MacPhail steps in as districts march to different drummer

Even though the music school he heads is a century old, David O’Fallon thinks the MacPhail Center‘s mission is well-attuned to the times.

“We’re seeing changes in education,” he says. “The old model of education is sort of the industrial model. Children start at the same age, proceed at the same pace and exit at the same time.”

Recent trends, O’Fallon says, are moving education away from “the public monopoly.” As people become accustomed to the Internet and gather information from multiple sources in multiple ways, he sees a growing appreciation for individual learning styles. That plays right into what he regards as MacPhail’s strength.

“We can provide an individualized approach to anyone at any stage of life. People go wherever the good resources are,” he says.

Along with lessons and classes in various music styles for all age groups, MacPhail offers specialized programs in early childhood music and music therapy. In the school’s just-opened facility in the Minneapolis Mill District, O’Fallon is excited about two new possibilities: distance learning via high-tech connections to New York, Los Angeles and perhaps the other side of the globe, and a new 300-seat recital hall.

A sadder song on the public side
In Minnesota’s public schools, meanwhile, resources for people interested in music education are getting harder to find. For the Minnesota Music Educators Association, the yardstick is the number of music educators in the state’s public schools. From 2000 to 2006, the number dropped by 11.35 percent, according to Executive Director Mary Schaefle. During the same time period, the student population decreased by only 1.5 percent.

In the past four to five years, student enrollment at MacPhail has risen by 50 percent — from 5,000 to 7,500, O’Fallon says. He attributes much of that growth to suburban locations MacPhail has opened in Apple Valley and White Bear Lake. But for two or three years, O’Fallon says he has been noticing another increase: the number of troubled phone calls he gets from public schools.

“They say, ‘Geez, can you help us out? Our music program is getting cut.’ “

Many educators lay the blame for such cuts on No Child Left Behind. They charge that the 2001 federal education legislation forces administrators to overemphasize test scores. Because the law does not require music and arts testing, schools carve out less class time for those subjects, Schaefle says.

O’Fallon, a former public school educator himself, says the effort to meet No Child Left Behind goals has turned public schools into “community and social welfare centers. People interested in the arts have to go elsewhere.”

How public and private compare
Schaefle isn’t so sure about that. As an example, she points to classroom music education at the elementary level, which is not a part of MacPhail’s core catalog. (Although O’Fallon counters that MacPhail partnerships send music teachers to a few of the area’s elementary classrooms.) Individually, few public schools can match the stylistic range of MacPhail’s instruction, but MacPhail has no plans to compete for the big high school band and choir franchise, O’Fallon says.

“Some public schools do a good job,” he says. “But at MacPhail there are two big factors: You can study with a teacher who’s just right for you, and you can study with that teacher for years.”

“My biggest concern,” says Schaefle, “is equity. All kids should have access to music education. Families that don’t have sufficient income don’t see those opportunities outside of school.”

To that concern, O’Fallon responds that MacPhail offers financial aid and connects with disadvantaged kids via its 45 community partnerships. No doubt he wishes he could do more. He has a similar wish for public schools: “There’s no way we could replace what they could do if they were able,” says O’Fallon, a tinge of regret in his voice.

The energy returns when he thinks about what music can do: “With our deepening understanding of music’s relationship to cognition and neural development, we know that every person is hard-wired to appreciate and enjoy music. The culture might determine the form, but it’s a universal human resource.”

O’Fallon leads an institution that helps individuals find their own pathways to music and discover its place in their personal development. “That gets me really excited,” O’Fallon says.

Related story: The MacPhail Center for Music brings a new note to the Minneapolis riverfront.  

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