Why Music and Art Are Critical Components of Education

With the start of a new academic year, I ponder what educators need to give their students to provide what can fairly be called a “good education.” Most are likely to say that upon graduation, students need to be given the skills and smarts so they are ready to embark on a new chapter, whether in higher education or the working world.

This unquestionably means they need to meet standards in language arts, mathematics, science, technology, and social studies. They should have acquired a knowledge of what is acceptable behavior, and understand how the adult world expects them to dress, speak, and relate to others in order to succeed. We want them to have a solid understanding of their rights and responsibilities in the civic structure — what do they owe to their community and as members of the larger society?

Patrick Maggitti, Ph.D., Dean at the Villanova School of Business wrote in U.S. News & World Report “creative problem-solving is the most important attribute for success after graduation…”1.

Not every student has access to the best possible education, and the economically disadvantaged disproportionately receive a poorer education. In our 200 years of working to break the cycle of poverty, the New York City Mission Society has found that enriching education by including music and art boosts academic performance and encourages self-confidence, problem-solving and creative thinking.

A 2016 study published by the Arts Education Partnership2 found that students ages six to fourteen who participated in a music education program that emphasized social interactions through group instruction and group performances reported improved levels of self-control and fewer behavior problems than those who did not. The impacts of the program were stronger for children with less-educated mothers. The improvement in self-control and reduction in instances of aggressive behavior were stronger for boys than for girls, particularly when those boys have been previously exposed to violence.

Cleary, arts must be part of every school’s curriculum. As actor and singer Daveed Diggs once said, “I was really aware, even while it was happening, that the discovery of arts education in my life sort of saved my life.”

Arts are a lifeline that we can provide to our children — to open up their eyes, hearts and brains to new opportunities. While not a panacea, filling this gap by providing arts programming as after-school enrichment goes a long way toward closing the gap. For instance, our afternoon GRIOT program offers free music instruction to eight to eighteen year olds and reinforces vital STEM concepts while exploring the cultures and sounds of the African Diaspora.

Inspired by Grammy award-winning pianist Arturo O’Farrill and taught by classically trained musicians, GRIOT teaches foundational music concepts and instrument proficiency. It also introduces students to music technology, all while reinforcing STEM skills. By the end of each semester, nearly three quarters of the students enrolled in this program experience improvements in their math scores, and all can read music and play an instrument. This academic year, we are expanding the program to include piano lessons (thanks to support from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer).

Recognizing the value of ongoing arts programming, we also have incorporated arts lessons — and excursions to New York City cultural institutions — into our afterschool and summer Power Academy programming, so that learning becomes more tangible to the youngsters and young adults we serve. In another 2016 study3, students who participated in a field trip program to an art museum exhibited greater critical thinking about both representational and abstract artwork, and this impact was greatest for students attending schools with high levels of low income students.

Imagine what that means for children from low-income backgrounds, and how the simple inclusion of music and art programs can improve overall educational goals. Nonprofits like ours are stepping in to meet a need, but we cannot do this alone. We need our schools to devote resources to strengthen — not deplete — arts programming, and we need parents also to commit this school year to broaden their children’s awareness of the importance of arts and culture.

Our GRIOT cofounder, Arturo O’Farrill, says, “Learning music and playing music… has incredible parallels for our day-to-day existence as human beings. All the ideas of discipline and having a sense of yourself and translating that to music, that’s all part of life’s journey.”

We must ensure our children embark on this journey so they can be successful not only in school, but in their careers and in their lives.