Music for the love of it

A strange thing happened in this town of Eugene, Oregon. We have a professional orchestra and a youth symphony, an opera, several theaters and a University with strong music, art and theater departments. Clearly, we know the value of art. Since the early 1990’s, however, music and art were cut out of public school curriculum, school by school by school.

Why?

The question surfaced last week when Midori Goto visited.  Twice a year she takes time out of her busy schedule to promote music by volunteering her time with young music students around the world.  In Eugene, she worked with lucky kids who study music at one of the last elementary school programs in town, a small project run by the nonprofit Eugene-Springfield Youth Orchestras. She also coached and performed with the youth symphony, winning the hearts of hundreds of young people.

Image Source: Eugene Register-Guard, 4/26/12 Midori and student

Here she’s working with a class of beginning violinists.  Their jaws just about hit the floor when she said at their age she practiced 4 hours a day, but they straightened up in their chairs and played their hearts out.

Midori and a violinist listening to another student

Kids love music.  They love to be challenged, and given the chance and a little introduction, they love classical music.  If you’re not familiar with Midori, she’s a classical violinist and former prodigy who played at the Tanglewood Music Festival when she was 12 and debuted in Carnegie hall at 19.

Midori performs 100 times a year with the best in the world, also runs three nonprofits and twice a year visits towns like ours for hands-on coaching.  She is on a mission to save music education.

It’s hard not to feel a little sad in her wake.

After already gutting much of the music in elementary schools, next year our school district plans to cut middle school orchestras.

“If you want to kill a music program, cut middle school orchestra.”  Jason Duckles, Youth Symphony Conductor

Jason Duckles, conductor of Eugene Youth Symphony, teaching young students about composers

We know that studying music helps with focus, concentration, language skills, math.  High schoolers with access to music programs are less likely to drop out, and there is evidence that poor kids who are musicians do better on the SATs than other poor kids.  I’m not going to debate cause and effect here.  We don’t need to.

“Music is valuable in itself.  Music helps math?  Perhaps.  Perhaps also math helps music.” Midori Goto

So why was music cut?  Most people will tell you it’s because of the money. Funding for schools has been in a downward spiral since the early 1990’s when Oregonians voted to shift school funding from mostly local property taxes to mostly state income, putting school funding at the epicenter of political dogfights, and subject to the unpredictable flow of state budgets. Oregon slid from having one of the better funded school systems, to having one of the worst.

But it’s more than a lack of funding.  Our neighboring school district Springfield hangs on to music in all the schools, kindergarten through high school, because the Superintendent Nancy Golden declared music sacrosanct.  By contrast, principals at individual schools in Eugene make their own staffing decisions. Eugene Superintendent Sheldon Berman says principals hoped to keep classes small by eliminating trained music teachers and having regular teachers teach music.

That backfired.  Now there are big classes and no music teachers.

It’s not just that music costs too much to teach, it doesn’t make money either.

“No one should play music for the money because there isn’t any money in it.  You have to play for your heart.”  Moni Simionev, Midori’s graduate student

Moni and Midori. Source: gotomidori.com

You learn math and reading, you get a job.  You learn to play music, and ??

One man band. Image source: Expat Daily News

Actually, maybe not.  It’s true that becoming a professional musician is not, for most people, a way to get rich, but studying music might have a measurable economic value.  There is evidence that young people with access to music education end up with higher salaries (see “Harris Poll Links Music Education to Higher Incomes”)

It takes a lot of time and patience and practice to train a young person on an instrument, and unlike a sport, a lot of that usually has to happen at home. Perhaps with so many families with two working parents, with kids distracted by easy entertainment of electronics, there isn’t enough pressure from the public to keep music classes in schools.

That’s hard to believe.

Music affects people deeply in ways that until recently were pretty hard to measure, but that’s changed.

New technology shows how music lights up the brain like no other activity.

Brain on music, from Your Brain Pro

Local professor Frank Diaz talks about discovering music’s power when playing in a high school band in Florida.  While waiting a little distractedly for his trombone part during band practice, a clash of cymbals startled him into an extraordinary and wonderful state of mind. Frank was not a privileged kid.  His divorced Mom worked two jobs.  They were homeless for awhile.  Music at school, he says “gave me a home.”  Now a PhD, he studies what it is about music that makes people like it so much.  See Frank Diaz interview. He calls it Peak Experience.

