Why Music Matters: On Neuroscience, Community, and Courage

Wednesday, 28 October 2009 09:14 by Michael Hobaugh

Editor's Note: The Generation Project's core mission is to expand the range of opportunities available to high-need students.  As part of that mission, The Generation Project blog will be featuring several series on the importance of different educational disciplines that are often overlooked in high-need schools.  We are currently featuring a series about the importance of music education.  

Today's guest post is written by Dr. Michael Hobaugh,  a long-time musician, MD/PHD, and a pediatrician who works with low-income youth at at LaRabida Children's Hospital in Chicago.  Dr. Hobaugh is also a Generation Project donor: Chicago teachers and students, login to check out the Hobaugh Family Renaissance Scholarship!  

Last week, NPR broadcast an interesting story regarding the manner in which musicians and non-musicians are able to distinguish auditory input.  Musicians in a noisy, aurally distracting environment are much more able to pick out fragments of meaning whispered below the noise floor.  Non-musicians just hear more noise.  What might be the implications of this? 

This study offers further evidence that music instructs the mind in patterns of analysis and discrimination.  Applied broadly, this speaks to the ability to pull meaning and organize ideas out of masses of information of any sort.  As we struggle to bring our young people into academic excellence and the joy of its pursuit, this tool is an essential one.  

Perhaps it is this very phenomenon that has contributed to my ultimate completion of a PhD in biochemistry, an MD with specialty in pediatric chronic diseases and a career in academic medicine.  Throughout this sometimes grueling training pathway, I have had to give many things up and delay opportunities that I might have otherwise taken.  However, I have one last surviving hobby that I promised myself I would never give up – playing music.   

I went through a few different instruments before settling on the trumpet at age 10.  Thirty years later, I still play several days a week and have performed over 100 concerts with my university’s symphony where I’ve gone from student to pediatric resident to faculty member over 18 years, sitting in the same chair.  This has been tremendous fun and a great way to meet people (including my wife, TGP board member Alexandra Lee Hobaugh). But the most important things that I have learned from music, I never realized I was getting until recent reflection. 

Playing in an orchestra is like cross training for all the challenges of life.  The individual musicians work together to achieve the shared goal of an excellent performance.  This requires submission of the self to the needs of the ensemble (community) as well as the ability to step up and carry the music along (leadership).  Sometimes carrying the music along means playing musical phrases that are beyond (or hopefully just nearly beyond) the capabilities of we amateur musicians.  On the trumpet, it sometimes feels like creeping along a narrow ledge above a chasm, fearing that any moment may mean a fall to the death, but nevertheless being driven forward by the musical needs of the ensemble (bravery).   

When we “fall” in music, though, no one dies.  In reality, nothing terrible happens at all.  This is one of the miraculous gifts of musical performance.  As we struggle across that ledge, we musicians feel the fear of failure, the fear of embarrassment should all the audience hear our errors, the fear of disappointing colleagues, mentors and family and the fear that maybe we are not “good enough” to take on the challenges we are asked to take on.  Yet we go on.  We learn to push through the fear and perform.  We learn to control our emotions so that they do not trip us up above that precipice. 

As a physician, I find myself above much the same terrifying chasm when treating a critically ill child whose family have placed their treasured little boy or girl in my hands.  But I have been there before and I have learned to perform at my best even while experiencing the terror of failure and its attendant consequences.   

What is music education worth?  It is where we will plant the seeds of our communities, and grow our future leaders.  It is where we foster the individual courage and perseverance that it takes to fight for the things that are good in this world.   

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Why Music Matters: One Teacher's Perspective

Tuesday, 27 October 2009 12:36 by Angela Woo

Editor's Note: The Generation Project's core mission is to expand the range of opportunities available to high-need students.  As part of that mission, The Generation Project blog will be featuring several series on the importance of different educational disciplines that are often overlooked in high-need schools.  We are currently featuring a series about the importance of music education.  

Today's guest post is written by Angela Woo, a long-time music educator at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica and a member of our Board of Directors.  

Whenever I’m asked to comment about the importance of music education in our schools, I always grapple for the “right” answer. I could quote the long-standing research regarding the direct connection between students’ test scores and listening to certain types of music. Or I could identify the various music content standards of state and national frameworks as a part of a child’s basic curriculum alongside those for mathematics or language arts. Of course, there is the continuing discussion about music and its interdisciplinary relationships to other curricular areas.

