This is a cry for help. This is outrage, incredulity and shame.
Last week our school board announced a $3.6 million dollar budget cut. It was no surprise that music is again on the cutting block. It was a shock that foreign language and football also were. Even more shocking was that our superintendent has announced that this is a done deal. Non-negotiable cutting of fourth grade orchestra and seventh grade general music, all seventh grade languages, the complete phasing out of German language classes. Seventh grade football eliminated as a school-sponsored sport.
Apparently the board had studied the numbers, crunched them, and decided this was the best way to proceed. No significant cuts were made to six-figure salaries in the administrative office. No parental input was sought. Ironically the board adopted a diversity policy last year, intended to protect low-income groups in our district, but these cuts directly impact families that can’t pay for musical instruments or private lessons. These families can’t afford private language lessons for their kids to help them be competitive when it comes to college-entry exams and AP tests. Yet, our superintendent has announced that this decision is irrevocable and even hired an attorney last year to “deal with parents.”
The parent of one of my students asked me to articulate why I thought the music cuts were detrimental to our district. Immediately I thought of all the research that makes it very clear that starting an instrument or a foreign language at an early age is important.
Un a recent study published in the British newspaper “The Guardian,” Wang, the author of the study, notes “ that musical training that started before the age of seven appeared to thicken areas of the brain involved in language skills and executive function, which is a person’s ability to plan and carry out tasks.” (Read the whole article here: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/12/music-lessons-early-childhood-brain-performance).
What the article continues to note is the impact on the brain’s development, how learning an instrument can actually improve cognitive skills beyond musical knowledge. These changes to the brain improve performance in all areas of reasoning.
In my own experience, music teaches all of my students many important life skills. Almost none of my young cellists will become professional performing musicians. A few will become music teachers in public schools. Most will go into life with the appreciation of a wonderful art that brings beauty and meaning to our lives. Through a musical kaleidoscope, my cello students learn many talents. Through hours of practice and performance on the cello and sometimes multiple instruments, they are discovering how to:
1. Be independent. Music is not like a sport, or even my son’s ballet lessons, where the participants receive daily feedback from a coach or teacher. Music teaches students to be autonomous; they practice independently (most parents feel unqualified to help) and always have to count rhythms when playing in a group.
2. Solve problems. In our lessons, my students learn to first identify an issue, then choose how to fix it. As a teacher it is my responsibility to arm them with a bag of tools to fix something that is not working, or to steer them towards a solution. If they don’t use this process, they are probably just repeating their errors over and over again. I remind them that they need to as analytical as a doctor, who wouldn’t prescribe aspirin for every patient that walks in the door without asking a few questions.
3. Reap the rewards of hard work. There is a great satisfaction in chipping away at a skill and finally mastering it. In music this often culminates as a concert, similar to a presentation by a research team or a finished product for a commercial business. Musicians know this does not come easily, but only after hours of hard preparation.
4. Be patient. Music students learn that hastiness or cutting corners won’t get you far. Sometimes I have to remind my students that a week without practice will make the next lesson feel like they are trying to give a book report when they haven’t read the book. At all. You can’t bluff or hide behind your instrument. However, in due time, your hard work will pay off if you practice slowly and patiently. Like the Ents in J. R. R. Tolkein’s novels, it never pays to be hasty.
5. Forgive yourself, brush yourself off, and try again. Not unlike an athlete that does not perform well in a race, musicians have to learn to deal with failure in a performance. Nerves, lack of preparation or a lack of focus can make even the best musician in the world have a bad day. I remind my students that often the audience has no clue that you’ve made an error, and the best approach is to keep your poker face on and focus on the ride ahead. The more we create opportunities to perform, and the more hours that are spent in the practice room guarantee better performing conditions.
Kwasi Enin recently became social media phenomenon and a national celebrity after being accepted to all eight Ivy-league Universities. His application essay was recently released and Enin largely attributes music to his intellectual curiosity and abilities. ‘The self-guided journey known as music in my life excites my mind every day. My heart sings every day because the journey is already wonderful. Although I hope that my future career is in medicine, I love that I still have much to learn about and from the world of music.’
Let’s not cut programs that can’t exist or be equitable without public funding. Let’s keep music and foreign language in the schools . Let’s raise a generation that understands and can make meaningful connections to culture and the world at large. Let’s teach our children to teach themselves, and to delight in that process.