Music education is no 'frill'

March 8, 2011, 4:57 PM ·

How did you learn your alphabet? Was there a song involved? Have you ever taught the alphabet to a three-year-old? Did you do so without a song? Think about what it would be like to teach it without the song. Would the child learn it rapidly? Would the child even be interested in learning it?

But somehow some in our society would like to force music out of education because adults who don't understand education feel that music is an overly expensive and unnecessary "hobby."

It looks as though San Diego is the latest to propose cutting virtually all music education in its schools to balance its budget.

Here is an article about the cuts. The comments below the article are as interesting as the article itself: the childless "taxpayer" who feels that schools should teach math and English and forget the "nice-to-haves"; the person who says, "Good. It is about time. Music programs are one of the easiest programs to duplicate by the few parents who have a minority of the students in the school. Get a hall, Hire an ex teacher... done." And there are the ever-present comments about the "bad teachers."

The truth of the matter is that educating a child is complicated business, involving time, motivation and a variety of approaches.

Music is both a physical discipline and a rigorous course of academic study, a unique field that simultaneously trains a child in math, language arts, coordination and cooperation. Only a musical illiterate would think music could be taught as a series of ad-hoc after-school programs and that a teacher with musical expertise and pedagogy is so easy to find that you just stick a random "ex-teacher" in there.

Music is a language, both written and aural. The benefits of a music education come from delving deeper into it than simply singing or scratching the surface experimentally with an instrument. Something like the A-B-C song is only the beginning.

Here are a few of the elements involved in a thorough musical education:

The beginner in music certainly learns to sing, but in the process they also learn to identify scale elements with solfege. Solfege is that series of syllables made famous by the Do-Re-Mi song in the Sound of Music. The syllables can be applied to any music, and someone with good music education is able to do so. For example, this simple song should be easily identifiable by anyone with a musical education:

Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol

Fa Fa Mi Mi Re Re Do....

The brain process here is rather complex and involves much problem-solving, especially in the beginning.

One also learns rhythms: not only how to physically execute them but also rhythmic notation: how those rhythms are translated into written language.

One learns about the key signatures that create the various scale patterns, the concept of major and minor scales and also of modes, pentatonic scales, whole-step scales and chromatic scales. For this you need to know the order of the sharps and the order of the flats, for example, the sharps go F, C, G, D, A, E, B. And of course if you have a musical education you see the obvious: That's a circle of fifths.

Which brings me to intervals: learning to identify how far various notes are from one another - a half-step, whole-step, second, third, etc. It's good to be able to identify these both when the notes are played one right after another ("That's a fifth!") and also when they are played simultaneously.

Then one learns the chords that music are based upon and their functions. Any pop musician who creates a song knows music usually begins in the tonic key, perhaps moves to the dominant and subdominant, then it might modulate, and then we are talking about the tonic key of the modulation, etc. (Sometimes they don't realize they've written an entire song on the tonic without even a change of chord - it's a boring song, but they don't know that's why, because they don't really have a musical education.)

Beyond this is the physical discipline of learning how to play an instrument. This is different for every instrument, but let's use the violin as an example. A student must be able to identify the parts of the violin, the names of the strings, and how to create notes on the instrument. Also, he or she must know the correct way to hold the violin and the correct way to hold the bow, how to place the left-hand fingers and with much practice and repetition, come to a point where holding the violin and playing it come as easily as walking.

Next, we have to take those notes on the page and play them on the violin, learning a great many symbols on the page as well as things like bow articulations (staccato, legato, etc.), when fingers are placed where, how to shift up the fingerboard.

We learn to play in tune and learn how to play in harmony with others. We learn that music can only happen against a backdrop of everyone's silence and stillness. We start together, move together in finely detailed ways, end together. When it goes well, it's one powerful, shared sensation.

The deeper you go into music education, the more opportunities open for complex thinking, problem-solving, individual and community expression, and cultural understanding.

Children who learn music do better in math and language arts. They score higher on their tests. They learn skills about cooperation and discipline that are not teachable through any other means. Their motivation increases.

