Our schools have become obsessed with job training and getting students into college. So much so that they tend to devalue everything else. They fail, or perhaps refuse, to value the social benefits of music education and other seeming frills.
My wife taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in a middle school.
All the teachers of “real” subjects had a duty-free lunch. Subjects such as ESL, foreign languages, physical education, art, and music seemed less important. So their teachers had to eat their lunch in the cafeteria and enforce discipline.
If anyone has seriously written about why schools should not offer music, I haven’t found it. That search term gets articles by music education advocates who present some negatives and answer them.
Unfortunately, the top search results for the benefits of music education are too often bare lists with little explanation.
I hope this post will be more useful for defending school music programs.
Why should schools not offer music?
Let’s start with the more frivolous reasons.
In any band and orchestra, students audition to see who will be first chair. Some people in education have somehow gotten the idea that competition is a bad thing. It will damage the self-esteem of anyone who doesn’t make it to the top.
Tell it to the football team. Stop and think what life is like outside school systems and academia. And in sports, the second-string players sit on the bench while the starters play. In band, the last-chair clarinet player plays with everyone else.
As I say, schools place high value on certain courses that seem directly related to finding jobs or getting into college. So wouldn’t spending time on music detract from academics?
Some people go to college to study music. Some actually find jobs in music. And for those who don’t, students who take music tend to get better grades in their academic classes and better SAT test scores. It does not detract.
Musical instruments are expensive. They can easily get damaged, lost, or stolen.
Ah yes, money. Are musical instruments any more likely to get damaged, lost, or stolen than science lab equipment or everyone’s laptop computers?
Some music programs are weak. A bad music program can be worse than none at all. The weakness gives a school system the excuse to cut the program rather than try to improve it. Instruction in “core courses” is also often weak, but the schools can’t cut state-mandated courses.
So what would happen if schools eliminate all the other whose teachers don’t deserve a duty-free lunch? They become mere test preparation factories, no longer concerned with real education.
It’s time to recognize that education requires a variety of electives, music included.
Benefits of music education to the schools
Most writings on the benefits of music education focus on how it helps the children.
But first, let’s look at the benefit to the schools themselves. Too many educational leaders pay lip service to helping children. Then they pursue policies that turn them into mere factory output.
Our 21st-century educational system still uses the model developed in the 19th century. It emphasizes “most useful subjects” as a means to an end, such as getting into college or finding a good job.
Academic ability trumps developing creativity. Everyone has to do well on standardized multiple choice tests. Everything else takes a back seat.
Our educational system values the talent of getting good grades above all others. As a result, it devalues students who excel in other things, but not that. Highly talented, creative students are made not to feel highly talented or creative because the system doesn’t value what they do best. School boards and educational theorists prattle about creativity and innovation. But they show no creativity or innovation themselves.
Administrators cut music budgets thinking they’re too expensive. They fail to realize that whatever they consider the ideal class size for most classes, music classes must necessarily be larger. Is a class of 20 students taught by one teacher too large for most subjects? The band, orchestra, and chorus may require 50 or more students to function.
Cut music out, and how many additional teachers will the system need to absorb members of those ensembles into classes of the desired size? But once a music program gets cut, it will be very expensive and difficult to restore it.
And let’s not forget: the band and chorus enhance a school’s reputation as much as the sports teams. Besides, what’s a football half time without marching bands?
Social benefits of music education
Music offers an opportunity to learn skills and aptitudes society needs. Here are only two:
Everyone matters in a music ensemble.
I read about a band director who had some key absences for a contest. The piccolo player was out of town with her parents. The baritone sax player had been suspended from school.
Parts didn’t get covered. It lowered the band’s numbers. But more important, the quality of the performance suffered.
It was a less satisfactory musical experience for players and listeners alike. Part of the music was missing.
All the parts in music matter, but not equally at any given moment. Someone has melody. Someone else has harmonic or rhythmic filler. Someone else counts rests waiting for an entrance. Elsewhere in the piece, the roles change.
If someone plays too loudly or too softly, if someone plays out of tune, if someone miscounts rests and comes in at the wrong time the music suffers. The first rehearsal of any piece probably sounds bad. Everyone has to learn the parts and learn to cooperate with everyone else. A successful performance requires everyone’s discipline and hard work.
Self-confidence and risk taking
No, not self-esteem. Self-confidence.
Self-esteem entails feeling good about ourselves and who we perceive we are. It’s essentially a value judgment of ourselves. If we don’t like ourselves, we may spend a lot of energy trying to get others to like us. Or running away from relationships afraid they won’t.
Self-confidence entails trust in our abilities. We know we’re good at something because we have taken the effort to master it.
Success leads to more success. We can be confident in some abilities, but not in others. But how do we get confidence where we don’t have experience?
It requires courage.
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Because we will do everything badly until we have persevered to learn to do it well. Anyone learning an instrument, or even learning to sing, will sound bad at first. Sounding good requires muscular development and motor skills that develop over time.
Reading music is more difficult than reading language (except, possibly, for Japanese). Musical notation provides information about notes, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, and silence. Silence as in counting rests.
Trombones in an orchestra may have hundreds of measures of rest between entrances. At times, everyone has short rests, maybe a beat and a quarter. Then the next note must come in exactly on time. Not a split second early or late. And a tentative entrance makes a poor effect even if it’s on time.
So musicians must take risks. And eventually the risks pay off with success. Success gives enough confidence to try more risks.
Including risks that have nothing to do with music.
Benefits of music education for children
Studying music helps with language development, math skills pattern recognition, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills.It helps with learning to memorize.
Advocates for music education constantly tout these and other benefits. But they’re secondary.
Music is fun.
Children love music. Young children love whatever music they happen to hear.
As they grow older, the music industry decides what music people of a certain age ought to like. For more than two centuries now, commercial music has depended on churning out pieces that sound pretty much like other popular pieces. If something radically new catches on, it soon spawns imitators.
Music in schools ought to include currently popular music, but it offers other kinds of music, too. Children in any kind of music class will have a chance to experience more than what the music industry provides.
Learning music of another time and culture broadens children’s minds and helps them develop empathy and openness to unfamiliar cultures. But there I go again mentioning secondary benefits.
Music has its own intrinsic merit and needs no defense. Except against bean counters and educational theorists who have lost touch with what it means to be human.
Negatives of music in school / John McDaniel (Classroom. Not dated)
Stop “defending” music / Peter Green (Curmudgucation. June 2, 2015)
The truth about why music is cut from schools (and what we can do about it) / Tony Mazzocchi (The music parents’ guide, August 28, 2015)
Pinellas County orchestra. Vimeo. Labeled as licensed for reuse on Google Images
Northwestern High School chorus. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Needham Broughton marching band. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Elementary school orchestra Some rights reserved by woodleywonderworks
Bell Elementary School chorus. Some rights reserved by US Army Corps of Engineers