However, after 18 years of teaching music in the public schools, I’ve discovered that the “right” answer is very simple; all you have to do is to attend the next concert that your local school is presenting – granted that your local school actually has a music program – and take a good look into the faces of each and every child that is performing up on the stage. They look…alive!

If you had come to the John Adams Middle School orchestra concert last spring, you would have seen among a sea of 12- and 13-year old faces, a 6th grade violinist in my beginning orchestra named Jose, wearing second-hand clothes and playing his heart out, who was in tears only the day before because his single mother worked nights and could not attend his concert. Jose even thought about not showing up for the concert at all, embarrassed and angry that no one in the audience would applaud for him. When I told him that I would give his mom a video of his performance, he broke into a huge smile, threw his arms around me and said, “She’ll be so proud of me! I’m the first person in my family who has ever played music!” Jose is now a 7th grader in our intermediate orchestra, still wearing his jeans that are bit too short, but comes to rehearsal every day with bright eyes that say, “Okay, I’m ready! Teach me!”

I’m one of those lucky teachers who works with students like Jose on a daily basis, eager for the next lesson. In this day of devastating and irreparable educational cutbacks, the arts are always one of the most vulnerable areas to be considered. Fortunately for my students, our district and our community at-large have long established that music shall always be a vital part of a child’s basic curriculum. Whenever our school board even thinks about eliminating music teachers, parents will instantly rally and wait for hours to address the board members, after having sent them passionate emails about the difference that music makes in their children’s lives. They will share countless stories about their children, excited to play clarinet in the 4th grade band, moving on to “big kids” music at the middle school, and finally participating in international music festivals in China, Prague, the Czech Republic, and Vienna. Twenty years from now, I’ll bet that my students will remember how they felt appearing on the stage of legendary performance venues such as Carnegie Hall before they can recite the quadratic equation.

Even with hours of practice, these fantastic opportunities don’t just magically happen for our students. A long-time support system is my school district’s education foundation, a non-profit organization that awards nearly $30,000 annually to teachers in the form of academic enrichment grants. (This year, I was fortunate to receive an ELMO unit, a document camera that makes overhead projectors obsolete, so that my students can analyze music scores in rehearsal.) In addition, the education foundation has also established a $15 million endowment campaign for our district visual and performing arts programs, raising funds for music instruments, equipment, and specialized services; music coaches are hired to provide supplemental music lessons on a weekly basis to our students at the four Title I elementary schools (significant student population of the free and reduced lunch program) and both middle schools in the district. Our students have also been the beneficiaries of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation, and private donors whose generosity help to create unique opportunities for our young musicians. I know it’s a cliché…but it really does take a village.

Music was a vibrant part of my own academic childhood, and it gave me a sense of belonging during my awkward adolescent years. For many of my students today, being in our music program not only gives them a feeling of security, but they have a defined purpose for attending school. In this era of high-stakes test scores, music becomes a salvation for many students, a safe haven to explore their creativity, a chance to let their spirit soar. Through learning an instrument, they can become their own person, teach themselves about discipline, responsibility and accountability. They are our future.

As teachers, we never know what choices our students will make when they leave our classroom. We hope that through our encouragement and nurturing, our endless nagging and reinforcement, we’ve influenced each child to grow as productive citizens in our society. If we are lucky, we have students who come back to thank us for the brief time we shared with them – students like Marissa, a former violinist who is conducting field research regarding maternal health and infant mortality in Ghana. Or Jaden, who used to play trombone in my advanced band and is now an aviator with the U.S. Navy.

And, what is in Jose’s future? Only time will tell. But, I do know that he and his violin will be ready for tomorrow’s rehearsal.

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Weekly News Update: October 26

Monday, 26 October 2009 10:48 by Brendan Campbell

Editor's Note: This is our weekly news roundup of education-related events nationwide and in our launch regions, compiled by one of our amazing interns.  

National:
+ The quiet revolution of Race to the Top (New York Times)
+ Who should be eligible for honorary degrees? (The Answer Sheet)
+ Hawaii protesting school changes (New York Times)
+ Race to the Top's false assumptions (The Answer Sheet)
+ Duncan calls for more science testing (Education Week)
+ Teachers' opinions of their jobs and testing (The Answer Sheet)
+ Parents find it easier to talk to kids about drugs than science (New York Daily News)
+ The evolution of school choice (American School)

Chicago
+ H1N1 shuts down high school in suburban Chicago (NPR)

D.C. Metro:
+ Maryland commission blocks online degree program (Washington Post)
+ Cameras to remain in cafeterias (Washington Post)
+ Montgomery elementary to close (Washington Post)

