Mark Wood dazzles East Greenbush strings students before their two-day workshop, Electrify Your Strings
Times are hard, no question, and schools are faced with tough choices as they try to present budgets that can pass. The shortfalls are huge, and the cuts are deep. And the cuts, as always, include music. The current proposal in our district is to eliminate the elementary programs (and with them, because of the way these things work, an incredibly dedicated, inspiring teacher who leads the orchestra). And parents and students, understandably upset over the potential loss of one of the programs that makes our school district special (and is one of the best programs in the State, and probably beyond), are scrambling to find ways to save our music.
Usually this raises the question of why music is always on the chopping block, but that’s not really the right question. The right question is, “Why is music optional?”
It is well-known that the study and playing of music not only taps into something extremely primal in our brains (and if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music”), it promotes complex thinking in ways that support other learning – particularly maths and sciences, which we all agree are more important than ever and will be the highest-paying career paths for the foreseeable future. Simply understanding the concepts of octaves, intervals, frequencies, the circle of fifths – these are surprisingly complex concepts, but they are concepts that, more than any other part of the curriculum, can be experimented with and demonstrated in the real world, in the orchestra room, every day.
We are constantly being told we need to do better in the maths and sciences, yet despite years of increasing standards and forced testing, the beatings are not improving test scores or morale. Beatings rarely do. So now, faced with even more beatings (and don’t think that a standardized test is anything else – it serves no instructional purpose, and the teachers’ promises that they don’t “teach to the test” are, unfortunately and necessarily, untrue), we are looking to cut the only instruction in our schools where math, science, personal expression and actual fun are brought into our schools on a daily basis. This makes no sense. It should be mandatory.
Music education not only gives you the tools for abstract thought and a daily application thereof, it provides numerous other benefits that are always being stressed in the “core” academic classes. Teamwork? There’s no team that needs more teamwork than a band or orchestra. Study and practice? Absolutely required. Ability to read another language? Musical notation is definitely another language. Public presentation? Every student in orchestra, band, or chorus knows what it’s like to stand up in front of a crowded auditorium, with every person out there waiting to hear what you have to say. Problem-solving? These students, some of the most dedicated in the school, sit down in front of a fresh problem every few days and go about figuring out how to solve it. (Okay, so the bass players stand. Still . . . .) How can this be optional?
I suspect that music is frequently dismissed as an optional part of education because it is so ubiquitous – it is so much part of the background of our culture that we hardly notice it. Try to find a space in our lives that is without music – it’s in our cars, our offices, coffee shops, grocery stores, elevators. Search for a moment on television without music in the background. The entertainment industry is one of our country’s few growth industries, one of our biggest exports, and nearly every arm of that industry uses music.
How important is music to our everyday lives? With all respect to the sciences, no one invented a world-changing portable periodic table player that is in every teenager’s pocket, and those kids aren’t finding new ways to get hold of pirated copies of Fermat’s Last Theorem. (It’s free, and they still don’t want it.) So does it make sense that our schools, which are meant to prepare the next generation, would deny them the education that would prepare them to take part in or even just understand something that is at the core of our culture? Does it makes sense that a school might be the only place you could go today and not hear music?
We’re on the college tour circuit, and we recently visited MIT, the oldest (and many would say still the finest) institution dedicated to practical education, to the application of mathematics and sciences to real world problems. At MIT, students build robots for the hell of it, 73 members of its faculty have been awarded Nobel Prizes through the years, and its graduates are virtually guaranteed good-paying jobs in science and tech. And at MIT, 82% of undergraduates take arts classes. The number one minor at MIT, the top technical school in the country?
Take music off the chopping block, and instead make it the centerpiece of a 21st-century education.