Where has all the music gone?

The real reason we need to keep music in the schools.

The Way it Was… Classical Music’s Place

Growing up in a small town in Montana, I did not have access to a lot of cultural opportunities. The airport had one gate and two direct flights. The college was the state ag school, and it still felt like one. The old Baxter Hotel on Main Street had a blue light on the roof that flashed when there was fresh powder at the local ski hill 12 miles away. And the whole downtown shut down for the annual Christmas Stroll, which inevitably landed on the coldest day of the year. And probably most people didn’t notice the lack of serious culture in our town, for there was always the grandeur of those big open skies and the jagged clusters of mountain peaks that ringed the valley as far as the eye could see.

There was no art museum – our museum was famous for dinosaurs. And what art galleries there were catered mostly to the growing influx of rich retirees who were living out their Montana dreams and needed gaudy western art to fill their giant new log homes (I’m pretty sure real cowboys don’t have stools upholstered in rawhide or leopard-skin rugs on their living room floor). There were few theater shows, and even less dance. Ballet and opera were occasional treats, and only viable when touring soloists came to town to give the show a boost. As a teenager, there were few opportunities to see live popular music, and even for the over-21 set musical venues were limited.

But, we did have a symphony.

I remember those Sundays. Getting dressed up and tip-toeing through the snow to the car in fancy shoes; the long, cold drive into town while the heater warmed up; and hanging on to my dad’s arm as we made our way from the church parking lot across the ice to the old Willson School. It was a middle school in those days, and had the only large auditorium in town: I made my fifth-grade Shakespeare debut on that stage, and then years later attended my high school’s talent show there. On symphony Sundays there was a special feeling to the crowded lobby, a combination of anticipation and ceremonial elevation. Perhaps it was the trouble we took to dress up in a town where jeans are acceptable everywhere, or the effort it was to drive in through the winter weather. But I think it was also the emotional impact of the music, the shared experience of that wave of sound filling the cavernous hall. As a beginning instrumentalist, I remember watching the orchestra with a mix of pride and envy; the musicians appearing so distinguished in their formal black attire.

The symphony occupied a place of respect in our small town. Its grandiosity gave my school orchestra something to strive for. And there were plenty of nodding heads in that audience, as there always seem to be, but it never stopped people from going. Even my dad would doze through the slow parts (they really are soothing), but snap right awake for a rousing Tchaikovsky finale, and then go home enthusiastically recounting the highlights of the program. He is still amazed whenever a soloist performs with the symphony, and calls to tell me that they “played it all from memory!” The symphony was an Event. People from all kinds of professions felt it to be a necessary part of their life, even if they had no more understanding of music than what they had gained from listening through the years.

Finding Classical Music’s Voice in the Now

I think of this picture with a twinge every time I hear that music funding is being cut in the schools, again. The Baby-Boomer generation is perhaps the last to have been inculcated with a moral imperative to attend the symphony (or ballet, or opera). Yet, these inherited values from a bygone age appear to be weakening in the face of capitalism’s relentless materialism and deification of the dollar. Politicians who criticize the arts as a profession with both their speeches and their votes (notably, even our president) only continue eroding their status in our culture. Early exposure to the arts often fosters a lifelong appreciation, so the argument follows that if students are not exposed to classical music and given the opportunity to play an instrument as children, they will not be likely to populate symphony audiences as adults. Such a forecast spells doom for institutions like the symphony orchestra. Are we really willing to let classical music slowly slip away from the generations to come?

Take Classical Music Out of the Museum

Perhaps all we need to do is take classical music out of the museum; out of stuffy concert halls and back into our lives, as groups like Classical Revolution are doing. The symphony orchestra and the way we listen to it now – in hushed silence in a great hall – are relics of another era, nearly two centuries past. They are the vestiges of a society bent on the edification of its middle class through education and moral growth, for which purpose the symphony orchestra was deemed a primary tool. What’s more, supporters of classical music have been voicing fears of its demise for centuries now. The continued survival of the genre nearly 500 years on is proof alone of its staying power. What we call “classical” music has always thrived best when it responds to the needs and conditions of its encompassing society. Those works that have proven to be especially lasting are often those that captured particularly well some element of the contemporary zeitgeist – think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for example.

