Music lessons: a limited luxury

“Practice makes perfect” is a commonplace phrase for students pursuing a musical education at this school. PHS students are very familiar with the concept of “practicing” because of the competitive nature of PHS, as music programs here, from PHS Studio Band to PHS Orchestra, depend on the rigorous work ethic of the student, explains Jazz Ensemble member Beth Blizzard ’18. “There’s a lot of people here who play instruments, and a lot of them are really talented. So the [band] program is really competitive.”

Students may find it beneficial to take part in private music lessons to improve their skills and adapt to the level of difficulty of higher-level bands, orchestras, and choirs. The students’ pursuit of taking these lessons can quite often correlate with their level of musical success, according to multiple sources involved in the programs.

The overwhelming majority of students in the higher bands, orchestras, and choirs take private music lessons. “Everyone in Jazz Ensemble takes music lessons,” said Blizzard, an avid participant in music lessons since sixth grade. She, like many others, was encouraged to invest in lessons because of teachers’ suggestions.

According to Coco Mi ’18, a member of PHS Orchestra, the majority of orchestra members take lessons, with the exception of a few who took lessons in the past and recently stopped. As for PHS Choir, Gus Binnie ’17 said that the majority of the choir members don’t take private music lessons.

Taking private lessons can demonstrate the dedication and commitment of a musician toward her musical career. Private lessons turn the instructor’s attention completely on the student and allow for a more personal, adaptable learning environment. “Music lessons help you improve in specific areas you can’t really address while [in school]. You get to move at your own pace and receive lots of attention,” said Jackie Peng ’17, a member of PHS Orchestra. In fact, taking private lessons at PHS is strongly suggested, as teachers can rely on the student’s musical education outside of the classroom to contribute their skills to pieces rehearsed in class.

But private music lessons, especially those taught by accomplished musicians, tend to be on the pricier side. Students taught by these individuals are certainly lucky, as they are exposed to a challenging and enriching method of learning music. But this opportunity is limited in its scope, because not every student is financially capable to pay for lessons. Margaret Schrayer ’17, a member of PHS Choir, said, “I don’t take private music lessons because they’re really expensive and I’m always busy, so having free lessons in school is a really good option for me.” Several students in the music programs have other activities they prioritize over music, so lessons aren’t always a pressing issue to consider.

A conservative amount of private lessons can range from $15 an hour with an intern faculty to $80 an hour with an experienced musician. As you increase your proficiency and level of competency, you need a higher quality of coaching, hence the increase in costs of private lessons. Statistics on the average income of Princeton residents explain the large number of students enrolled in more expensive lessons. According to city-data.com, the median household income in 2013 in Princeton was $105,943, compared to an income level of $70,165 for the state of New Jersey. Despite Princeton’s high median income value, half of the annual income of Princeton residents is below the median value, perhaps even significantly lower for a percentage of households. In other words, yes, there are a good amount of families who are more than capable of affording music lessons. But a large majority of those below the medium income line struggle to afford basic necessities. A deeper study of income level among residents may provide more clarity in understanding why private music lessons are more of an unaffordable luxury than a standard academic necessity, even in the “prestigious” Princeton area. “I think there are other ways to become successful [as a musician], however, most or all of the really successful musicians—especially in a school like this, where people have a lot of money—take private lessons,” Schrayer said.

While financial gaps exist, many other reasons factor into the wide opportunity gap among music students, such as mental and physical disabilities. Mi said, “I’m in Music Therapy, a community service program that goes to the special needs students at the middle school. These students are deprived of the opportunity to participate in choir, band, and orchestra with the other students in John Witherspoon Middle School.”

Binnie also discussed the possible ways of incorporating financially struggling students into the music programs. “PHS could start a scholarship program based on merit and need, have seniors mentor freshmen, and general fundraising to subsidize tuitions for those kids who need it.”

Opportunities are cherished at PHS, and at times, they are limited for a certain and select population of students. The opportunities provided at this school shouldn’t disappear to maintain equality among different socioeconomic classes, but forming an inclusive environment where everyone has a chance to succeed could potentially change the demographics of members in higher-level music programs. And such a beautiful thing as music, according to Mi, should be “afforded” to all, regardless of background. Closing the opportunity gap for enriched music curriculums may take time, but will be well worth the effort in the long run. “Practice makes perfect” won’t simply be an impossible life motto to follow for those financially unstable, but a way of life.

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