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Writers' Conference Winners


Ambrose Soehn - Music Education


Why Providing Every Student a Quality Musical Education Makes So Much

Since its inception in the early 1900’s, the complex concept of “Arts Education” has been interpreted in many ways, resulting in numerous programs to aid its advancement. As University of Texas researcher Julian Heilig describes, the arts were first seen as a leisure activity for the wealthy. Cultural arts soon trickled down into the middle class where they were incorporated to some extent in a new type of “progressive education” which attempted to broaden the curriculum of the day (Helilg et al., 2010). Throughout its triumphs and pitfalls, arts education has remained largely undefined in the sense that the term dances between visual arts, musical arts, kinesthetic arts, theatrical arts and so on. Kenneth Lansing, a distinguished fellow at the National Art Education Association, argues that successfully teaching arts education without a solid idea of what the arts are or include would be like professors of aeronautical engineering attempting to teach their subject’s material without knowledge of what airplanes were (Lansing, 2004). In order to simplify this problematic term, it is necessary to look at what has been the most fundamental art form throughout the history of civilization. If a singular art form derived from historical importance is focused on, it will eliminate the problem of biting off more than one can chew when grappling with the multi faceted idea of “Arts Education,” resulting in more realistic and successful programs implemented in education and society.

Looking even further back than mankind, the primitive brain in all mammals closely resembled the part of the modern human brain referred to as the cerebellum. This core structure made up the original brain that homosapians developed from, and most importantly, it processes fundamental rhythmic and coordinated body movements to this day. McGill University Professor Daniel Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, evaluates a plethora of research including some of the author’s own on the cerebellum. Because organisms have historically survived through precise timing – heartbeats, breathing, the precise firing of neurons at 40Hz, the rhythmic timing required when running away from a predator, these oscillatory qualities led to the beginning of the oldest and first art form – music (Levitin, Chapter 6). In its infancy, music was comprised of nothing but percussive rhythmic elements; these are so engrained in the human mind that a song without a beat or pulse is not usually considered music at all. Because of this deep-seated connection with the auditory art form, it would make sense to use music education, initially, as the primary focus of an arts education program. This is not to say that other art forms do not offer valuable educational material, simply that because of its vastness in brain function, music is an efficient choice as it encompasses similar skill sets that are usually only associated with the visual, kinesthetic, and linguistic arts. Musical education cannot only significantly improve student’s cognitive, social, and behavioral traits, but its implementation should be further promoted in school and in the public by means of change in legislation and investment into specific programs.

Many of the immediate benefits of becoming musically educated and trained directly affect the student’s own cognitive functions, as demonstrated in numerous research studies. One particular fMRI study by a team of researchers led by Levitin investigated the extent of brain activation present when playing music. Levitin writes, “There are few activities that require more of the brain than playing music,” and goes on to describe the eight different areas that are used: the auditory cortex, the visual cortex, the parietal lobe, the motor cortex, the sensory cortex, the premotor area, the frontal lobe, the cerebellum (Levitin, Chapter 3). Although at times overlooked, music has a great deal of overlap in cognitive function with the other classical art forms. Interpreting musical notation, just like painting, both heavily rely upon the visual cortex. The fine control of finger movements in making instrumental music, just like the precise body movements required in theatre and dance, all rely on the motor cortex. Music is then capable of developing multiple major brain regions, even those not usually associated with music (like the visual cortex), to an impressive extent. This is yet another reason why for the sake of feasibility and simplicity it would make sense to choose music as the focus of an arts education program as its neurological developmental benefits are more widespread than other art forms. Researchers led by Gottfried Schlaug at the Harvard Medical School discovered in a longitudinal study that after just one year of musical training, students showed increased scores on math, spatial reasoning, phonemic, and of course musical tests. Remarkably, math and linguistic skills are positively influenced by musical education (Schlaug et al., 2005). It fosters better understanding in patterns and ratios, as well as the ability to segment large streams of sensory information coming in from the eyes, the ears, touch, and body position into small perceptual units.

Yet even if music did nothing to aid in these cognitive processes, it would still be just as valuable because of the complex behavioral traits gleaned from its education. While these character traits like independence and self-discipline are not easy to measure in the traditional sense of assigning a metric value to signify to what degree a person has a given trait, these aspects of music education are equally as important to evaluate. Learning and performing an instrument has been described by many, including worldrenowned pianist Martha Argerich in interviews, as a lonely task (Argerich, 2002). Because of its inherent nature, practicing and performing a solo instrument pushes the individual towards a strong sense of self-motivation and concentration. These behavioral traits, unlike the direct correlations observed with math or linguistic skills, can be literally applied to any imaginable field the student may end up in, be it business or engineering for example. Of course, not every child will experience this increase in self-motivation and focus because a good supportive environment may not be present to aid the student in becoming self-dependent. However, this is not a fault of the content of the musical lessons, but of the method used to transmit them to the student. In Dr. Dimitra Kokotsaki’s study analyzing the self-perceptions of students who had participated in music education, a statistically significant relationship was observed between music education and increased sense of self-motivation and discipline, not to mention increased self-confidence and expression (Kokotsaki and Hallam, 2007). These behavioral skills ultimately lend themselves to some degree in a student’s interactive ability within a musical group.