What can we "afford"? In the United States, we can afford anything we want. So far we are affording tax breaks for millionaires, who have convinced an apparently large-enough portion of the electorate that government should do nothing for us, that anything funded collectively is something to which none of us is entitled.

In the United States the government, quite simply, IS us: by the people, for the people. It is a means for us to function as a society, serving ourselves with roads, sewers, police, safety, defense and schools. It is a means to create the community we want.

What do we want for our children, for our future? Some people seem to want to exploit and punish today's children, to hold back their education and let unregulated corporations feed them high fructose corn syrup, Ritalin, diabetes, obesity, video games and solitude.

I'd rather protect and edify them, to show them a means to productive community. Here's what I want for our children: health; families with enough means to provide them food, clothing, shelter and love; a broad education; useful activities, and yes,an appreciation for beauty. I'd like to build the future, not strip it bare.


March 9, 2011 at 01:38 AM ·

 This is possibly one of the best articles I have read. I think it would be awesome if you could submit it to those areas cutting music from their education :).

March 9, 2011 at 02:59 AM ·

Beautifully put, Laurie. I hope this article is read widely.  You spell out some truths about music education that clearly illustrate its relevance.

March 9, 2011 at 03:13 AM ·

Why do people always have music up for the cutting board? This is just outrageous. From a child's perspective, I find it disgusting that over the years this conflict keeps coming back up. We need the music programs. Music needs to thrive and be experienced by the young generation. Who has the right to take it away?

March 9, 2011 at 03:34 AM ·

As a music teacher in the "trenches", the reasons they give us to justify cutting music is that it is extra-curricular and mainly, not tested. The state and possibly the district gets money for testing students (that is why in the state of TX, we still do TAKS even though it is show to be an ineffective assessment and accountability system, give the stanford test, the laying the foundation test, and now even the Iowa State Test). Testing is an economy and music does not fitting in that mould of assessment so it generates zero funding for the state or districts. Thus is gets cut. But at what point has education stop being for the kids and become a profitting organization (if not for itself, for capitalistic entities).

The problem in education is that it is ran like a business and the kids are pawns that get sacrificed and suffer. Incompetent parents do not help either. When a new a pair of $150 jordans are more important than a $20 shoulder rest or a new set of $30 strings. Education is not held up to be a well regarded and respected profession anymore and it is declining in esteem.

March 9, 2011 at 05:13 AM ·

Lets also not forget the skills of negotiation, critical thinking, problem solving, time management, purposeful concentrated effort, memorization, approaching situations with an open mind, team building, and physics. 

Those "real world" skills are just a few that I apply every day in my 9-5 job which I learned and refine over time by playing viola with others. 


March 9, 2011 at 10:44 AM ·

 Great article! There´s a big thing going on in my own country as the city government is threatening to cut budget in all music programs for people over the age of 16. Basically the only people that will be able to enjoy musical education after 16 will be people from really rich families. And their also threatening to cut the budget of music conservatories by 30-40%. This would mean the death of most conservatories and the death of music education in general. So thank you for your post. 

March 9, 2011 at 01:11 PM ·

Funny that our Community Orchestra was discussing just that topic last night on break at rehearsal.  I am one of the 'music refugees' of the '70's.  When I attended school, there was no art and no music.  Those programs had been cut, and students like myself were bussed to schools miles away from where we lived.

As a result, when my daughter brought home a viola from school at aged 10, I didn't know what it was.  I learned about stringed instruments by watching her go through the years, and now here I am in my '50's experiencing something for the first time that I wished I would have had the opportunity to experience in my teens.  I was one of the students who experienced directly what it was to not have a music program in school.  I can testify that I feel it is a huge mistake. 

---Ann Marie

March 9, 2011 at 01:15 PM ·

 One useful factoid I found on the ASTA advocacy website is that a music performance teacher is worth 1.4 FTE of a regular teacher.  That means that cutting music teachers may save money in the short term, but it *costs* money in the long term because the students who don't take music have to go somewhere and other non-music teachers have to be hired to take those classes, which are smaller than band/orchestra/chorus.  Music instruction saves money!

