The Importance of Music Education

Over the weekend I gave a speech at the 2007 MENC Eastern Division Conference in Hartford, Connecticut to a group of more than 1,600 music educators - many of whom are preparing for or have recently started their teaching careers- on the importance of collaborative advocacy on behalf of music education in today's schools. Both the League and MENC are dedicated to arts advocacy efforts to ensure that music education is a core component of every child's education, and strong resources in the schools and talented, professional music teachers are essential. What follows are some thoughts on how orchestras and music educators can work together to improve the status of music education in America's schools:

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When speaking about the subject of music education in America - one immediately faces a conundrum. Do I talk about the quantifiable, pragmatic advantages that are known to accrue to those youngsters who study music? Test scores in all areas, improved problem solving, high percentage going on to college and doing well - all kinds of real, measurable, and practical positive effects of music study. While different people will have differing views of how meaningful and dramatic these effects are, I think that few reasonable people deny their existence totally. And, in truth, those might well be strong justifications for stronger music programs in the schools - and just the kind of justifications that the political and community leaders who make decisions on school expenditures and education budgets might respond to.

Or, do I speak about the fact that the arts in general, and music in particular, represent perhaps the unique achievement of human civilization - and that you cannot prepare young people to be a part of a civilized society without teaching them to understand and fully experience its greatest achievements? Do I speak about the inalienable right of every child to be touched by an art form that goes beyond the specificities of words and reaches into the depth of the human soul in a way that nothing else does?

The truth is that one doesn't have to choose - one can speak about both of those aspects of the importance of music education, and particularly to an audience that believes in it the way you do.

I feel that today there is a serious distortion of values in the world - a set of values that puts the short term ahead of the long term, that puts financial achievement ahead of ethical standards, and a set of values that increasingly diminishes the worth of intellectual achievement and of human expression. In fact, when future generations look back and judge the civilizations and societies of the past, it is first and foremost the cultural and artistic achievements of those societies that are spoken of. To be sure, engineering and scientific achievements are a part of the picture of any society - even a major part. But whether it is Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Picasso, James Baldwin, Garcia Lorca, or Leonard Bernstein - the artists and the art they created express the deepest and most profound thoughts of the civilizations in which they lived and worked. And it is the achievements of those artists that, in fact, define civilizations, define humanity. And if we aren't educating our young people to the standards of those achievements, how can we in fact call it education?

So then the question is how can we find common ground - common ground occupied by you in the world of music educators and us in the world of symphony orchestras - to work together to enhance the state of music education in the school systems of America? And that is what I'd like to speak about today.

We have actually done much together - some things that all of you might not be aware of. Throughout 2006, the American Symphony Orchestra League led a coalition effort, including collaboration with MENC, to develop a national unified statement regarding the benefits of arts education. This paper is being used on the Hill in Washington this year as an advocacy tool for communicating the benefits of arts education to federal lawmakers as they begin the process of re-authorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. This re-authorization process will be a multi-year effort and has already begun with public and private hearings and town hall meetings. The messages outlined in Arts Education: Creating Student Success in School Work and Life directly communicate the benefits of arts education to policymakers. More than 60 organizations are signatories on this unified statement - and they represent an impressive cross-section of stakeholders in federal education policy.

Here is a brief sample of the kind of statement included in that document:

A child's education is not complete unless it includes the arts. In fact, the No Child Left Behind Act lists the arts among the core academic subjects, requiring schools to enable all students to achieve in the arts, and to reap the full benefits of a comprehensive arts education. In spite of this federal direction, access to arts education in our schools is eroding. A report from the Center for Education Policy conclude that, since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, 22% of school districts surveyed have reduced instructional time for art and music....A comprehensive strategy for a complete education includes rigorous, sequential arts instruction in the classroom, as well as participation and learning in available community-based arts programs. Public schools have the responsibility for providing a complete education for all children, meeting the commitment put forth in No Child Left Behind. The federal commitment to arts education must be strengthened so that the arts are implemented as a part of the core curriculum of our nation's schools and are an integral part of every child's development.

So clearly one way in which we already work together is to collaborate on advocacy, to sound the alarm together, and to lead our society back to a place where arts education is indeed central to education curricula, and not an add-on, or an "extra frill" to be indulged if there happens to be money left in a budget or time left in a schedule.