Music gives people what spiritual and religious traditions seek, what you find sometimes when you meditate.  It’s a moment or two or more, when everything feels fantastically, joyously, clear.

We all understand this, I think.  Close your eyes and think about your favorite piece of music. Imagine where you heard it and what you were doing.  …  See?

So …  maybe we cut music out of curriculum because it’s a little too… Primitive? Powerful?

Thank you to Music Thought Music Laugh

Whatever the rationale, it’s baloney.

Music belongs in school.

Source: the guardian

To see Midori’s thoughts about visiting Eugene, read Midori’s Orchestra Residency Program

To encourage the Eugene School Board to restore music programs, attend one of the Wednesday night board meetings or contact them: board@4j.lane.edu

To support the Eugene-Springfield Youth Orchestras scholarship fund for elementary strings classes, contact: Arts Umbrella

To join the fight to reform school funding in Oregon, contact Stand for Children

Credit to Frank Diaz for the “close your eyes” exercise

9 comments

  • The state of our school’s systems right now is very sad. A similar thing could be said for physical education. I remember we used to get out and partake in P.E. every day. I remember it so well because I hated it. I wasn’t good at anything outside of track. But it keeps us in relatively good shape and health. Today the kids get two a week and it’s run by the teachers, a part-time P.E. coach if we are lucky enough for the P.T.A. to pay for it that year. We should be spending more time and attention on the next generation and tomorrow’s leaders than on all the wasted financial management going on. Just saying.

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  • We didn’t know we how it good was to have a real PE teacher to hate. We even had uniforms, red pull on shorts and white blouses with snap fronts that the boys liked to try to undo. Kids with a weight problem were rare. Now, over a third of us are obese, and that includes kids. This can’t be good.

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  • I was never musically talented. My singing is like a cat being murdered and I faked learning the piano by memorizing hand positions. But I am glad that I could take chorus and learn to play the piano. It’s hard to attach a tangible value to everything. It doesn’t mean the value isn’t there. It just makes it that much easier to overlook it.

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    • Makes me wonder about what the word “value” even means. Seems like we’ve forgotten how to appreciate things that aren’t attached to a dollar.

      Know what you mean about the piano. All those dang sharps and flats.

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      • It unfortunate that budgeting makes everything come down to a quantitative value. Testing measures the importance of Math and English. But how do you measure the importance of music? It doesn’t have a simple quantitative value and that makes it so much easier to overlook when budgeting funds.

        But music is of the highest qualitative value. I can’t imagine my life without it. 🙂

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  • An additional comment received from Frank Diaz via e-mail: “… I should point out that the term “Peak Experience” belongs to Abraham Maslow (as much as I would like to take credit for it!). I work on a particular type of peak experience called “flow”, which I sometimes refer to as “cognitive high”. Either way, thanks for the reference!”

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  • What a beautiful post Julia! I am such a staunch supporter and advocate of the arts but music, to me, is one of the most powerful art forms. One we can’t afford to lose in our childrens’ educations. It’s maddening and I hope through our activism the situation turns around!

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  • Julia, you write the most beautiful posts of anyone I know! Why are you not posting this on our WANA1011 Facebook page! This subject deserves it! YOU deserve it! Music is a form of art and that means it’s subjective. We write and english is still taught at school, yet how many writers make any money? How many artists period make any money, be it a painter or musician. We create because it’s what we love to do. If by performing this piece of artform we are able to receive compensation in a monetary way, that’s great. Yet it is sad what has happened with music in our schools. And it’s been happening for a long time. Everywhere. Thank you for bring this to our attention Julia! 🙂

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  • Thanks Karen. High praise from you. It’s funny how we seem to have shifted the emphasis in our thinking from activities for a purpose (to entertain, feed, communicate, shelter), to things that make money. We forget that money is a metaphor that we made up in order to make things easier for ourselves, not an end in itself. Unlike music, painting or writing, money doesn’t help us understand ourselves or communicate big ideas or comfort us — yet we give it the most weight when deciding how to run our lives.

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