Music education in schools: why you should care

Me (in light blue) at my first band concert in 5th grade.
Me (in light blue) at my first band concert in 5th grade.

“It can bring us to tears or to our feet, drive us into battle or lull us to sleep. Music is indeed remarkable in its power over all humankind. Perhaps for that very reason, no human culture on earth has ever lived without it: people making music predates agriculture and perhaps even language.”  Kristin Leutwyler, “Exploring the Musical Brain,” Scientific American, Jan. 2001

No human culture on earth has ever lived without it. Yet that is precisely what we’re asking our children to do. A few days ago my husband brought this twitter conversation to my attention, which discusses the status of music education in schools (or lack thereof: Stillwater MN schools may be cutting their high school music program if a levy is voted down on Nov. 5). Despite all the evidence that music education benefits the cognitive growth of children, especially in the STEM fields, schools are still cutting their music programs.

“’The ability to make art is really critical to the creative mind and getting into the sciences,’” adds James Lawton, another researcher and a professor of sculpture.

“Musical training seemed especially important. Researchers studied a group of Michigan State Honors College graduates from 1990 to 1995 with science, technology, engineering or math majors and found 93% had taken piano, guitar or other music lessons—about three times the average rate of all adults.”   Vickie Elmer, “CEOs and Inventors Most Likely Took Art or Music Lessons as a Kid,” Quartz, Oct. 25 2013.

Academics aside, the reason schools should keep music programs shouldn’t be because music makes kids smarter (although that is an added benefit). They should keep their programs because lack of music dehumanizes us.

There is this unfortunate misconception in our American society that music and the arts are frivolous or elitist. But what about programs like Venezuela’s El Sistema, which was formed to improve the quality of life for children living in poverty (and which now has music programs in the U.S.)? What if music is the only positive force in a child’s life? What if playing music provides an outlet for anger/fear (and all those other emotions kids and teens experience due to school culture and home life)? What if music in school provides the only social outlet for that child? What if exposure to music in school helps a child discover a hidden aptitude for music (that wouldn’t otherwise have been discovered)? If music indeed predates agriculture and language, and possibly even the human race, who are we to cut it out of schools? We would be less than human if we let this trend continue. If music does not exist in schools, there is no guarantee that a child would be exposed to it at home or through music lessons, as private music study is not accessible to all due to the cost of lessons and of buying and maintaining an instrument.

Finland, with one of the best public school systems in the world, makes music education a regular part of the school day. Starting in 3rd grade, kids spend an average of 4 hours in music classes per week. As a side note, Finland also has an average of 75 minutes of recess a day, contrasted with 15 minutes per day in the U.S. When both music and movement are proved through research to benefit the development of children, why are these the first programs to be cut?

If there were no music education in my public high school in Small Town, Nebraska, my life would be very different now. I would not have picked up a flute, because there were no private flute teachers in my small town; I would not have discovered an innate ability to play this instrument. I would not have become flute section leader and first chair—the only leadership opportunity I had in high school (I was overlooked by teachers in academics even though I was a straight-A student). I would not have won a prestigious band award at the end of my senior year—granted to only one person per year. I would not have made it into Hastings honor band and connected with a flute teacher/mentor (or have met a clarinet-playing boy who became a short-term pen-pal/ crush). I would not have tried out for jazz band because I would not have had access to a tenor saxophone—and it was jazz band that exposed me to improvisation for the first time. I would not have studied music in college and graduate school because it was in high school that I got a few opportunities to conduct and to play in pit orchestras for musicals—the two activities that thrilled me above all else. Without band (and theater) I would not have had much of a social life, or an opportunity to tour the state and country, playing music. Would I be where I am today, making my living from playing and teaching music?

If your school has cut its music program, or is about to—-switch schools or lobby to keep the program, and support it through donations and taxes, voting ‘yes’ for music education when it shows up on a ballot. Find a school that offers not only band, jazz band, choir, and orchestra, but private lessons, percussion ensemble, rock band ensemble, Gamelan, African and/or Taiko drumming, Orff/Dalcroze, and chamber ensembles. Better yet, find a Music-Immersion School, where singing, dancing, and drumming is woven throughout the day, to memorize facts, to relax and reboot, to make kids nicer, to make math class more fun. This school probably doesn’t exist yet, but it should.

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