American Idol is a ratings juggernaut. Last night, more than 21 million people turned in to watch the show's first hour, and a whopping 24 million people viewed the second hour. It's no surprise, the show's been getting those kinds of numbers for years. And singing competition shows are multiplying. Now we have The Voice with Christina Aguilera and Cee-Lo, and the hit British show, the X-Factor will soon be coming across the pond. So are these shows getting kids interested in singing?
Music teacher Nancy Flanagan thinks not. She argues that American Idol actually discourages children from singing. Its competetive nature promotes the belief that singing is something that should be attempted only by the exceptionally talented. “In the American Idol paradigm,” she writes, “singing is now reserved for those who have a ‘good voice’ and a certain je ne sais quoi.”
While Flanagan is probably right that turning singing into a competitive sport discourages hesitant kids from getting involved, the problem is much larger than that. Teaching kids how to sing used to be part of a school's comprehensive visual and performing arts program. Sometimes schools hired a dedicated chorus teacher, but usually, the music teacher taught kids how to sing. Nowadays, thanks to budget cuts, it's pretty rare to find an elementary school, especially in low-income communities, with a voice or music teacher—or an art, dance, or theater teacher for that matter. Singing just isn't seen as a must-have job skill. American Idol isn't discouraging kids from singing; the lack of support from schools is. (Besides, Glee probably counterbalances any negative effects of American Idol when it comes to inspiring young singers.)
That's a shame, because singing has important benefits. Three of the top performing nations in science according to test scores—Hungary, the Netherlands, and Japan—all require elementary students to receive singing lessons. That's no accident. The positive effects of music education on intelligence and mental health are well documented. There's even evidence to suggest choral singing in particular boosts academic performance. But those benefits are undervalued by our cash-strapped education system.
Regardless of its role, I'd love to see American Idol use its considerable clout and demand that vocal education be put back into schools. There's no American Idol Foundation for Vocal Education in Schools, but there sure should be.