Most classes at Stuyvesant end at 3:30 p.m. Most classes assign less than an hour of homework. Most final exams count for no more than ten percent of your grade. But, despite its aversion to making exceptions, the Stuyvesant Music Department has proven itself to be—in all things—exceptional.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved chorus every minute of the four years I’ve been a part of it; in a lot of ways, the Music Department feels like a family. It breaks my heart to criticize it—but I have to, because there is something fundamentally wrong with how it functions.
I’ve seen my chorus grade drop a point or two during the years for various absences from after-school rehearsals, but I avoided serious skirmishes until this year, when I unwittingly committed to a prom with a friend in December, only to discover at the end of March that the annual spring concert and the prom were the same evening.
If you are in chorus you understand the terror this kind of conflict causes. My terror abated, however, when I realized that an obvious compromise was possible. I could miss the last 10 minutes of the concert—the finale, with the two choruses, band and orchestra—and just be a little late to the prom (allowing me to leave during the hour-long, non-chorus part of the concert).
And, if you’re in chorus, the next part of this saga is predictable. I suggested this compromise to chorus teacher Holly Hall and was flat-out told to “expect a city diploma,” because she would fail me. I went to Assistant Principal Music Raymond Wheeler—the response was the same. My options, I was told, were to sing the concert or see 10 minutes reduce my grade by 45 points.
Fast-forward several weeks. I have written letters to the school. I have spoken to teachers and assistant principals, many of whom have interceded on my behalf. My parents and I have met with Principal Stanley Teitel and Wheeler. The Music Department’s answer has not changed substantially. If I put a personal commitment before an “academic” one, my grade would be reduced by at least 20 points, and I would be barred from the entire concert.
There are more examples of this aversion to compromise—the Music Department prides itself on not creating a precedent for performance absences. But its “all-or-nothing” approach, while producing fantastic concerts, comes at a price—it encourages students to avoid honesty for easier approaches: make up a funeral, get a doctor’s note, say you’re feeling feverish and ask to leave the stage, lose your voice. This ruling makes a mockery of the department and encourages abuse and hollow commitment.
This is not department policy—because no policy exists that charts out what concerts are even worth. I was told that I could not have known the official policy until I triggered it—but an inaccessible, verbal “policy” is no policy at all. The Music Department’s policy is a parody of precedent, arbitrarily defined and arbitrarily applied.
But the choral program’s problems (and, by association, the Music Department’s problems) extend beyond these ambiguities and lie in its inability to accommodate students’ needs. Instead, it resorts to blatant intimidation. By confusing a class with an extracurricular activity, the department gets the best of both—a grade that counts towards our GPAs, and a way to require that students undertake a hefty time commitment inside and outside of school. Extracurricular activities are disguised as necessary class participation.
The department grades students erratically, and focuses on attendance instead of effort. This breeds resentment, as one student—who wished to remain anonymous—noted after a series of erratic grade shifts just this term. Many students were given unusually low grades without explanation: “[They] wonder why our attitudes have been deteriorating. Maybe it’s because we live in constant fear of being arbitrarily yelled at and failed.”
No class assigns two and half hours of homework, and no extracurricular activity changes a student’s grade. Except chorus. With extracurricular activities, we can choose to put academics first when we need to—but chorus, orchestra and band have created a punitive “policy” that leaves no room for negotiation. These are problems that can easily be fixed. Allow for some degree of flexibility. Write a comprehensive department policy. Allow for some recognition of personal conflicts. Create make-up volunteer work to mitigate the grade reduction. Tell students the dates of the concerts in September to avoid ambiguity. But as long as the Music Department doesn’t recognize its flaws, conflicts will continue.
This is their policy. And, unwilling to see my grade suffer when I had done nothing wrong, and unwilling to jeopardize my college acceptances or my scholarship applications (many dependent on my GPA and senior transcript), I arrived at the prom three hours late, lest a 300-strong performance miss the absence of one soprano.
But don’t worry, because I passed chorus. It’s the Music Department that failed, miserably.