The month of March celebrates many issues I hold dear. One of them happens to be Music in Our Schools, celebrating its 30th year honoring music education, so I naturally wanted to write about it. I could craft a seven-book series on how important music is to education, to kids, to all of us, but I thought it might be interesting to ask the people who know music education best: music educators. I happen to know quite a few outstanding music teachers, many of whom are my mentors and friends, and a couple of them graciously said they’d write a guest post that will answer this question: Why do we need music in our schools?
In this two-part series, Good Millennial asked Emma L., a millennial herself who is just starting her career as a teacher, and Jane O., a 30-year veteran of public school music education (who also happens to be my mother), to share their thoughts, stories, and wisdom with us mere mortals. Emma starts us off, and check back next week for Jane’s post, too.
There’s nothing quite like witnessing an “Aha!” moment. While student teaching elementary music, I had a third grade class in which a lesson on sixteenth notes devolved into near chaos of the best kind. One student pointed out that if four sixteenth notes are in a quarter note and two eighth notes are in one, then two sixteenth notes must be in each eighth note. Another yelled out, “And 8 x 2 is 16! There’s a connection!” Before I knew it, the class was discussing different combinations of rhythms, clapping patterns and asking questions. Eventually they were in groups and creating their own rhythmic competitions and collaborating in a cooperative manner. It was like heaven.
This is the kind of situation my fellow teachers will recognize as part of the reason we got into the biz. Those moments, the ones where what we’re teaching suddenly clicks, are like a dose of caffeine that sends a jolt of energy through us to continue our passion.
In a recent job interview, I was asked to explain why I thought music was important in schools. The jackass in me wished to respond, “How long did you block off for the interview?” …but I refrained. I do, however, truly have the world’s most thorough argument on the subject, of which I will abridge for the sake of the popularity of my dear friend’s blog.
First, think about teaching reading and language: a bunch of symbols are ordered, interpreted, and either read or spoken (or sung or played) to create a coherent message. That’s exactly how music works: to perform a piece well, you have to understand the symbol system for pitch, rhythm, and articulation. Music reinforces reading and language skills and provides a means of communication that connects us to our emotions and to each other.
This connection is easily understood by members of a choir or band. Singing with other people makes you feel like family, and that is one of the reasons I got into music in the first place. (That, and I love attention and singing solos is a way to get it.) Later I student taught at a high school, and there were moments when their choir sang something so well, the song ended and nobody said a word. With high schoolers (or any kids, for that matter), that’s a big deal. Creating music together takes teamwork, a special kind of listening, and constant adjustments to pull off; but the rewards of that hard work are many.
Music provides that same connection, not just to your bandmates sitting next to you, but also to people around the world. Eric Whitacre, a famous composer of choral music, created a global choir through Youtube. It was a beautiful way for people from many different countries, of all different ages and backgrounds, to be a part of a creative endeavor that connected them to one another. I went to Spain a couple years ago, and one of my favorite moments was singing “Call Me Maybe” with the person dancing next to me at a club. Although the educational value of that particular anecdote is probably low, the high-five we shared at the end of the song connected us forever. But, honestly, studying the music of other cultures gives us an understanding into other ways of life and makes us more accepting and open to other ways of thinking. We can probably all agree that the world could use a little more of that.
I’ll try and wrap up the advocacy talk by mentioning the non-academic skills that schools want kids and young adults to learn. Schools want to produce people involved in the community, people that are hard-working, motivated, and collaborative. Through music, they gain all these skills. In my own musical experience, I have performed in parades, at nursing homes, at a flash mob in the mall for the winter holidays, on regional tours in other schools, at the inauguration of my college’s new president, in church services, and many other community events. One of the most intense four hours I’ve ever spent was in a choral rehearsal, preparing to perform at a national convention. People involved in music are hard-working in nature, for the rehearsal process is physical, emotional, and above all, a mental workout. To excel in music, you have to practice on your own. That dedication, attention to detail, and pursuit of perfection are skills that employers in all professions admire in their employees. Employers also look for people who are cooperative with one another. As noted before, through rehearsing and performing music together, people learn to help one another, provide critical but constructive feedback, and collaborate with their peers.
The fact that I meant the advocacy section of this post to be brief should show how much I care about music being a part of students’ lives. I love music, from opera to symphonic literature to folk songs to jazz to classic rock to Taylor Swift (just two songs, though). I’m emphatic about bringing music to people young and old. I love that in many of my interviews, members of school administration have noted the importance they place on their music curriculum and extracurriculars. As occasionally frustrating as any job search can be, I am certain that I chose the right career path for me. Music was a way for me to build my own self-confidence back in middle school, where I blossomed from a shy, awkward pre-teen to a still awkward but rather extroverted young adult who was confident enough to take on leadership positions of my own. I have been so inspired by my directors, vocal coaches, and fellow music-makers that I can’t wait to work in a school and motivate and encourage students of my own. I’m excited to help students recognize and pursue their own goals, and I hope to be a role model for the school at which I end up. Music is incredibly important for students in our schools, and I will fight for that opinion as I pursue a job in music education.
Let the “Aha!” moments continue.
Emma L. is a music education major and recent graduate of Simpson College. She has experience performing in musicals and operas, as well as performing with numerous choirs. After student teaching at both an elementary and high school around the Central Iowa, she now substitute teaches at Waukee High School. Emma is currently looking to teach music at a school in Iowa in the coming school year. Fun Fact: She played Liesl to Mackie’s Maria in their 11th grade production of The Sound of Music AND the Witch to Mackie’s Baker’s Wife the year after. Plus they’re also friends! The music in our schools memories NEVER CEASE!