Another area in which we can work together is to insist on, and help to bring about, meaningful, comprehensive research on the status and quality of arts education in our nation's schools, and on the impact of arts education on future citizens. Even some of those things that people like to call "un-measurable," are, in fact, measurable if you care enough to find the metrics with which to measure them. We know that arts education improves problem-solving abilities, and we know that in particular music education - particularly making music - develops skills in working together with others for a common result in a way that virtually nothing else can. We know it anecdotally, we know it instinctively, we know it deep within our gut. And best of all we know that there is some hard data that can document this. The American Symphony Orchestra League has compiled highlights from this research in our Music Education Advocacy Tools, available at our website. Much of the best evidence is drawn from Arts Education Partnership reports, including Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development. Nonetheless, we can, and we must, lead to more research that provides even more evidence of the benefits of music education. We can probably do a better job together than we have in collecting, analyzing, and reporting on the considerable data that already exists, as well as bringing about more research.

The most urgent need, however, is for good information about the true state of arts education in our schools. We currently are forced to rely on anecdote and spare data to illustrate the music education is being squeezed out as increased attention is given to math, reading, and science. How much arts education is being delivered to our nation's students, and how are they learning the arts? The U.S. Department of Education has the tools and the responsibility to collect this data, but simply has not made it a priority to do so. A report on the status of arts education is more than two years overdue - this at a time when policymakers are contemplating major changes to the way the federal government supports our public schools. The League is partnering with MENC to urge Congress to compel the U.S. Department of Education to collect this data. Sound information about the status of music education is a crucial underpinning to advocacy efforts at the community level as well. At the state and local levels, orchestras and music educators can partner effectively to advocate for better data in this area.

We at the American Symphony Orchestra League are heavily involved with orchestras' education and community programs, and with youth orchestras throughout America. But we also know and fully appreciate that orchestra programs are not a substitute for professional music teachers in our school systems. The programs that our field operates must, to be effective, work in cooperation and conjunction with in-school programs taught by school-based music teachers. That is the key to meaningful music education. We can be key partners in augmenting and enriching school programs, but we must be seen as supporters of, advocates for, and contributors to, multi-year, sustained, sequential, school-based programs. We are not substitutes for that. There are many orchestras that have deeply embedded partnerships with their local school systems - in communities of all sizes, from New York, Boston San Francisco and Saint Louis, to Mobile, and Kalamazoo.

The same is true of community cultural organizations. Youth orchestras and community music schools are part of the fabric of the arts-education community. All have a role to play, but that role is in the context of the main school being at the center. The ideal for a child participating in a community orchestra, or studying at a community music school, is that he or she was inspired to do so because the exposure to and love for music was introduced and sustained in school. These other resources are extensions. In the ideal, these out-of-school opportunities cannot occur only by virtue of family interest, resources, or priorities.

We at the League celebrate the growth and vitality of our youth orchestras....full of the energetic, bright, high-achieving young people whom we know are not only the musicians of tomorrow, but also the next generation of teachers, school board members, parents, civic leaders, audience members and arts-education advocates. At the same time, we wonder if this segment of our sector is growing in part because, for the families that value music education the inconsistent presence of strong, sequential school-based music programs is not meeting their expectations for their children. We need strong resources - in school and out of school. Youth orchestras should be supplementing musical experiences in our nation's schools, not replacing them.

Part of the problem that we all face is that much of what we know about the value of the arts, and music in particular, is not easily reduced to numbers, to quantities. And our world is full of people, many of them in positions of power, who love the simplicity of numbers, the black-and-white nature of numbers. When one tries to discuss the humanizing qualities of music to people like that, one is often flummoxed, because they want graphs and charts. "What do you mean," they'll say, "by music's power to bridge chasms in human understanding? Document it, please!"