March 9, 2011 at 04:56 PM ·

If cutting cost is the main reason, have they considered cutting the sports program?

March 9, 2011 at 05:53 PM ·

 I think kids need sports, too. I really don't believe in pitting sports against music, especially when so many kids are falling into the trap of obesity, sitting in front of a screen with a can of high-fructose corn syrup while their bodies succumb to adult-onset diabetes at an impossibly young age. 

Some kids thrive with sports, some with music, some with both. I think health is extremely important. Even the U.S. military is having a hard time recruiting eligible soldiers because of their lack of health and education! Is that extreme, or what?

So I guess I'm saying that I think sports are important, too. :)

March 9, 2011 at 08:52 PM ·

In my more paranoid moments, I almost think the powers that be have ulterior motives.  A well-educated populace, fluent at critical thinking, knowing how to work together as a community, physically and mentally healthy, is unwilling to sit on the couch sucking down soda and watching TV.  They're more likely to ask tough questions, less likely to settle for pat answers, and capable of organizing groups to stand up for what's right.  It's what I refer to as my cable-TV, WalMart, and Prozac theory of American life:  keep those three things coming, and people won't notice anything is amiss until everything possible has been stolen from them.

Music has the power to change lives.  It has been the hook that has kept many, many kids in school.  It teaches kids how to work together, all the things the posters above have mentioned.  If it comes down to a choice between music and sports, how many 25-year-olds are still playing football or basketball, much less people in their 60s or 80s?  I regularly play music with people anywhere from their teens to their eighties.  It's a skill that lasts a lifetime.

March 9, 2011 at 11:54 PM ·

I will repeat here the gist of what I said in Karen's 3-6-2011 discussion thread, Help Save Public School Music.

I benefited from the public school music program.  It definitely boosted my academic achievement, character, and sense of community.  I'd been hearing classical music at home since I was very small; but when a professional orchestra performed at my elementary school -- and someone had to pay for this -- that's when the violin bug really bit me.  I started playing soon afterward.  Although I was supposed to start violin lessons in this program, I ended up going with a private teacher instead. 

Yet, later on, it was through the public school program that I did my first orchestral playing.  Still later, I ended up playing lead violin for several of my high school's spring musical shows.  The year after I graduated, our director invited me back to do it again.  Without the school program, I probably would never have gained any orchestral experience.
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Even someone as staunchly conservative as I am on economic, political, and social issues can see the long-term value of the school programs.  Clear, convincing testimonials from musicians like me who have benefited from these programs are good ammunition to bring to the table.  Anyone reading this: Feel free to use mine.

March 10, 2011 at 09:29 PM ·

Jim had the luck of hearing a professional orchestra at his school. I recall back in my elementary and middle school days, the local symphony had a scholastic matinee series once a month. Most kids loved it because they had a chance to get out of class for an afternoon. but I was in Heaven. These were programs aimed at kids, and they were fun; the one I remember most was when the principal cellist gave a short seminar on the construction of a 'cello by turning it into a song: "The front is made of spruce! The back is made of maple," and so on. He really had all the kids roaring, he was funny and we were into it. We were still singing that silly song for days after. Other times, the featured artists would be using the music to get us thinking and counting. They demonstrated how music is a practical application of mathematics, physics, history, and more. And to think I still remember that after, oh, 30-some-odd years? That scholastic performance series really made an impact.

Music enhances the educational experience, it broadens our understanding of academics. Losing music from our schools would be tragic.

March 13, 2011 at 04:27 AM ·

 Awesome article, Laurie. We too teach children the language of music at the Children's Orchestra Society, where children enjoy collaborating with peers and famous role models through performance. Every day we enjoy the interaction of bright children as they learn their music. Last week I was teaching a young child the concept of extension. "So you send your pinkie as for as it will go for this note" A worried child queried: "but where will it go?"

Moments like this remind me why I so enjoy teaching our little ones!

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