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What to Do With a $0 Music Education Budget

Updated: Jul 4

A violin sitting on a pile of cash
How much money do instrumental music programs really cost?

Backstory on My $0 Music Education Budget Challenge

I remember the job interview that landed me my first job teaching at a school.  I didn’t apply for it, but was referred to it by a neighboring high school that I did interview with, and did not get the job due to lack of experience.  It was just with the principal and she was sweet, but serious, earnest, but to the point.  

Most questions were like the questions at every other interview, but there was one that stood out: “If you found that you had a very small or no budget to get supplies for your classroom, what would you do?”  My response was “Be creative,” and I elaborated with how I enjoy designing projects, making things, that I knew students enjoyed creating things, etc.  

I’m pretty sure it was that response that got me the job.  Looking back, the question would have been a red flag, and would have led me to believe that a $0 music education budget would mean that there was no support for the performing arts at that school or district.  I’m sure many of you reading this would agree with me, but the very next thought is that it’s a reality for many, as it was a reality for me.  

But I was almost fresh out of college.  It was 2008, and job opportunities were few and far between.  I wasn’t picky and I had nothing to compare to.  So I designed my entire K-8 curriculum, wrote a Christmas pageant for the entire school to perform, invested a little into instruments and classroom decorations, with plans to have the graphics in student research projects help to create more.  I made egg shakers out of easter eggs, collected coffee cans for drums, and designed handouts for critical listening assignments.  

It wasn’t the end of the world.  It took a lot of time, yes, but I was excited about it and it helped me feel in control, confident and with an exuberant identity of the musical experience that I wanted these students to have.  It was the beginning of what became an era of students blossoming in the performing arts in so many different ways.  In the years that I was there, I always had under $50 to spend throughout the year, never for the beginning of the year, and in year 3, the parent organization donated a keyboard to the classroom, so that I could teach with some sort of piano. Most years, it was exactly $0.  That was it, and excellence still happened.  

Music is a creative enough subject area that the sky is literally the limit for ideas.  And now, with resources like Pinterest, TeacherPayTeacher, and other resources online, we don’t really have far to go for new ideas if you’ve feel like you have really run dry.

Students playing invented instruments

Ideas on How to get Through a $0 Music Education Budget:

General Music:

  • World tour on YouTube (vet each video, sing or do echo rhythm patterns during ads)

  • Have students research a topic and present it.  Make a rubric to grade from.  Topic ideas include: instruments, music styles, composer, a country for world music, music styles prior to 1900)

  • Have students bring in materials to make instruments together to use in drum circle

  • Improv games- this was always their favorite

  • Teach them to write their own music after learning the theory behind it


  • Have students rent from a music store or online, since there are a few companies that ship rental instruments.  Some of them even have repairs built into the monthly fee!

  • Arrange your own scores and publish them online.  It’ll allow you to be legally covered, and you might even earn a little on the side from your efforts.

It might not sound like much, but it allows you to get your job done and keep students learning music, with or without exactly $0 as your music education budget.  Remember that it’s more important for a chorus to sing at school than it is to have upgraded microphone cables because the old ones are crackly.  Sure, the crackling cables need to be replaced, but if no one accepts that proposal, your students’ voices can still sing.  

It’s the difference between a school having a functioning music program and one that has to cut it because the cost of equipment is too much to maintain the program.  No, it isn’t the best of situations to not have your equipment maintained, but they could always eliminate the program and eliminate you.  

The Fork In The Road When Navigating $0 Music Education Budgets

And this is where our mindset towards our career makes all the difference.  If you are at a school with a music program, the school still has more assets than one that does not, and you are an asset.  Growth mindset encourages us to focus on what we’re teaching and our output, rather than what we are going without.  It truly can be done.  

Now, don’t get this confused with toxic positivity.  I bet there’s some of you reading this that are appalled and wouldn’t handle this.  My response is that we’re all in different situations and have different experiences and tolerance levels with our careers as a whole and in the day-to-day.  

We know education is in trouble, but the difference between crashing and burning because of logistics and survival for the sake of the children is a difference in mindset.  There’s plenty of teachers out there whose sentiment is “I love teaching and if it weren’t for the ___________ (red tape, pay, lack of classroom budget, administrative decisions, parents, behavior, etc.) it would be almost a dream career.  Our place in education comes down to what we make of it.  Focusing on YOU and what YOU need to do to succeed is the most important.  And we need to get our students learning what they need to learn, in the most efficient, effective and enjoyable ways possible.  

You may not be able to control certain things, like students’ mental health coming into your classroom, or the budget money you get each year, or the additional expectations given to you by admin, but you can control what happens in your classroom each day.  If students understand from the beginning you respect them as the individual people that they are, with some sort of back story, feelings and lives, and you make your classroom a refuge where what they learn and experience is fun, then they will respect you enough to learn from you, and want to learn and make an effort for you.  If your lesson plans and tone with them isn’t in alignment with this, you’ll struggle.  And no amount of budget money will fix it, and that $0 budget makes no difference.

Support for Your $0 Music Education Budget Challenge

Pick a class and list the top ten things you want them to learn over the course of the school year.  What is the most fun way to get them to learn it?  What games, experiences, immersive demonstrations, experiments and activities will make them forget about what’s stressing them out?  Your plans should have this in mind.

If this is foreign thinking to you, it’s time to reinvent yourself as a music educator a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong, music teachers love routine and old comfortable habits, but today’s students are different.  And they are learning to be deep emotional thinkers.


For music teachers there is a new resource to help you with all of this.  It provides professional development courses with ideas and assistance with making your classroom experience for students emotionally nurturing, engaging and equipped with the strategies to help students succeed as individual musicians and as ensemble groups. All of the resources keep budget in mind!  Check it out at Upelvel U: Music!

Karen Janiszewski is the Owner of Music Room and Creator of the Uplevel U: Music project. Her mission is to improve the lives and careers of music teachers through her innovative teaching strategies.


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