Well...I can't document it with graphs - but every year of my life spent in music makes me more certain of that quality in music. And exhibit A for me is not a chart - it is an orchestra, a very specific orchestra. Many of you may know of it - some of you perhaps don't. It's called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and it is now in its seventh year of existence. Founded by Daniel Barenboim, it consists of Arabs, Palestinians, and Israeli Jews - and every year for three or four weeks they live together, eat together, rehearse and perform together. My wife and I were a part of that orchestra from the beginning - and that first year was an experience I shall never forget. Daniel Barenboim, and Yo-Yo Ma working with him, assembled this group of young musicians, ages 17-25, and brought them together in Weimar, Germany. In addition to forming an orchestra, Barenboim and Ma invited them to form chamber music groups which they, Barenboim and Ma, would coach in preparation for a chamber music concert to take place the night before the orchestra concert. There was only one rule - no all Jewish chamber group, and no all Arab/Palestinian group. The resulting chamber music concert was 3 ½ hours long - and each group only played one movement, not whole pieces - or it would have gone on forever. To sit there and watch, for instance, a movement from a Brahms Clarinet trio, played by an Egyptian, a, Syrian, and an Israeli was one of the most moving experiences of my life - to see these kids working out musical problems together, leaning into each others' phrases, and embracing each other while receiving applause - this was all the charting and graphing I will ever need to demonstrate what it is that music can do that nothing else can. We know this - you and I and those who are in our fields know this. The question is how can we work together to help the rest of the world to know it - and to get the value, the human value of this art form across to those who determine what we teach our future citizens?

I don't know the answer to that question. But I do know, in our increasingly troubled world with an ever greater need for human understanding across national and religious and cultural lines, the intrinsic value of the art form we all love is more needed than ever. You and we - you who teach music and we who organize into groups that perform it - must work together with renewed energy and vigor to imprint on our society the value, the centrality, of music.

America's orchestras are committed to advocating for better music education in our nation's schools. Starting from the tradition of stand-alone school concerts and family concerts, orchestras now offer small ensemble performance, residencies, long term partnerships, after-school and summer camps, instrumental instruction and a host of other activities. Inherent in most of these programs are deeply embedded partnerships with local school systems, and responsiveness to local, state, and national arts and academic standards.

While these programs provide an opportunity for young people to develop a lifelong relationship with music and the orchestra, none of these is capable of replacing an ongoing sequential K-12 music education. While a comprehensive strategy for music education includes participation and learning in orchestra education programs, schools have the unique capacity to deliver high-quality music education.

Edward Elgar set a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy in 1912 - it is called The Music Makers. I quote it here for you because it seems so central to what we are all about.

"You shall teach us your song's new numbers, and things that we dreamed not before: Bring hither your sun and your summers, and renew our world of yore. We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams."

Thank you.

March 14, 2007 10:57 AM | | Comments (11)

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11 Comments

Eloquently said - you've posted valid points here.

I believe that music is an important part of life as well. Whether it is in the form of rock-n-roll or classical, isn't all that important.

In response to M's comment, there is a compromise that looks to me like a very promising way to make the classical sphere more accessible. M mentioned that the "NASCAR dad" would feel uncomfortable in the concert atmosphere created for high-class patrons, where one must clap at the right time and sit silently for the rest of the show, and even rein in the compulsion to sway and dance to the music if it ever surfaces.

Many symphony orchestras in the US, including "The Big Five" major orchestras and local orchestras like the Ann Arbor Symphony, put on family concerts each season that draw in young audiences with interactive, visual, and theatrical elements, narration, themes, and guest artists. These are the most comfortable concerts I have ever attended. Elements from these concerts could surely benefit the main concert stage! I understand, however, that there must be a balance that somehow keeps the current audience while drawing new audiences. I do not suggest "dumbing down" the concert stage to appeal to everyone, but rather simply making art more accessible for a changing marketplace. Many orchestras are already heading in that direction.

How does music education compare between the government schools and private schools?

In other words, when people get to spend their own money, do they pick schools with vibrant arts programs? Revealed preferences in education spending would be good to know . . .

Also, it's far easier to convince an actual person of "music's power to bridge chasms in human understanding" (which I don't dispute, those are not scare quotes), rather than a large federal bureaucracy. Discuss!! ;)

This is an interesting question, and I asked the League's Vice President for Advocacy, Heather Noonan, to weigh in. Here's what she has to say:

"Unfortunately, complete data has not been collected about the status of arts education in our nation's public and private schools. We believe that, regardless whether they are in public school, private school, or home schooled, every child deserves equitable access to a comprehensive arts education - and all of the benefits that follow.

According to a 2005 Harris poll, ninety-three percent (93%) of Americans agree the arts are vital to providing a well-rounded education for children.

Find more information about public opinion on arts education here."

