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.