Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: If Shakespeare lives, why not Beethoven?

“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile…”

Don McLean

I recall with fondness how as a child I used walk through the school corridors and hear the cacophony of sounds that filtered through the cracks of the music room door as a patient music educator waited for everyone to find the “A” note.

In some schools, the music rooms are silent. There are no choral groups. The situation of music education in the public school systems is in really bad shape — not just in America, but all over the world. In some school districts, there is one music specialist that serves 10 schools. Blame the budgets, blame standardized testing, blame society, blame changing values.

It is hard to predict the implication of our imminent loss of primary music and art education. What we do know about music education is the depth and breadth of its positive effects. What we don’t know is the impact on our future without it.

Samuel Hope, the director of the National Association of Schools and Music, says there are five ways to communicate and organize thought and knowledge. Letters and words (language), numbers and symbols (mathematics), still images (art, architecture and design), moving images (dance and film) and abstract sound (music). Sadly, schools tend to only place emphasis on the first two.

Maureen Cavanaugh in her piece, “The State Of Music Education In Schools,” reminds us that music is actually recognized as one of the core subjects by the National Board of Education by the federal government, but it isn’t tested.

We can test letters and numbers, so those things get tested to death. And the push, of course, is to get the scores up in the tested areas, so kids get pulled out of everything else.

For most young people, music is simply a consumable good, like toothpaste. In all this, musicians and music majors aside, most students barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven? “He composed music” is the general consensus.

Consequences

James Catterall, in his article, “The Consequences of Curtailing Music Education,” says there is much research to demonstrate the positive effects of music. The “Mozart Effect” demonstrates the positive effects of music on academic success. There are strong links between sustained involvement in instrumental music across middle and high school with high level math proficiency in grade 12, particularly for students from families with the lowest incomes.

According to a College Entrance Examination Board study, students of the arts continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT. Reports from 2008-12 show that students enrolled in fine arts courses score 11 to 12% higher than students not enrolled in any fine arts courses.

Study after study about education reveals the importance of art and music classes. And yet budget after budget, states keep cutting back the arts. When test scores go down in math and reading, the emphasis is put on those basic subjects to the detriment of other “elective” courses. And now, with standardized testing combined with budget cuts, art and music classes are in the highest of high-risk categories.

When you look behind the test scores, the lessons learned in studying music, learning to play an instrument, playing in a band and learning to read music all provide a richness to a child’s education that will last a lifetime. Music programs impact student motivation — students tend feel a sense of accomplishment when they become proficient with a musical instrument or as part of an ensemble. Both contribute to thinking skills that show up on cognitive measures.

So if we still ask our students to read and interpret Shakespeare, shouldn’t we be teaching the same for Mozart? Classic literature and classic music, whether instrumental or choral, go hand in hand and are what helps distinguish human beings from the rest of the animal world.

Today, most children learn nothing about serious music in school. There are pockets where music education remains vibrant, but this is mostly a result of values and the budgets of the citizens of those areas.

NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants, is a not-for-profit association that promotes the pleasures and benefits of making music. The Foundation announced the 2015 Best Communities for Music Education (www.nammfoundation.org/2015-best-communities-music-education-districts), which acknowledges schools and districts across the U.S. for their commitment to and support of music education in schools. Despite budget cuts that hinder adequate support of music education, these school districts demonstrate an unwavering commitment to providing music education.

Meaning and Impact

The musician in any music teacher tends to dismiss any and all non-music outcomes as a rationale for teaching music. Most music teachers believe it is inherently what children need in order to grow up in this world.

What would the loss of music impact?

Whether math scores or overall intelligence would fall without musical education is debatable, it is clear that children would miss the experiences that it brings. The loss of music. The loss of learning how to participate in guided music. The loss of learning how music is made and making music. And the loss of learning about music’s role in our history as sentient human beings.

Cutting music from the curriculum will likely impact more children from low-income families. Since the private market can sustain those who can afford it, the schools have remained the only proven and effective system to cultivate musical skills for all children who wish to take advantage of the experience.

Music today and tomorrow

Removing music from the schools will not totally delete music from students’ lives. Engineering feats have made it possible to carry around volumes of Lennon and McCartney, Gershwin, and Yo Yo Ma in the same pocket. But at the end of the day, listening to music is not the same as knowing music.

David Gelernter in his article, “Music Education Needs to Be a Click Away,” fears for a society that knows nothing about Beethoven or any classical composer. He believes it is cultural bankruptcy. Or more like collapse and incompetence.

“Why should we know anything about Beethoven?” asked one of his college students. Gelernter replied: “You must know Beethoven’s music because no one has ever said anything deeper about what it means to be human, to look life and death in the eye, to know beauty at its purest and most intense.”

Gelernter says that we have the raw materials necessary to keep classical music in the loop.

He wants to turn digital services into tools to educate children by using existing services to teach music at the simplest level and build a musical marketplace in the cybersphere. He feels that it is plausible to create music-learning packages of 10-minute programs for first-graders listen to over and over. The goal would be to give every child a chance to attune his mind to seriously beautiful music.

Classical works could be bundled and linked to an assignment, such as “Go home and listen to this five times.” The music could stop occasionally to ask simple questions: Is the key here major or minor? Did we just hear a cadence? What instruments do you hear?

Assignments like these would leave second-graders better informed about their cultural inheritance than the average Yale student manages to be.

Within cyberspheric entities like the Internet and Soundcloud are vast public works. With money, ideas and will, these tools could be used for serious music teaching or learning. Just like the Pink Yangtze River dolphin that has vanished, we have to envision what a world without music looks like. It’s coming, but we can do something about it.

The time is now to reclaim that which makes us human. And to stop the spiral into the dark ages of days past when the music died.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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