Confirming what math, english, and other academic teachers have known for generations, recent research indicates a strong correlation between student academic achievement and musical performance. Although a distinct causal relationship between these activities still remains elusive for researchers to pin down, a growing body of evidence asserts that students who excel in their academic classes – students who actually study, do their homework, read books, and pursue good grades in subjects like the sciences and humanities – are also better musicians, with more highly developed rhythmic skills, more accurate intonation, and stronger abilities to concentrate and memorize.
This is good news for music educators across the country, who are always looking for new ways to improve student performance and motivation in band, orchestra, choir, and other ensembles. School districts all over the United States are taking action steps based on these enlightening new scientific findings, expecting to see dramatic increases in the quality of their music programs as increasing numbers of students opt to take more rigorous honors and Advanced Placement® (AP®) classes in hopes of improving their chances of winning a seat in a more advanced wind ensemble, being selected for the honors choir, or simply moving up a chair in orchestra.
Ironic University Study: Students enrolled in academically challenging classes perform at a higher musical level
In a landmark study at Ironic University, 400 high school students across several high school orchestras were placed in 3 Groups based on their enrollment in academic classes:
- students enrolled in orchestra and only minimally required academic classes
- students enrolled in orchestra and all honors or AP® academic classes
- students enrolled in orchestra, all honors or AP® academic classes, who also read at least one novel per week for pleasure
Students in Group 1 routinely sat in the back of their sections, and were less accomplished sight-readers and more likely to play incorrect notes and out of tune than their peers who sat closer to the front.
What was dramatic was how much stronger were the musical accomplishments of the students in Group 2 over those in Group 1, and even more dramatically, the difference between the playing of those in Group 3 and those in Groups 1 and 2.
- Group 2 students showed a 40% increase over Group 1 students in the ability to play scales accurately, play expressively, play in tune with others in their section, and arrive at rehearsal prepared with their music on the stand. 80% of these students had won chairs in the front half of their section.
- Group 3 students showed a whopping 80% increase over students in Group 1 in the ability to play scales accurately, play expressively, play in tune with others in their section, and arrive at rehearsal prepared with their music and a pencil on the stand. 100% of these students had won chairs on the first or second stand in their section.
- Even more dramatically, 80% of students who won chairs at Mid State and All State orchestras came from Groups 2 and 3, and 100% of students chosen to participate in district level Honors Orchestra came from Groups 2 and 3.
- 80% of students who went on to major in music at college or university came from Groups 2 and 3, while there were no students in Group 1 who went on to major in music at college or university.
- 100% of concertmasters and principal players came from Groups 2 and 3.
“What all these eye-opening statistics prove,” said Dr. V.U. Point, “is that students who excel at academics also, by and large, excel at musical performance. There are exceptions that prove the rule, but overall it’s clear that schools that wish to improve their music programs need to engage their students in a more serious academic curriculum as well.”
“At first I wasn’t sure that I wanted to give up valuable practice time to take a harder math class.” said an anonymous violinist from Group 2 who participated in this study. “But I found that the more challenging my math class was and the more I had to study, the quicker I was at learning my music for orchestra. I moved up two stands in one semester. I want to be concertmaster when I am a senior, so next year I am signing up for AP®!”
Foreign language studies increase student comprehension, pronunciation
Another remarkable set of findings from a pioneering study conducted by Dr. Candance Andsing at the University of Commonsense reveals that choir students who excel at academic foreign language studies tend to be more confident when singing in languages other than English. High school singers who enroll in foreign language classes are more likely to sing accurately in Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and other languages routinely required of choral singers than their peers who elect not to take such classes in school.
At least one prominent choral director concurs.
“You might find it surprising,” said Rhett O’Rick, “but we’ve known for years that a student who takes classes in, say Latin, is more likely to understand the words and know how to pronounce them when we perform a Palestrina motet or a movements from the Mozart Requiem, than a student who has no instruction in that language outside of choir rehearsal.”
Armed with these new findings, choral students and their directors alike are clamoring for their schools to provide more robust offerings in foreign languages to further increase the excellence of their choral programs. Administrators have responded by hiring on additional foreign language staff to increase the numbers and difficulty of available classes, and in some cases are even adding on new languages.
At Rhett O’Rick’s Graight Agann High School in New Amerika, next year’s foreign languages will include new classes in Russian.
“We’re really excited about this.” said O’Rick. “I’ve programmed Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil for next year, and it’s going to be super helpful for our students to have some guidance in reading Cyrillic besides what I am able to give them in rehearsal.”
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