To the Editor:
In the wake of unexpected recent budget changes this spring, the South Kingstown School Committee has instructed Interim Superintendent Robert Hicks to explore the possibility of reinstating some positions district wide. Under initial budget cuts, the enterprising and award-winning teacher of vocal music and drama at South Kingstown High received a layoff notice due to his relative lack of seniority among existing music faculty in the district. The music program budget has been greatly reduced overall.
Current reductions to the district-wide music budget, however, will not only remove Mr. Muir from the high school; they will roll back the existing excellence of our high school drama and music programs, destroy the morale of dozens and dozens of families, and most of all impact our students’ qualifications as they proceed to create their college applications or prepare auditions for work in the field. We are talking many dozens of students here, not a select few. In addition, audiences for this year’s concerts and plays have often been entirely sold out or near capacity for most performances – these shows function as far more than student hobbies; they are rich cultural resources that benefit our entire community in an affordable, accessible manner.
South Kingstown Principal Robert Mezzanote and his administrative colleagues have responded proactively to the existing strength in performing arts at the high school by looking toward a new CTE Pathway in Performing Arts. Among other things, this pathway has the potential to attract out of district students to South Kingstown even if they do not reside here. But such a pathway cannot be developed without fully qualified and experienced faculty to oversee it.
In Mr. Muir we have a teacher who is actually qualified to teach both vocal music and theatre classes at the appropriate educational level for high school. The results of Mr. Muir’s efforts are showing in the quality and rigor of music, dramatic and musical plays, technical achievements, and management opportunities for students onstage and off. And his students are winning major prizes too – the consequence of discerning and developing student talent across the board.
High school drama includes far more than overseeing a club that does one musical a year: it means orchestrating a high powered, year-long series of four separate, diverse drama events; offering relevant academic classes in drama, technical theatre, and acting; and training young managers, designers, and technical specialists in all the non-stage skills needed for successful production and marketing efforts. Under Mr. Muir, students don’t merely perform; they gain valuable work and experiential learning opportunities that help to shape their future lives as citizens and professionals.
High school vocal music as well demands more than teaching general music classes or a single chorus: it means managing multiple vocal ensembles that allow different voices to be heard; preparing singers for state and national competitions, both individually and in ensembles; keeping current with technical and technological standards so that serious singers can use their equipment appropriately for performance auditions and college scholarship recordings; and teaching students how to read a score and to collaborate to achieve a sound that is genuinely and effectively blended despite different tones and pitches.
Mr. Muir’s exceptional dedication makes him the equivalent of a state- champion athletic coach PLUS teacher of the year statewide. If we do not reinstate part of the district-wide music budget, thus maintaining the current music and drama faculty configuration at the high school, however, we not only imperil the plan for an innovative and inclusive performance CTE pathway that could boost district enrollments - we undermine the capacity of current and future high school students to sustain and grow their increasing skill sets in vocal and dramatic performance, technology, and management.
Why does an inclusive and innovative performance program matter?
Inclusivity: Under Mr. Muir’s leadership, vocal music and drama are becoming less segregated than they have been in the past. As a musician he understands the value and power of cultural competence. He has reached out respectfully and effectively across economic, racial, disability, gender, and cultural divisions to bring new students of all kinds into the tent. He also partners visibly with teachers in our carpentry and visual arts programs, making productions into practical opportunities for students to expand their skill sets as designers, carpenters, lighting technicians, marketers, and business managers.
Innovation: Mr. Muir is enterprising - he has just been awarded a large SKEF grant for new equipment that we need to bring our mics up to a level worthy of student efforts. His knowledge of this side of performance is cutting edge, due in part to his own life as a working artist. Exposure to such technologies gives our students the chance to acquaint themselves with, as stated, emergent performance tools that help with their auditions for gigs or recordings for college and conservatory admission. Furthermore, his productions charge less at the door, but have doubled intake overall relative to productions in previous years. He has the business acumen to run a program of tremendous scope and mentors student managers as they develop similar skills of their own.
Let’s urge Interim Superintendent Hicks to apply a tourniquet to the current budgeting cuts in music for the current year. One year - until we can come together as a community to figure things out for the future of all district schools. Drama is not music, and vocal music is not instrumental music. Let’s recognize and uphold those important distinctions by encouraging Superintendent Hicks to reinstate enough of the district music budget to preserve the quality of performance programming, not only at the High School but at our superbly dedicated lower levels as well.
With appreciation for your time,