.

  • Higher standards of learning and behaving exist in the arts.

Frankly, I am also shocked that they would need six year to come to this conclusion. I would think six minutes would suffice. I am also surprised that this is seen as so revolutionary as to warrant a book or be published as a treatise in the New York Times.

I would expect this from a lay person or a parent. I might be more understanding if this had been written by someone who had no children or experience with our education system, but these are two thought leaders who are influencers in educational circles. They shouldn’t need a microscopic analysis to see the obvious.

I truly wonder how could this be. How did these two people and everyone else no know what we knew?

As advocates and artists, where and how did we fail? How have we not properly communicated the message that MUSIC MATTERS to our professional community? After all, we have a captive audience (parents), willing participants (students), and a mountain of data (empirical and anecdotal) which paints a clear and compelling rationale for the arts as a part of every student’s daily life.

And still, the experts remain unaware, unimpressed or apathetic.

The fight for music in our schools is real and must be fought with zeal. We must wage an informational war without fear of being wrong and absent an apology for being right. We must not be willing to accept defeat or be dismayed by small setbacks. We must pursue this with a vengeance and ferocity that is unmatched as we fight for not only our professional lives but our students future s. 

So join me my brothers and sisters and head,

"Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more…"

Have a great week.

p.s. Our profession recently lost not only a giant of a musician but a giant of a man. Sam Pilafian, a pioneer in brass performance and pedagogy passed away from colon cancer at the age of 69. The New York Times did a wonderful job of eulogizing him. You can read it here. God speed Sam… God speed.

p.p.s. My summer calendar was released yesterday. Click here to request a date.