Day 293: Why Music Matriculation Matters

originally published October 19, 2012

When the crosshairs of impending budget cuts find their way to a school board, one of the first programs to catch a bullet is inevitably the arts. Drama classrooms get re-tiled for use as math rooms, easels get boxed up and shipped to more affluent schools, and band instruments get hocked for extra spending cash and/or textbooks that don’t describe the Korean War as “our nation’s next big challenge.” Music education is viewed as less necessary – unnecessary in some eyes – to the growth and development of impressionable grey matter.

I’ll admit it, I’m a poor role model for the benefits of music education. Once I hit junior high, music class became an option. I don’t remember if I truly felt my skills would be better placed in drama and art classes or if I was just signing up for the classes being taken by the girls I was drooling after (either is possible), but that was the end of my music education. Everything I learned outside of identifying notes on a staff was self-directed. I taught myself theory because I wanted to figure out what the hell Dave Brubeck was doing. I put on Beatles records and learned how to drum and play piano (badly) by ear. I could have used some help back in school.

(I also learned all my piano-playing moves from Rawlf)

So why is music one of the first to go? With all the studies that have touted arts education as a key component to raising a forward-thinking society of full and complete people, how can any school be justified in forsaking this vast, sprawling wing of the mind?

Down in Tennessee (or up, depending on where your feet happen to be planted), music-maker and songsmith Ben Folds has been making music education one of his primary extracurricular missions. Along with Alec Baldwin, he addressed the issue before Congress back in April, aiming to shine a little daylight on the importance of arts education, and maybe get the federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts bumped up from paltry to stingy. In an interview this month with Nashville Arts Magazine, Mr. Folds points out that learning music tweaked his brain at a young age, giving him additional tools for logic and reason which led to greater success in all aspects of his schooling.

And that is – if I may coin a phrase – the bacon of the issue. The greatest argument for learning math beyond the stuff we actually might use as adults (emphasis on ‘might’ now that everybody’s phone has a calculator) is that it teaches us to think logically and methodically. Our brain can figure out problems because it was trained to do so by learning math. Music, and really all arts education, does the same thing. It trains our minds to move in new directions, and to work creatively.

The conspiracy-minded might tell me that the government doesn’t want us thinking creatively – they want us to be unquestioning drones. I don’t buy it. There are movements in music education trying to push their way through the cracks right now:

Kids Rock Free is a program started by the Fender Corporation back in 1998. There wasn’t a whole lot of music education in schools near their Museum of Music & Art in Corona, California, so Fender began offering lessons for free or almost-free. They started out by focussing on rock music, but the program was a huge hit so they expanded to include a technical program for learning music production, then programs for dance, theater and world music.

Steve Miller has been a long-time supporter of this program, so is Paul Rodgers, the lead singer and co-founder of Free and Bad Company. If you’re down around that area and looking for somewhere to throw a donation, this looks like a kick-ass cause, in that it actually teaches kids to kick ass. In a good way. Plus you’d be helping a kid learn how to play the riff to “Jet Airliner”, and what kid doesn’t want that?

If rock music isn’t your thing (somehow), the Stanford Jazz Workshop hosts summer camps, a Jazz Residency program, and all sorts of classes for all ages. You can probably find a way to learn jazz in any major city, but these cats draw in names like Stan Getz, Regina Carter, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Cobb and Joe Henderson to perform.

That photo up there? Taken in 1984, that’s drummer Bill Stewart, who has played with Maceo Parker, John Scofield, and an aspiring musician’s bucket list of others, and he’s learning from Dizzy Gillespie. If you live in the San Jose area, and if you have kids who dig jazz, then you’d be a cruel, cruel parent not to check this out.

Okay, this one doesn’t quite propel my hands into fits of applause. The original purpose of the National Anthem Project was to “revive America’s patriotism.” The program was launched in 2005 because not enough Americans knew all the words to the Star-Spangled Banner.

Okay, I’m all about music education, and once you appoint Laura Bush as honorary chairperson and the Oak Ridge Boys as official ambassadors, I’m not entirely sure creative mind-expansion is your end-game. Ultimately this program sought to get more schools singing the anthem every day. Hardly the same thing as teaching the arts but I suppose it’s microscopically better than nothing.

I don’t mean to sound bitter about the National Anthem Project; I suppose at the heart of it, it’s still about music. Well, it’s about one song. But America – and this goes for Canada too, or really anywhere else where there are people – needs to take arts-based education seriously. Both my kids attended an arts-heavy school, and they both got to dabble in projects and subject matter most schools could never hope to teach.

And yes, my son is now in University, taking a degree in music. The kid had a 90% average in high school, and could right now be in pre-med or pre-law, working his way toward a guaranteed six-figure income, but… what was my point again?

Right. Immersing him in the arts at school and home uncovered his dream. And it gave him the tools to follow his dream. He’ll be able to grow up without that gut-stabby regret of having never taken his shot, and that’s simply fantastic. My daughter wants to be an artist as well, which means that I really need to get busy on some high-yield investments or I’ll be spending my retirement in a refrigerator box.

Apologies for turning today’s piece into a semi-political soap-box rant (has anybody under 50 ever even seen a soap-box?). I’m sure tomorrow I’ll be back to making mocking jokes about the world and possibly referencing the fine, fine craftsmanship of Rogue Ales from Oregon.

I just felt this needed to be said. Also, feel free to help me propel the expression “the bacon of the issue” into the mainstream by using it yourself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s