Music Education and the Whole Child
This weekend I attended a chamber music recital presented by a small local community music school. Roughly twenty students from middle and high school presented an hour of short pieces for small ensembles: music for woodwinds and strings, with a couple of pieces featuring voice as well. The students represented a wide range of experience, accomplishment, and commitment; some of these children will go on to study music in college and perhaps even pursue professional careers as performers or educators, while others will likely put their instruments away for good by the time they graduate from high school.
Regardless of the differences in commitment for the students and their families – to say nothing of the teachers – all of them clearly regard music as an important part of their lives. Parents make it possible for their children to attend weekly lessons and regular ensemble rehearsals, have the instruments and other materials they need, and the students must exert consistent effort over a long period of time (years) to learn how to play their instruments and develop at least enough acumen that they derive satisfaction from the process.
Why do they do it?
In recent decades – it feels like my entire adult life – music educators have had to increasingly fight for their place in our country’s educational systems, devote time and money to advocacy, and generally put effort into convincing others – even other educators – that music is a worthwhile (never mind essential) component of the curriculum.
Many children now grow up with no music education at all, or receive only a cursory acquaintance with music at school resulting in little or no musical skills to speak of when they graduate from high school. This has resulted in a society where those making decisions about the future of education – often not even educators themselves – can’t read music notation and neither sing nor play an instrument. How many members of congress, of the local school board, or even of your school’s administration, given a SATB score of a simple song or hymn, could sight-read and sing their part if they found themselves in in a middle or high school chorus rehearsal or at a church service?
And yet, skills like these were generally taken for granted as an important component of a child’s education – at least among the American middle class – only a couple of generations ago.
It’s an uphill battle for those advocating on behalf of music education in our schools, and many advocacy efforts have become focused on extrinsic arguments for the value of music, because the intrinsic value of music as a vital thread in the fabric of human culture is not understood or appreciated by many who are in position to make decisions about (the extent of) its inclusion in the school curriculum.
What kind of human being do you want to be?
Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.
Plato, The Republic (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1888): 88.
translated by Benjamin Jowett
Music has been an important component of human culture and education since ancient times, although until relatively recently education was not regarded as a basic human right, but more a prerogative of the privileged classes. Compulsory schooling has only been around in the United States for a bit more than a century. For millennia before that, education had for the most part been reserved for the wealthy and ruling classes.
The debate over public school curriculum is largely shaped by this dilemma: since the ideals regarding education we have inherited from our culture and those who came before pertain to an education for the elite, do the same ideals apply and shape the curriculum when education is provided for all?
Without going into specific arguments for a well rounded curriculum (which I have done here, after a fashion) I will state here unequivocally that: Yes, it is the responsibility of (public, private, or any) education to educate the whole person, which includes introducing the child to the world and human culture in as broad and comprehensive a way as possible, while also imparting specific skills and knowledge necessary for the child to successfully navigate the challenges of adulthood. Music is a vital part of human culture. A person with no musical education is an incomplete human being.
Perception and understanding beyond language
One of the least often articulated arguments for the importance of music in a child’s education is the fact that making music is a pursuit and an experience that reaches beyond words. Contemporary brain research indicates that musical activities activate many parts of the brain at once that are only partially activated, or not at all, by other activities. Ultimately, understanding of the world – both the external world we share and the internal world of each individual – lies beyond the grasp of human language. For many, music is a key to expressing and exploring frontiers language cannot penetrate.
Being part of an endeavor greater than oneself
A child who participates in a musical ensemble learns to make consistent, persistent effort towards a distant goal. The daily preparation necessary outside rehearsal, the constant striving to improve one’s technical skills and musical understanding, the relentless subordination of the ego for the good of the group: all of these provide a field for the child to develop a discipline that will serve her well in life regardless of what field she chooses to pursue, and an experience of successfully working with others that can serve as a model for a lifetime of collaborative efforts.
Learning how to pay attention
Students who sing in choir or play in band or orchestra must simultaneously perform a complex set of operations that call on more aspects of the human being than any other activity they face in school. The wholehearted attention demanded by musical performance brings an immersion in the moment and requires the development of concentration and the ability to attend to what is happening right here, right now. This ability to be present in the moment can have great repercussions for life beyond the rehearsal.
Ultimately, music’s ability to address emotional concerns in ways that no other art form or activity can provide is as strong an argument as any for its inclusion in the curriculum of every student. Children – humans – are emotional beings. The emotional states and qualities depicted and explored through music provide experiences in a safe environment through which a child can learn to acknowledge and develop understanding of this side of her humanity – within a healthy social context. In the end, a child’s musical experiences are often among her most profound and cherished memories from her years in school.