Why Music Education Matters to All of Us

September 8, 2012, 2:45 PM · Without a populace that understands music and art -- beyond a gut reaction -- how can the best of it possibly to come to the surface?

People need education to appreciate music and art. Some might feel this idea is "elitist." It's only elitist if music and art education is given to some, and withheld from others. How about this?: ALL people should have music and art education.

You might ask, why? You might even say that when it comes to music and art, "I know what I like." But do people really "know" what they like? Why do some of those "likes" change, while others prove more long-lasting?


Our manmade sound and sight worlds profoundly affect the way we feel, the way we act, the way we handle our relationships with one another. I would argue that they affect the way we operate as a community and society. Should we educate ourselves about this? Should we put our best minds to work, making judgments on the nature of our surroundings and creating them? Should we know enough to see who has those special abilities? Or should we leave it all to those who have a pre-schooler's sensibility in regard to music and art? Should we continue to produce human beings who do not know the difference?

How about a hypothetical example: I know what I like, when it comes to football: My Team. I'm fully capable of watching a football game and rooting for My Team. What more do I need to know? So what if I don't know the rules, the name of the coach, the abilities of the players, the difference between a kids league or a professional league? So what if I don't know the history of the game? I know what I like. What if I tell you that none of it matters, I really don't think that anyone needs to know any of those things, beyond what they like. I like the coach, so we should keep him. He's been there 15 years, and I just like seeing his face every week. I like the quarterback, too. He's cute, in that No. 7 jersey, and it looks like he can throw a ball pretty far and the other guy catches it most of the time. Shouldn't my opinion matter?

You could easily see my deficiencies, in that case. I doubt anyone would cry, "elitist" if someone were to argue, "Despite your enthusiasm, you really don't know what you are talking about."

But in music, we seem to insist, as a society, that we are all equal arbiters. "Oh, I can't hear the difference," people insist, implying that the difference doesn't matter. Really?

We need to have the collective ability to identify our artists, and we need to be versed enough to understand what they do. We need to be able to argue intelligently about how we build the musical and artistic world around us and who we entrust with the task.

It matters. Those radio songs that profoundly affect what goes into our ears -- and our children's ears -- on a daily basis are produced in today's world through an astonishingly cynical process. Principals who never had arts education congratulate themselves for providing kids a shallow exposure to music, without understanding music as a serious and complex discipline like math or language. And the budget cuts always fall first on music and arts education programs, despite the known benefits such education provides in boosting abilities across disciplines, in motivating students to achieve in school, in lowering substance abuse in students, in promoting better citizenship, in creating cooperation among students, in boosting the school's image of itself and more.

If music creates a "beautiful soul" in a young music student, as Shinichi Suzuki famously said, I have confidence that a musically-educated public would go a long way toward creating a "beautiful society."

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September 8, 2012 at 10:24 PM · And considering how much of America's pastime (and the big $$$) is spent on football and various other sports, one would think the arts deserve much more love than it has in recent decades. And even a highly skilled sport that's not exactly high on instant gratification like baseball has seen various revivals while never quite being in serious danger of fading away.

And definitely agreed on arts education as fundamental to all this. I grew up quite deprived of it myself though I loved the arts anyway (probably about as much as a deprived kid could), but I've been doing what I reasonably can ever since I could afford to. Still, it's not easy at all to send all one's kids to violin lessons, etc. and also be very actively involved (the Suzuki way), especially for someone (like me) who also has a wide range of other interests.

I definitely won't begrudge the cost of quality music teachers and programs even at the kind of prices here in the NYC area, but if we really want everyone to get a quality arts education, a whole lot of folks will need some serious subsidies for that to happen. Either that or there will need to be some serious reforms in the overall education system (from preschool all the way up to college) me thinks...

Hopefully, we'll all get this ball rolling in the right direction before it's too late... or it would be quite sad if we find some more decades from now as we revisit a beloved show like Star Trek TNG only to find that Lieut Commander Data on the violin to be one of the few jarring anachronisms that remind us of how things could be, if only...



September 9, 2012 at 03:22 PM · After letting all this settle a bit more in my noodles, I think because there will always be diversity -- and we should embrace that positively -- we also need to temper what the goal/ideal should likely be w/ all this.

Sure, it's definitely good for everyone to have a reasonable opportunity to both experience the arts *and* be educated in it, but the reality is that we can't expect all people to be all things to the same degree at all levels. That should *not* be the goal -- that's the kind of thinking that eventually leads to the kind of twisted goals/ideals (and extreme practices) of someone like Chairman Mao and his followers and their brand of cultural revolution. Homogeny (spl?) is not the goal.

So although we agree in general w/ Suzuki's ideal and philosophy, that doesn't mean everyone needs to be trained to become a highly competent musician or artist, but everyone should be given reasonable opps for that potential (while recognizing there will be a diverse array of outcomes) and be educated at least to some extent to be able to appreciate the arts at a reasonable level (whatever that may be, which might be gradually increased as society/culture/etc. advance in time).

So for instance, as a starter, perhaps there should be a widespread grassroots effort to bring reasonable quality arts education to grade schools, maybe starting w/ the lower grades working on up until all grade school levels will have quality arts education and then working on up to middle school and so on. Meanwhile, there should be programs to help give as many already interested kids (and their families) as possible the opps to have higher quality arts education at all levels. Yes, some of this did already seem to be going on in the recent past, especially for people in the growing middle class during the most recent great economic growth (which unfortunately, also created the bubble that we're all lamenting now), but we need more of that going forward and might need a more organized effort vs the rather scattered pockets that we had/have.