Because the other major components of music are created in a collaborative setting, musical education also taxes social and communicative skills. Some of these skills are closely linked with the aforementioned character traits – self confidence and expression naturally become of great use in a social setting especially where communication is often based on musical feeling. Being in a group ensemble of any genre of music fosters the keen ability to listen and critique individual instruments or parts, while still conceiving of the group as a whole. This finding has been researched in multiple studies, one of which is a doctoral dissertation by Melissa Arasi at Georgia State University. This specific study is unique because it analyzes the influence of a high school choral music program on the social work aspects of eight adults who all pursued careers other than music upon finishing school. Most notably observed was their learned ability to critique and evaluate individual voices as part of a choir and apply these skills to their various other professions where, in most cases, a group of employees work together as part of a whole business (Arasi, 2006). There may very well be similar cognitive, behavioral or social benefits that result from the education of other types of art, but for the sake of feasibility, focusing on the oldest and highly encompassing field of music provides a solid platform from which a new education initiative can be implemented.

Thus far, however, this potential has not been filled with current musical education methods and programs. Historic curriculums have had their fair share of shortfalls, and in order to propose an improved system, it is necessary to analyze what could have been improved upon in the past. There has been a repeating cycle for the last century where just as the arts seem to be taking root in the core curriculum, an economic downturn, the first being the Great Depression, disrupts the focus. In his research, Julian Heilig found that the National Education Association and state arts agencies have focused on arts-in-school programs, which are not led by any specialized instructor. A report placed by the NEA in 1988 claimed that arts education in America was in “triple jeopardy,” because the arts “are not viewed as serious, knowledge itself is not viewed as a prime educational objective, and those who determine school curricula do not agree on what arts education is” (Heilig et al., 2010). After narrowing the focus of “arts education” to music education for the purpose of this argument, there still remain the first two of the three problems mentioned in the report. These could likely stem from the disparity in what students and curriculum builders think music education is or should be. The concept of “school music” is entirely different in most cases than the concept of the popular music that a student likes to listen and experiment with outside the classroom setting even though the underlying theory and potential of each type as an instructive means is the same. Many students in school go through all the motions of “doing music,” but nothing remarkably valuable seems to be learned or taken away from that experience.

This unnecessary distinction must be resolved before other issues can be dealt with. To improve the attitude of students towards “school music,” qualified specialized music teachers could be hired throughout the K through 12 setting who, in combination with a restructuring of classes, could teach dramatically different material instead of the traditional two option “orchestra” or “band” classes usually offered. While classical counterpoint is of course important to study, only offering classes that solely rely on repertoire from the common practice period, spanning the fifteenth to eighteenth century in Europe, is severely limiting. This would be like a semester long geography course only focusing on North America when there exists a world of other cultures and landscapes that can be explored. In the interest of sparking interest, popular music, electronic, jazz, vocal, and ethnic music would be a highly valuable asset to school music classes at an elementary level. In addition to offering a broadened range of subject matter and choice thereof, a federal and local policy could also be mandated that makes a music class of some kind (ideally one with diverse subject matter) mandatory starting in elementary school and going up until eighth grade. Not only is this time period crucial in terms of neural development in children, but if every child completed an equal number of units in music education just as in math, science, or language studies, the double standard used to view music education could greatly diminish.

The school building is not the only place where music is unjustly evaluated. Most of the general public would likely admit that they enjoy listening to music a great deal, but when it comes to paying for it, their initial judgment of its importance is impeded by the price with which it is coupled – the double standard. Offering affordable live music has become an increasing problem, where the price of going to a concert or festival might be too high to stimulate interest in the general public due to the loss of revenue with online pirated music. Developing this musical interest can reinforce all of the beneficial characteristics of musical education received in school. A renewed urban musical culture would stimulate funding in music programs and draw people out of their houses and into the social sphere in which they live. A model that American cities could use as a stellar example is the BBC Proms in London. This eight week daily music festival started out as promenade outdoor concerts and has grown into the largest and most successful classical music festival in the world. Tickets begin at just £2.60 per night making it ridiculously affordable at the same time as making the 1,400 sought after spots each day somewhat exclusive, stimulating much enthusiasm and interest. (BBC Proms, 2012).

Applying this same philosophy to low price music festivals of any genre that could be created in American cities is feasible, but only if American music programs can adopt a change of attitude. Currently, each program within a city – be it a venue, an orchestra, or arts interest group, like any company in a capitalist “every man for himself” economy, wants to compete with other programs for public attention and money, and logically so. However, this mindset encourages overdeveloping the marketing branches of these programs and companies, which detracts from the actual musical purpose at their core. If these programs could join forces, even just for a few weeks to put on a music festival, the quality of the cultural entertainment offered would improve and the price would be lowered because the competitive aspect would dissolve. It clearly works and is looked forward every year in the United Kingdom, so there is no reason why with some collaboration, multiple festivals could spring up in major American cities that are affordable and of a high caliber.

Listening to live music, not to mention the actual experience of playing music, is clearly beneficial in multiple senses. These affected areas – cognitive, behavioral, and social are well researched in hundreds of studies. When delving into the specific correlations and processes at work that arise as a result of research in the area, the simple fact that music is enjoyable, gratifying, and socially stimulating can be overlooked. These surface level observations alone argue music’s incredible power, and although they are not by themselves the main reasons music should be the focus of a revamped arts education program, they are certainly important to consider. Not only is music education inherently beneficial to a wide range of cognitive processes of the human brain, but it is also enormously enjoyable to interact with and perform in the right kind of school setting, something not many other activities or art programs can compare with. The fact that there even exists a debate over advancing or cutting back on arts education when it clearly has multiple benefits in society is startling. Math and science are very important on a global scale when it comes to jobs, as president Obama has argued in his 2011 State of the Union address (Obama, 2011). Instead of misinterpreting musical education as a hindrance to these fields of study, the interaction of music and these technical subjects can be likened to a harmonious relationship where music education can improve performance in math and science at the same time as creating a balanced outlet for creativity and expression.

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