Monday, April 15, 2024

The Gift of Music

(My second pass at an Op Ed piece)

What can music  offer children that no other subject can in quite the same way? What is its place in schools? How does it both support and complement other school subjects? These were the question that lay behind each class I taught when I began teaching kids from 3-years old to 8th grade some 50 years ago. They still help shape each class I continue to teach. 


Every school subject offers something necessary to a child’s development. Reading and writing at its height offers the full range of stories and fables and poetry that help shape, reflect and express the human condition. Math feeds the pattern-making perceptions of the brain that allow us to both balance our checkbooks and feed our analytic intellect. Science helps to explain our physical universe and create the technologies that make our lives more comfortable than the kings of old. History helps us to understand that where we come from has everything to do with where we are and where we might go. Foreign language study gives us literally a second language with which to both express ourselves and connect with people from other parts of the world. Physical education helps us build strong, eloquent and expressive bodies and sports offers both discipline and teamwork. Art makes our lives vibrant with vivid colors and beautiful shapes and allows us to express the invisible worlds of the imagination. Schools mostly have recognized the above and built their curriculums accordingly. 


But what can music do?


All of the above and yet more. 


Music, well-considered and well-taught, supports each and every one of the above, both visibly and invisibly giving practice and insight into each from another point of view while adding color and depth. What is song but sung poetry? What is a symphony or a jazz solo but a compelling story with an enticing beginning, connected and unfolding middle and satisfying end, all told in another language? Since every single aspect of music is described mathematically— from 4/4 time, 440 tuning, the V7b5chord, the octave interval and yet more— music is math come alive in sound. Music won’t build us a computer, but many of the people that did were musicians and the science of acoustics is essential to instrument building. We are not likely to remember the dates on those old history tests, but we will remember the stories told in songs like The Erie Canal, Sweet Betsy From Pike, Follow the Drinking Gourd and hundreds more. If you want to learn a foreign language, better to begin with the rhymes and songs then the Berlitz book teaching you how to ask for a new transmission. When music classes include dance (as they should), the body is well-exercised and the coordination the act of music-making requires, both fine and large motor, rivals any athletic endeavor. The discipline and teamwork music requires exactly parallels what sports requires, with the added perk that there is no losing team after the concert. The colorful designs and shapes of visual arts are given new voices in compositions and choreographies, with an equal celebration of the imagination. Not only does music support and enlarge every other subject, but it is the only subject that contains all the others. 


But music doesn’t exist merely to “make us smarter” in math and language and kinesthetic intelligences (though there is ample evidence it helps). It deserves to be considered for its own gifts, for what it offers that nothing else does in quite the same way. Consider:


• The Architecture of Healing Vibration: If, as Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music,” then music is architecture unthawed and flowing. Instead of brick and mortar, its building blocks are pulsating sounds, vibrations that work directly on our heart rate, breath rhythm, brain waves and nervous systems. It gathers them all into an organized coherence that brings healing and harmony. Whereas many subjects are about something, music is the thing itself. 


• Connection and belonging. When we join through the harmonious vibrations of shared melody and rhythm, move together in measured steps, blend opposing beats and notes together so a third, yet more beautiful sound emerges, we become people actively fulfilling the promise of belonging, of connecting in precisely the ways we all deserve. 


• Being seen, known and valued. When a music program goes far beyond duplicating notes and invites us to improvise and compose, we are seen, valued and known yet deeper. We begin to understand that we have something to contribute, both for our own pleasure and our obligation to the band, the audience, the music itself. 


• Comfort and beauty. Once a week for the last 15 years, I go to the Jewish Home for the Aged and play piano, from Bach to Bacharach, Beethoven to Irving Berlin, Joplin to Jobim. I see the residents lifted out of their aching aged bodies into a world where time stops as they sing along to the old songs or let the beautiful melodies and harmonies wash over them. No one is asking to do math problems or discuss history or conjugate verbs. It is music that gives them what they need.


What does music offer? When I began teaching with this question by my side, I had an intuition that its gifts were many. 50 years further down the line, there is no need to guess. I have the testimony of countless alums in their 50’s still savoring the feelings evoked when they sang each day with me in the school, the memories of the children’s constant delight in the act of making music and dancing, the echoes of tough 8th graders looking me in the eye and saying “Thank you” at the end of class, the sad faces of the young ones when class ends and they cry “Do we have to stop?!,” the passion of a 4-year old belting out “Free at last,”  the power of the whole school singing “We Shall Overcome” with joined hands and tear-streaked faces, the beatific look on the 93-year-olds’ face as we sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” 


In the light of all of the above, might we re-consider music’s place in the school curriculum? Might we re-commit to giving children—and people of all ages— what they so desperately need and richly deserve? I would hope so. 


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