In terms of resources and funding, although we probably shouldn't get into the politics of it all here, I gotta think it ultimately needs to come from all areas -- and I do mean *all* areas. It probably won't work that way at first because certain areas of society and culture will need lots of convincing to get fully on board, but ultimately, everyone will need to contribute in one way or another. As usual, it may mean lots of sacrifices for some, particularly those who are directly involved, at first because of that, but you hope that won't last too long before we reach a sort of reasonably happy equilibrium (and perhaps have some give-back to those who sacrifice first).

Just some additional thoughts on this, which many others have probably thought of already...


September 9, 2012 at 08:53 PM · One principal said to me, "Laurie, we don't need to make all the violin students in your classes into violinists! The idea is just to 'expose' them to music."

Really? That's not the impression the children have, when they start violin lessons. They are under the impression that they will learn to play the instrument, and I don't see why they should expect anything else. If that principal had known anything, she'd have known that it was very clear that I wasn't trying to make kids into "violinists" -- I wasn't starting them at age four and expecting them to practice for several hours a day until they were 18!

I happen to think that if you tell a kid you are going to teach them how to play an instrument, you should actually do that, at least at a very basic level. But even that basic level it takes time (years!), an organized system, persistence and support. The benefits are manifold, but you can't skimp and expect those benefits.

September 10, 2012 at 10:42 PM · Music isn't the only area where education is failing, badly, in what has always been part of its traditional mission, but music IS the 'canary in the mine'--if it can't survive, probably the rest won't, either. (For instance, I can no longer depend on being able to mention any literary 'classic' and have more than a few of my college students recognize--let alone have read--it.)

Classical music has rarely been the main form of music for our culture; it has been the most recorded, the one with a 'history' in documentation, and so it's what we all know about. Folk music (real folk music), and the various kinds of popular music (again--really music of the people) have longer 'lives,' and have had a larger audience. Classical has always been more or less the music of the elite. That does NOT mean it is 'elitist,' only that the elite had the money and leisure to enjoy it fully.

Composers used to be either the servants of nobles or wrote for patronage. Public concerts were rare in comparison with concerts for the rich and powerful. That changed in the 20th century.

My point is not to disparage classical music (as if) but to suggest that the last 80-100 years have represented an unprecedented up-swing in the popularity and wide-spread-ness of classical--especially orchestral--music. How many universities even had strong music performance programs in 1950? The conservatories, yes, but now most/all state universities offer performance degrees; jsut as in Eng. lit., the market is flooded with qualified graduates who can't find jobs. Our whole educational philosophy has moved away from any of the 'humanities' or 'arts' having a 'real' value.

Until we get the idea that 'the main/only purpose of education is to get a job' OUT of the administrative/parental/academic mentality, we'll have a hard time convincing anyone of the value of music, literature, art, dance, history...all those areas that, career or not, make lives richer and more interesting.

Music is the canary down the mine who is suffocating; it won't be the only casualty if we can't change the basic outlook.

September 11, 2012 at 12:11 PM · I apologize if I'm opening a can of worms with my response. My thoughts on the subject are not as well formed or well articulated as yours. Yet, as much as I agree with and wholeheartedly support the title of this blog, and the conclusion that classical music education should be accessible to everyone, the arguments in this blog for why this should be so make me a little uneasy.

I don't think the charge of "elitism" stems primarily from the need for education in order to appreciate art and music. There may be a little of that here and there, but, to borrow your sports analogy, to compete in sports at an elite level also requires a great deal of specialized training, much of it very expensive and not necessarily accessible to the average person. And, like music, it requires a degree of natural ability that not everyone possesses. But, as you note, there aren't the same public attitudes towards sports.

I think the more serious charges of elitism in classical music stem from something else that you touch upon later: the idea that this music somehow creates a beautiful soul in those that study it. If one really believes that, I don't see how one can really avoid the implication that, therefore, people who don't study music don't have beautiful souls.

I don't really think you mean to imply that, and I have been thinking for a few days of how I would formulate the argument differently, and I admit I am having difficulty doing so. But I'm still left with a (metaphorical) bad taste when I read it. Because I know many non-musicians, people who don't understand and even might outright dislike classical music, who still have beautiful souls.

And this too makes me uncomfortable, particularly the last part:

"We need to be able to argue intelligently about how we build the musical and artistic world around us and who we entrust with the task."

Entrust with the task? I just don't think that's how it works. I think most people want to participate, themselves, in building the musical and artistic world around them. I know I do. I don't really want to live in a society where I have to entrust that task to someone else, let alone argue about how that should be done.

September 11, 2012 at 04:45 PM · I just watched this TED talk (Robert Gupta: Music is medicine, music is sanity). If we were to focus on the inspirational and transformative nature of fine music, we will probably see more amazing results: http://www.ted.com/talks/robert_gupta.html

September 18, 2012 at 05:52 PM · Karen, I see what you are saying about everyone wanting to participate in the musical and artistic life of a society. But the truth of the matter is, music and art will serve us better as a society if people are actually literate: if they understand history, learn techniques, understand form and function, etc. etc. A first-grader is perfectly open to this kind of instruction, but we fail and fail and fail to provide it. We always cut it out of the curriculum, and it's to the detriment of all of us. I'm saying that artists don't really just grow like weeds, contrary to the popular narrative put forth in places like "American Idol." There is education and devotion involved, not just "Miracle Gro"! Not that I think you are saying that, but I do feel that the education makes a difference. And education can take many forms, an apprenticeship with a lifetime fiddler or something is certainly a type of education. But I do think arts education should be a priority in schools as well.

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