Singing the praises of music education

When I attended a meeting last spring about proposed cuts to our school district’s budget, I wasn’t surprised to see parents and students speak passionately in favor of keeping the elementary orchestra program. I wasn’t surprised to see parents and students advocate for the elementary gifted and talented program. And, knowing about the connection between music education and brain development, I wasn’t surprised to notice how much those student populations overlapped.

The hearing had a bittersweet result. The school board eliminated the gifted and talented teacher position, but it did keep orchestra. Although the program is intact for now, I realize that its future is tenuous, even though our district values music education. School board members’ hands are increasingly tied by budget woes and No Child Left Behind mandates.

The frustrating thing is, research clearly shows that studying music improves kids’ math and literacy skills, as well as their social and emotional skills, and their cognitive, language and critical thinking skills. It is not a fluff subject. Rather, as stated by the Minnesota Music Educators Association, “Music is a core academic subject that is vital to successful students and schools.” Students who participate in band and orchestra are less likely to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, and schools with quality music programs have demonstrated significantly higher graduation and school attendance rates.

Higher levels

These benefits have proved true locally as well as nationally. For example, students at Whittier International Elementary School in south Minneapolis who participated in a music education partnership with the MacPhail Center for Music performed at higher levels, compared to their peers, in attendance, social skills, and academics. These benefits increased with each successive year of music instruction.

Dianna Babcock, director of MacPhail’s early childhood music program, says music has a huge impact on infant, child, and young adult development. Because it engages both sides of the brain, it helps students control their impulses and stay on task. It also helps with problem solving and critical thinking.

“It’s really important to get your kids involved in some capacity in music. You’ll find that it’s lifelong opportunity—it will enhance their lives forever in many, many different ways,” she says.

Mark Johnson, artistic director of the Minnesota Boychoir, has seen this occur in his organization, which serves boys ages 7 to 18. Participating in an ensemble helps students develop self-confidence and patience, and can nurture feelings of being connected to a community.

“We perform great music, we introduce the boys to different types of music, and we work on musical skills and building personal skills. Boys and young men grow up in this organization,” he says.

The Minnesota Boychoir is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Boys participate in different choirs based on age and ability, and the demanding rehearsal and performance schedule requires a commitment by the boys and their families.

“We give them a different outlet that offers discipline, some rules and regulations, and I think kids need that. I think they want that. They excel when that structure is there,” Johnson says.

Keeping your child motivated

Even if parents are convinced of the importance of music education, keeping children motivated to practice can be a challenge, especially for younger students. Melissa Falb, director of group instruction at MacPhail, has these suggestions:

— Set up a routine for practicing, based on the time of day that works best for your child. It might be after school, after dinner, or in the morning. “I know it sounds really simple, but the more practicing just becomes part of your daily routine, the better it is,” she says.

— Have students perform for an audience. It doesn’t have to be a formal recital; try making a YouTube video of your child playing a piece and send links to family and friends.

— Have your child invite friends over who also play musical instruments. They will discover that playing for one another is a great form of entertainment.

If children continue to struggle with practicing, Falb says it could be that they haven’t found the right instrument, or the music they’re playing is too difficult, and they need to choose a different piece that builds their confidence. It’s also possible that the teacher isn’t the best fit.

“Finding a teacher that the kid enjoys is a huge factor in motivation. If they really connect with their teacher and love their teacher and want to do well for their teacher, you’re going to have a lot less work at home,” she says.