The Music’s Over:
The proposed changes to the New York City school system have done more than hit a sour note with Queens music teacher William Greenspan – he’s so concerned that he’s decided to call it quits.
In June, Greenspan plans to put away the conductor’s baton and step down from the podium following 32 years as a New York City public school music teacher.
me, it’s not just a job, I’ve put my heart and soul into this,” he
told the Tribune.
the system into which Greenspan had invested so much of himself over the
years stands on the verge of a massive transformation, and the veteran music
instructor harbors mixed feelings about the direction the new school system
seems to be moving.
a conversation with the Tribune, Greenspan framed his own retirement
as skeptical response to the ambiguity surrounding the future of public
education in New York City. And even before his retirement could take
effect, the schools system changes that made him want to retire have already
his small classroom at Bayside’s MS 158 and in relation to the short
stature of his adolescent pupils, William Greenspan looms large.
His presence at the front of the room is magnetic, as he pulls the notes forth from his student’s instruments and keeps the players on beat through the sheer force of will and energy.
leans forward into the orchestra periodically to sing the correct notes when
it seemed the students might waver out of tune.
if you play it fast, the graduates will run down the aisle. We don’t want
that,” Greenspan said.
was the first week of May, and Greenspan was putting the eighth grade
orchestra through the paces of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the
indispensable standard of graduation ceremonies.
few violin players and a bassist groaned a meek protest — this piece is
clearly no one’s favorite. “Hey, hey — this is not Hot 97, this is not
the request line,” Greenspan scolded them playfully.
small scene has played itself out perhaps a hundred times over Greenspan’s
career. Thousands of students have sat before him in neat rows clutching
flutes, trumpets, violas and clarinets.
his retirement a mere month away, however, this will be his last crop of
students in the New York City public school system – a system that is
about to change.
55-years-old, William Greenspan is on the young side of the retirement
though some of his reasons are personal, there was a major motivation behind
the timing of his retirement.
part of the reorganization of the school system and the implementation of
the Children First intiative, the Department of Education (DOE) published a
list in February of the 200 top schools.
Those schools that were not on the list—like MS 158—were required
to overhaul their reading, writing and math curricula, placing greater
emphasis on fundamental skills. Unsure of how these requirements would
impact his school, Greenspan began to fear that the mandatory emphasis on
English and math would diminish arts education.
time has to come from somewhere,” Greenspan said. “It’s not going to
come from lunch, it’s not going to come from gym.
It has to come from what they call elective subjects, which are
music, art, drama, dance, computers.”
view of the Children First intiative is shared by Richard Farkas, the United
Federation of Teachers vice president of intermediate schools. In a recent
newsletter regarding the uncertainty surrounding the intiative, Farkas wrote
that the possibly imperiled electives, including music, “are vitally
important to the success of our students. A true middle school program does
not dilute one learning experience for another.”
the time, Greenspan even felt that he might be required to teach reading for
part of the day, something he had never done before. “I can’t teach
anything out of my chosen profession. Morally, I can’t do it,” Greenspan
anticipated that the new policies affecting change in the school system may
curtail arts education in many of the City’s schools, especially in the
poorer areas like those where he had spent much of his career before coming
though MS 158 Principal Charles DeMeo appealed his school’s classification
and eventually received a waiver from the DOE, which left the music program
intact, Greenspan stuck to his decision.
may turn out that Greenspan’s gesture was made prematurely, as the DOE
remains unclear on how Children First will change the structure of the
school day at middle schools forced to tow the line. Ultimately, even if
music remains at full strength throughout the City, Greenspan’s small act
of protest stands as a testament to the profound uncertainty that pervades
the entire school system on the eve of this ambitious and mysterious effort
to improve it.
said, “I’m leaving with a little resentment, but I’m not leaving with
a lot of resentment. I’ve given the Board my best and I’ve enjoyed
it.” He added, “And now, the 200 schools on the list are not going to
have a problem, but what about all these other schools that are not on the
going to happen to their programs?”
the Tribune contacted the DOE, a spokesperson there implied that
Greenspan’s decision could have been made in haste.
Spokesperson Margie Feinberg said, “I think it sounds like he is jumping
“The chancellor is committed to arts education. In fact, part of the reorganization includes a new office specifically for arts education, a senior level position . . . We are planning to keep the funding for arts education intact,” Feinberg said.
began his career as a bassist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, but he
soon found he wanted to do something more with his music.
started teaching in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in 1971, but traces his
own educational beginnings even further back. “I started my career in
seventh grade playing an instrument just like these kids.
And I loved it so much that by the time I graduated high school, I
knew I was going to be a music teacher,” he explained.
wasn’t until 1994 that Greenspan moved to Bayside. “When I came to the
school there were no new instruments here.
Now we have about 50 percent new instruments. I am adamant about
it,” he explained.
said, “He probably didn’t tell you this, but he does his own repairs on
the instruments, spending hours at his home and on his own time.”
middle schools employ separate band and orchestra instructors, but Greenspan
was qualified to take on both roles. As a result, he often brings the
strings and winds together at concerts, creating a massive 100-piece
performance that is uncommon with such young students. His instrumentalists
also master advanced compositions normally reserved for high school
conducting the intricate march number from the opera “Carmen,” Greenspan
couldn’t hold back his pride in his overachieving eighth graders. “These
kids started playing their instruments in the seventh grade.
Now look,” he gushed. “They actually go home and practice!”
what all these changes and potential cuts to arts education amount to, in
Greenspan’s view, is hard to pin down.
it is clearly a matter to which he devoted much thought before deciding to
retire, his opinions on the transformation of the school system are
conflicted and ambivalent.
don’t think it’s a mistake,” Greenspan said.
“I think the mayor and the chancellor are 100 percent right because
they want the kids to have more reading and math. Today, with the kind of
society we have, they need it — they need reading and math. I understand
he acknowledged the value of the ends sought by the policy-makers at the
DOE, Greenspan took issue with the means. He explained, “The idea is
correct, I think their programming stinks. I think these people are smart
enough to figure out a way to give these kids some extra time than to chop
off my program.”
objection should not be mistaken for the petty protection of his own
he sees the reduction of arts education as a threat to the individual
well-being of the students. He explained his fears this way: “You can
teach a kid to read better or to write better, but if he doesn’t have any
arts, what the hell is he going to read and write about? I’m afraid this
whole society is going to end up with nothing but a bunch of walking
added, “Music teaches you not just how to play and instrument, but it
teaches you passion, it teaches you love.
It can make you dance, it can make you laugh, it can make you cry.
That’s the beauty of music.”
exposure to music and other creative modes of education, Greenspan fears for
the completeness of the students who the DOE wants to help and improve.
all, he fears that students caught up in the cold process of testing and
standardized curriculum will lose their ties to basic human feeling.
you see something sad or this or that, you should be able to cry, you should
be able to show emotion,” he said. “I mean come on, people today, you go
to a job, you sit in a cubicle, you’re on a computer all day and that’s