If classical music will retain its vibrancy in our era, it must continue to evolve with us and answer the guiding principles that speak to us now. And in many ways it already is. New music reflects the sounds we are craving, and mediums like film expose an incredibly wide audience to the genre outside of concert halls. As we move away from 19th-century ideals, however tenaciously they linger, we will find fewer audience members attending the symphony out of some sense of social propriety or moral duty. But we will always have an audience for the vast array of truly amazing sounds and works that have been passed down over the centuries. Just as there will always be an audience for Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Monet’s Water Lillies, so too will there be one for Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Handel’s Messiah. And with the efforts of radical conductors like the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Ivan Fischer and new music ensembles like Fear No Music, there may even be an audience for new works like John Luther AdamsThe Place Where You Go to Listen. An audience, moreover, that attends out of a sense of curiosity and adventure – in other words, for the fun of it. An audience that is dependent on the existence of a thriving music culture, and not simply the result of grade-school indoctrination.

If You Could Only Teach One Thing in School – My Vote is Music

Music in the Schools in Not to Fill Audiences

If we grant that classical music must evolve in order to solve its own problems of vitality and audience retention, then we have taken the wind out of most arguments for music in the schools. But there is something much more significant than job security for conductors that we are losing when we relegate music to an extracurricular activity. Beyond the cultural enrichment music offers young people, studies have shown that it positively impacts the development of the young brain – so much so that music studies can offset the academic gap between rich and poor.

Playing music involves every major region of the brain, including the auditory, visual, motor, and emotional centers. Music has been shown to improve communication skills, attention, and memory, and is particularly well-suited among the arts to increase motivation. Recent studies by the Harmony Project, in conjunction with Northwestern University, have additionally shown that young students who learn to play an instrument will increase their reading and speech skills – ultimately leading to higher graduation rates. Low-income students in the program are proving able to keep up with grade-level reading expectations while their compatriots who do not learn music cannot. This kind of success with students of low-income families has also been shown within the El Sistema programs (though debate about suspected political agendas in the program’s home country have somewhat clouded the method). Perhaps most significantly, neuroscience has shown that because learning music impacts the actual structure of the brain, these positive effects on brain function last into adulthood – even when the person no longer plays music.

Teaching Music Builds Better Brains

That’s right. Learning music, that is, learning to play an instrument as a kid, positively impacts brain function long after childhood, no matter what profession a child pursues. Music helps kids with motor skills, critical thinking skills, math and analytical skills, reading and communication skills, social skills, self-esteem, AND creativity. And music can do this for every student, so that our public education really could provide equal opportunity for EVERYONE to succeed. And yet, in recent years many, if not most, of the public schools here in Portland, Oregon (and likely in many other places in the country) no longer provide funding for music programs. This means that music education has become privatized, and only those parents who can afford private lessons will be able to give their kids access to these very important advantages in their development. A recent city Arts Tax has been implemented here, and is intended to provide schools in the Portland area funding for their choice of an art program or a music program. But does that go far enough? Given these advantages of music education, shouldn’t we demand that every child have the opportunity to be exposed to music in the schools? And if we don’t insist that music education be publicly funded, what are we saying about the structure of our society, and the power and advantages of the 1%?

Finally, does music education need to be primarily classical? While studies have not addressed this question with any rigorousness yet, it stands to reason that the harmonic complexity present in most classical music, and jazz for that matter, might lead to higher degrees of analytical and communicative understanding. There is a time and place for all genres of music, but to culminate musical learning with the four-chord pop song is rather like teaching a child that “See Spot run” is all they need to know of the English language. Without engaging too seriously with the myriad of high-art/low-art debates, I’d like to venture one step further and say that the depth of emotional expression possible in an abstract musical language is profound and worthy of a place in our schools.

The future of classical music does not keep me up at night – it will evolve with us as it always has, even if that evolution is toward something leaner. But, the health of our intellectual development and the trend toward fewer educational opportunities for our kids because it seems more cost effective – that is something to lose sleep over.