Great comments... particularly regarding research. I am afraid we will all be old and grey by the time the USDOE does anything meaningful about data gathering on the status and condition of music and arts education. That is why we have embarked on our own research that has been completed in California, New Jersey and expanding to Wisconsin and New Hampshire to address the status and condition question across entire states. Others have done great work in Washington, Illinois and Kentucky. Our California report really speaks to your son's comments about what has happened over time. Compelling, statewide data is creating real policy changes. The community needs to drive this agenda. Waiting for the Federal government to take this on will only waste more time as we loose more programs.

I do not suggest we abandon a federal solution. I am suggesting that the music and arts community has the capacity to do this ourselves. By modeling what we all want to occur we will have a better chance of other states and communities following our lead.

One thing, in my opinion, is clear - an informed debate about quality will not take place until we address the access and equity issue in a meaningful way.

Keep up the great work!

Having attended concerts in over 75 American communities, I can tell you that Mr. Panetta's comment is right on!

I can understand why M is tired of trying to persuade Joe-Six Pack of the value of classical music. But M should be heartened: Lots of people who make under $100,000 enjoy classical music, and many of them live in medium-sized and small communities across the United States -- communities that have better orchestras and opera companies than folks in New York or the Bay Area realize. These groups exist mostly without government subsidies, relying exclusively on local, grassroots support. To me, this proves that there is a bigger audience for the fine arts than is generally believed.

I certainly agree that imaginative marketing approaches, and the use of electronic reproduction of music, are all important parts of keeping this art form vital in the 21st century, and many of us are exploring and working in all of those directions. But I disagree with the stereotype of the "NASCAR dad." I have had many experiences in my life of people who thought that symphonic music meant nothing to them who were then taken, perhaps by a friend, to a concert and found indeed that it meant a great deal to them. I don't accept the concept that we should stop trying to find new ways to discover connections between this music and people from all walks of life, in all delivery systems.

Henry Fogel

We treasure our Western "classical" music as an artifact and advocate for it's continued support but the energy it takes to keep it alive is waning. Mozart's ,music has made my life, personally, richer but it does nothing for the NASCAR dad down the street and no amount of free ticket pushing in his direction is going to convince him to dress up, drive to a concert hall (where he feels uncomfortable) and make him sit in an uncomfortable chair for two hours watching people play instruments while the old man behind him coughs on the back of his neck. He's intimidated by the experience and resentful of the "clubby" atmosphere of the patrons. He claps in the wrong place and feels like a complete dolt. When the bond issue for the new instruments for the music program comes up, he votes no. SO...although the music is fabulous, and he would buy a CD to play in his pickup truck...the LIVE performance "delivery system" is too overwhelming and alienating to him. Could the best chance for Classical music to survive in this country be to stop trying to outreach and advocate, cater exclusively to the patrons in their homes and at their club? By making the music less accessible and the admitted domain of the upperclass, more people will strive for it. Like a Tiffany diamond. Supply and demand. A demand might be created for it. Talk to the marketing people of major corporations, how do they make people's mouths water for a product? Offer only a few? This is just an idea. I'm so tired of justifying my existence to others that I wonder if I should exist at all.

Let me begin with full disclosure - the writer of the above comment is my son. And, I would add that the kind of study he advocates is precisely the kind of study that I was encouraging in my speech to MENC. It is that kind of research that I think the orchestra world and the world of educators must encourage and help to undertake -- looking not only at the quantity of what is generally called music education over time, but the type of music education, with a particular eye toward the actual making of music (e.g., school orchestras).

Henry Fogel

Beautifully said!

I wonder if, in the course of gathering data about the current state of music education in public schools, there is any way to compare it with public schools of decades ago. The fact that 22% of districts have reduced art and music instructional time since the enactment of No Child Left Behind is disturbing -- but it's also a comparison that may not hit home for legislators, because they were already long out of school when the baseline of that comparison was happening. On the other hand, a comparison of (say) instructional time, class sizes, curricula, and student participation rates between the present and (pick a year in each of) the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, might really bring home to legislators that things today are not as they remember them from their own school days. It might show how far we've gone, in the same way that losing a tiny percentage of forest a year doesn't feel like much, but hearing that a region has lost half its tree cover since 1950 can be a real eye-opener.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on March 14, 2007 10:57 AM.

The Applause Issue was the previous entry in this blog.

Musicians and Managers...an Evolving Relationship is the next entry in this blog.

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