Thursday, March 5, 2015

Music programs in schools offer a host of educational benefits.

I remember music classes in elementary school. This was back in the late 1970s and early 80s, so please bear with my trip down memory lane. But music class at Ridge Hill School in Hamden, Connecticut was quite an event, with the beloved Mr. L holding court over our impressionable young minds, and ears. Children had trumpets, violins, and cellos to play, and got to take them home in sleek black cases to practice after school. No one wanted to play the tuba because it was so big to lug home, but the cool kids played the drums, which they practiced on a drum pad at home after dinner, giving their sonically-tortured parents an excuse to drink copious amounts of Scotch every evening.

There was also a chorus at school, where we sang cutting-edge new hits by Barry Manilow, Chris Cross, and Neil Diamond. Mr. L first weeded me out as a soprano because my pre-pubescent voice most resembled Rosie Perez sucking on a helium balloon, and then I was dropped from the chorus all together – albeit gently – because well, basically, I couldn’t sing.

So I was assigned a different instrument: the recorder. For those of you who don’t know, the recorder was a plastic flute-like instrument they gave the kids with absolutely no musical talent because it made barely audible sounds like a whale mating which could be drowned out by the real instruments. I was given a recorder because it was harmless, and I couldn’t hurt myself with it – basically, the equivalent of padded furniture in soothing colors.

I even practiced the recorder once, tapping my Velcroed Zips sneakers and corduroy pant leg along to some erroneous rhythm in my head. But I never dared take it home again because the recorder was the antithesis of cool and I didn’t want to risk Fat Pete, the neighborhood bully, see me carrying it because he’d throw me a beating.

But I digress. Those music classes started my life-long love affair with music, but as someone who appreciated and respected the end result, not played it. Still, I have to think those music classes helped me later in life. For instance, the first live concert I every attended was Barry Manilow on a class trip with Mr. L. And I learned other valuable lessons, like you should quit something if you suck at it – like I did with the recorder, and no matter how talentless you think you are, there is still the triangle to play.

In all seriousness, music classes are a vastly important part of the fabric of educating our youth. However, these days, music, and arts programs are endangered species in our public education system. Let me quantify that: the quality, access, and resources of music programs are shriveling up at schools on the lower end of the income scale, and that is further widening the achievement gap. In fact, since the Great Recession, school districts in Florida, Kansas, Arizona, and other states have gutted their music programs to the point they barely exist only on paper. In 2009, California chose to dip into the education budget and “divert” $109 million from music programs for other uses, which caused music departments to be eradicated in about half of the 100,000 state public schools. And currently in New York, educators say that about 85% of public school students don’t receive even adequate music instruction in school.

These de-fundings and closures are shortsighted, and not just from the perspective that we should all appreciate and encourage the arts. There are proven and tangible benefits to having music programs and instruction in school. Here are a few of them:

Many studies have found that studying a musical instrument helps children perform better in their academics, work better in teams, increase critical thinking skills, stay in school, and make better life choices later on.

Research shows that secondary students who had music activities at school have lower lifetime use tobacco, alcohol, and narcotics than those who didn’t.

Schools with music programs graduate 90.2% of their pupils and have a 93.9% attendance rate. Meanwhile, schools without music have only a 72.9% graduation rate and 84.9% attendance.

You may think those numbers are due to correlation, not causation (like the better schools have music and therefore the better numbers), but that’s not the only factor:

In fact, no matter what socioeconomic status or school district a child belongs to, it’s been proven that third graders who have music programs score higher on reading and spelling tests.

Children who take music classes have larger vocabularies, more advanced reading skills, and increased language function than those who do not.

Young children with learning disabilities like dyslexia or are Autistic benefit from music lessons as a teaching tool.

A study at Stanford University revealed that youngsters who took music show different brain development, improved cognitive skills, and better memory than their counterparts who didn’t.

In fact, students who had music classes and appreciation in school scored an average of 63 points higher on their verbal SATs and 44 points better for math SATs.

A report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that at-risk youth were particularly helped by music programs, going on in life to register higher numbers of high school graduates, those who went on to college and earned degrees, exercised their right to vote, became civic advocates, did volunteer work, and became working professionals in white collar careers.

There are also benefits to emotional development, empathy, cultural sensitivity, higher self esteem and cope better with anxiety and stress.

According to the Children’s Music Workshop: “Recent studies have clearly indicated that musical training physically develops the part of the left side of the brain known to be involved with processing language, and can actually wire the brain’s circuits in specific ways. Linking familiar songs to new information can also help imprint information on young minds.”

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