A cappella Music Shouldn’t Be Limited To Cost-Effective School Music Alternative

Ben Folds is wrong. There. I finally said it.

Folds is the most recognizable face promoting a cappella music in America and he’s really good at doing that. In December, an editorial of his debuted over at Huffington Post just after the first episode of season four of The Sing Off.  Titled “Why A Cappella Rocks,” Folds discussed a cappella singing at the high school and collegiate levels and why it has taken to that age range particularly well. As a music teacher, I just have a problem with the way he did it.

“The data has shown us that test scores improved profoundly when academic classes are peppered with music classes,” writes Folds. “Students, like the young people of Vocal Rush, breathe life into those stats.”

Not exactly. See, the students of Vocal Rush went to an auditioned charter school in Oakland. Before they are allowed to step foot on campus, they must meet rigorous entrance standards including already having pretty good grades. The same is true in music programs around the country – it’s not that music makes kids smarter, it’s more that smart students gravitate to music and can handle the multi-tasking involved. Kids that aren’t smart or able to balance all the other responsibilities that go into being in a music group are weeded out – usually by the time they get to high school.

But this point isn’t that big of an issue. Most people believe it to be true even if it’s loosely based in actual research. My biggest problem in Folds’ argument came a few paragraphs later when he inadvertently said teachers shouldn’t get paid.

“Also, a cappella music is cheap, and in a world where fiscal responsibility actually drove policy, it would be noted that it cost absolutely nothing to sing,” continued Folds. “Schools are cutting their music programs in an attempt to save money. But wait. A crazy thing is happening. This next generation of students is filling the musical education void by just doing it themselves. Each year sees more and more high school and a cappella groups working outside the school systems, coming together and teaching themselves some kind of voice leading, and arranging skills enough to perform, and in many cases, perform outstandingly.”

No, Ben! Don’t give them ammunition to cut my school music program! I can just hear financially-conscious administrators around the country:

“Ben Folds says the next generation of students are filling their own music education void with this Acapulco stuff so we don’t need to fund it.”

It is always great when students take the initiative themselves but we teachers kind of, sort of, want to get paid to help them with it during classes that we teach. Those kids in Vocal Rush have extra music classes where they are learning this material thanks to their position at the Oakland School for the Arts. Instead of advocating the cost-effectiveness of outside-the-day a cappella groups, Folds should be touting the benefits of a cappella music alongside traditional music programs and as an integral part of those programs.

The thrust of Folds’ argument – that a cappella music is valuable and worth sharing – is certainly true. In the future, I just hope he empowers more teachers to use it in their classrooms instead of making it seem like this completely separate entity. It doesn’t have to be.

(I still love you, Ben. Send me a tweet. We’ll chat.)