The Sound of Music [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, May-June 2005
RESEARCH SHOWS KIDS WHO PLAY MUSIC ARE MORE LIKELY TO GET BETTER GRADES, STEER CLEAR OF DRUGS, AND HAVE MORE SELF-DISCIPLINE. The hundreds of students who participate in the City Schools music programs know something else: Playing music is a lot of fun.
“EVERY STUDENT IN THE NATION should have an education in the arts,” states The Value and Quality of Arts Education: A Statement of Principles.
The document, published by the Reston-based National Association for Music Education, encourages music educators and school administrators to recognize music and the other arts as serious, core academic subjects.
The nine basic principles read like an academic Bill of Rights and suggest all schools provide a strong arts curriculum and hire qualified arts teachers who will make it their mission to fulfill that goal.
What gives the document real heft is the fact that 10 of the most respected educational organizations signed it, including the National PTA, the National School Board Association, National Education Association, and the American Association of School Administrators.
“Too many communities around the country are allowing music education to fall through the cracks,” says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education (www.MENC.org). “By signing this Statement of Principles, these organizations are saying they agree that the arts need to be kept alive in our nation’s schools.”
ENOUGH TO GO AROUND?
Despite the tremendous support, Blakeslee remains concerned that resources for arts education are dwindling and will continue to wane in coming years. He points to a 2004 study by the Council for Basic Education that reports 25 percent of school principals expect to cut back on their arts programs in upcoming budget cycles.
The implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is partly to blame, he says.
“NCLB has had negative consequences, for in an effort to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) schools are funneling resources into other programs rather than the arts. I can understand why schools feel the need to do this, but they are missing an essential fact: Music education is good for a child’s personal development. It makes them better readers, helps them do better in math, and teaches them self-discipline. Cutting music programs from the curriculum just doesn’t make sense.”
Need proof that music does a child good? Blakeslee points to data from a 1998 study that showed music students received more academic honors than students who didn’t participate in music programs. Additionally, a 1990 study by researchers at New York University showed students who participated in arts programs in elementary and middle school had higher self-esteem and more advanced thinking skills than those who didn’t have a music class.
“The reason music makes the brain work better,” explains Dr. John J. Ratey, author of A User’s Guide to the Brain, “is because a musician is constantly adjusting decisions on tempo, tone, style, rhythm, phrasing and feeling — and all the while is literally training the brain to become incredibly good at conducting numerous activities at once. Dedicated practice of this orchestration can have a great payoff for lifelong skills, intelligence, and an ability for self-knowledge and expression.”
Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education under President Clinton, shared this thought about music education: “[Spanish cellist Pablo] Casals says music fills him with the wonder of life and the ‘incredible marvel’ of being human. Ives says it expands his mind and challenges him to be a true individual. [American conductor and composer Leonard] Bernstein says it is enriching and ennobling.
“To me, that sounds like a good case for making music and the arts an integral part of every child’s education. Studying music and the arts elevates a child’s education, expands their horizons, and teaches them to appreciate the wonder of life.”
When it comes to teaching students about music, teachers in the City Schools are passionate about their mission.
At Providence Elementary, for example, music teachers Stacy Schraa and Christine Corbeil worked for months preparing 3rd graders to play five songs on their recorders. Among them was “Jitterbag,” which the students performed to a packed auditorium on May 3.
“Throughout the year, we expose our students to as many types of music as possible,” says Schraa, who holds a degree in music education from George Mason University and has found fame as the lead singer in a handful of local rock bands.
“Our goal is to correlate what they learn in class to their everyday life. We talk about the music they listen to — and use that as the example.”
She and Corbeil explain how rock and pop music have roots in American folk songs, and that Rap music is reminiscent of an African heritage. They also teach kids Latin, Asian, and other ethnic songs and dances.
“Music is something that connects us to each other and reminds us where we come from,” Schraa says. “It is our common language.”
Lanier Middle School’s instrumental teacher Geoffrey Seffens has dedicated his career to teaching children the language of music. A native of Fairfax City, who himself graduated from Lanier, Seffens went on to study at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music before returning to teach school in 1979.
In the last 25 years he has helped build the middle school music program, which includes at least two-thirds of Lanier students.
He has help, of course. Cindy Crumb directs Lanier’s orchestra, and Dee Bradee runs the school’s chorus. Together, these three dedicated professionals have trained hundreds of teens to compete in the All-District Band and Orchestra and All-County Chorus.
More importantly, the teachers say they hope they have taught students to love music.
“The SOLs and NCLB have become such a big part of all of our lives, and as a result we are incredibly focused on testing and spend much of the school year preparing students to do well on those tests,” Seffens adds.
“While I agree it is critical that students master the core curriculum, we also need to focus on how important it is to teach students to appreciate the arts. There is so much research to back up the fact that an understanding of music, painting, and other artistic expression is critical to the development of the whole person. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
Music teacher Cindy Crumb agrees.
“Those who have a background in music seem to have a better grasp of who they are, what they can do, and then go forward and do big things with their lives,” says Crumb, a professional violinist with the Fairfax Symphony who, in addition to teaching at Lanier, teaches orchestra at Fairfax High.
“What’s really interesting is that the smartest kids in the school are usually the ones who play a musical instrument. I know this because during AP testing, my classes are empty. It’s anecdotal evidence, perhaps, but I truly believe mastering music and the arts makes a child smarter.”