Detroit:
+ Mayor supports $500.5 million bond issue (AP)
+ State cuts school bus inspections (Detroit News)

New York City:
+ New York State Department of Education developing new grading system for teachers (New York Post)
+ Mumps making a comeback in Borough Park (New York Daily News)
+ Mayoral candidate and New York Daily News agree that NYC cannot afford 4% increase in raises

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Why Music Matters: Tales of a Fourth-Grade Wannabe Something

Thursday, 22 October 2009 19:35 by Jessica Rauch
When I was in fourth grade, I wanted to join the school band. For most, joining the band is almost a rite of passage, more a question of "when?" rather than "if?" I feel like this is a safe enough space for me to admit that I was a pretty nerdy kid. I loved school and homework and would cry (literally) if I got anything less than 100% on anything. So the school band seemed like a natural fit for the over-achiever in me.

When I approached my fourth-grade teacher about signing up, his reaction was unexpected. Instead of encouraging me to test my talent, make new friends, or even to be the best clarinet player in Southern California (probably the most significant potential motive), he cautioned against it. Because I was already teetering on the edge of permanent nerddom, he thought it wise to avoid band and instead run for student government.*  My dad was a musician and my friends were joining the band, but I decided that I should protect myself and pass up the potential social suicide that was awaiting me. I ran for secretary of the student government and won. Quite an accomplishment, I know.

Now, of course it's possible that I have built up this experience in my head over the years because, when I went away to college, I ended up being an even bigger loser because I couldn't play an instrument. I do think, however, that this sad little story of mine highlights two very important lessons.

When I became a teacher, I tried to remember this experience. As adults, it is often easier, especially when we're frustrated or are having a bad day, to forget that what we say can have a lasting impact. As a teacher, my experience taught me to really listen to my students. If my fourth graders showed even a small passion for a topic (like the five week span when Luis and Joshua were obsessed with Italy and devoured every related book in the library or when Mamadou's experiments behind a camera lens helped him overcome a language barrier and open up to his classmates), I would try to foster it. I didn't do it at the expense of reading, writing, and arithmetic, of course (just in case the testing gods are listening) but used it to supplement their learning and get them excited about coming to school. My task would have been so much easier if I had access to a database where I could search for all types of pre-funded opportunities for my kids. But, I digress.

Over the next few days, some of our biggest supporters will be sharing their perspectives and personal stories about music education. We'll be highlighting gifts that are available now and ideas for new donors who might want to enrich the academic experience by giving music related gifts.  If you'd like to share the gift of music with students who wouldn't otherwise have access, please consider creating an account and then logging in to design a gift.

*I should mention that this particular teacher ended up being one of my favorites. 

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Teaching To The Test--The Right Way

Tuesday, 20 October 2009 14:56 by Eli Savit

 "Teaching to the test" has a (probably deserved) bad name in education circles. It conjures up images of teachers in low-income schools drilling students on such exciting educational subjects as:

  • -the best way to eliminate wrong answers on standardized tests!
  • -proper techniques for filling in test bubbles! 
  • -strategies for finding "clues" in test questions!

But per an article in today's New York Times, the Harlem Success Academy is taking test prep into a whole new arena: rural america. Apparently, New York tests repeatedly ask students questions about "livestock, crops and the other staples of the rural experience,"--questions which often flummox urban students.  Recognizing this trend, the renowned charter school recently took all 75 of its kindergarteners on a trip to a farm.  The article describes the trip as an attempt to "leave no potential test point unexplored."

The theory behind Harlem Success Academy's trip was simple: research has repeatedly shown that "prior knowledge of a subject can significantly improve a child's performance on a test." As this blog has explained in the past, if you don't know anything about curling, you're going to do poorly on a reading passage that deals with that sport, even if you understand all the words on the page.  Correspondingly, if you're a kid who thinks that  chicken comes from pigs (probably due to repeated interaction with packaged meat) you're going to do poorly on a test passage dealing with those animals.  The value of prior knowledge manifests itself in other subjects as well: for example, if you don't know that corn grows in stalks, you're going to have a tough time with a math question about "ears" and "stalks" of corn.

So if you're a potential donor out there and you really want to improve New York City students' test scores, maybe you ought to designate your gift for a school trip to the farm.  Or (since questions about colonial times often pop up on these types of tests) maybe a trip to Williamsburg might be in order.  Come to think of it, anything that broadens children's horizons is likely to help them on standardized tests.  Which, in turn, suggests that this form of "test prep" may not be test prep at all--but rather, an actual education.  

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