We talk a lot about America’s education crisis, especially in urban communities. When funding gets stripped, music programs are among the first ones cut. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the number of children who received any kind of arts education decreased by more than 21% from 1992 through 2008.
Yet there is a strong correlation between music performance and appreciation classes and academic performance. For example, students with a music education score 57+ points higher on verbal and 41+ points higher on math portions of the SAT compared to kids who’ve never been exposed to music classes.
We also know anecdotally how kids change when they’re part of a dedicated team. They learn to listen, to react, to respect each other and to respect their leaders.
I know how powerful a music education can be.
My parents exposed me to rigorous piano and clarinet lessons from a very early age, which required me to develop self-discipline, motivation and sustained focus. I performed and was critiqued in front of large crowds, which meant constant lessons in winning and losing gracefully. Symphonic music is complex, so I was forced to parse all those instruments, sub-melodies and tones in real-time as I listened and played. Classical music formed brand-new neural superhighways throughout my brain.
I spent many summers in marching band and at band camp. Which, yes, is natural to parody.
What actually happens at band camp looks nothing like what you see in movies. Serious summer music clinics are intense, difficult work. In my case, I was either in practice sessions or individual lessons eight hours a day, every day. I was surrounded by kids who worked just as hard as me, who pushed me to achieve more. I got to meet and work with some of the best musicians around. Screwing around and getting into trouble weren’t options. There wasn’t time. And besides, if I wasn’t well-practiced, I’d get screamed at in front of all the other kids the following day.
There’s a corollary here, of course: football. There are countless arguments for team sports as an antidote to all sorts of problems afflicting kids. Many families dream of their sons doing well enough to earn a scholarship to college and then making it to the NFL. Guess what? Only 6.5% of high school football players will play on a college team. Fewer than 2% will ever play professionally. The average high school graduate literally has a better chance of getting into Harvard than into the NFL.
I didn’t grow up in a fancy neighborhood. My parents weren’t season ticket holders for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was a struggle for my parents to send me to camp each year, and to pay for weekly lessons. It was a struggle for me to fit in daily practice time, to be patient and still during lessons and to find the courage again and again to perform in competitions and concerts. Even though I had no plan to become a professional musician, there was a reason for this investment: my mom was a teacher for 35 years, and she knew that a short-term sacrifice would pay dividends well into my future. She was right. I can draw clear lines between music lessons and my successes today. It’s not just me. Stephen Spielberg played clarinet. Bill Clinton played sax. Woody Allen still plays clarinet every day. Clint Eastwood, Alan Rusbridger and Condoleezza Rice are accomplished pianists. Warren Buffett and Steve Martin have mastered strings (Buffett — ukulele; Martin — banjo).
$1,348 per cheerleader; less than $100 per French Horn player.
Besides, football programs often cost way more than orchestras. High school football teams require more equipment, more teaching and coaching staff, and more funding for peripherals like transportation. When Marguerite Roza, the author of Educational Economics, analyzed the finances of one public high school in the Pacific Northwest, she and her colleagues found that the school was spending $328 a student for math instruction and more than four times that much for cheerleading — $1,348 a cheerleader.
I live in Baltimore, a city always grappling with low education funding. We have sports programs in public schools, but music is a long-forgotten extracurricular. Most kids in this city will graduate public schools without ever touching any kind of instrument. They will never have seen an orchestra in action. They won’t be able to connect the dots between Beethoven and Jessie J.
Baltimore kids deserve better. All kids deserve better.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is working hard to set an example for other communities. They’ve launched OrchKids, an effort to get instruments into the hands of students across the city. It’s a program that earned the BSO praise from the White House earlier this year. The BSO is home to the only female conductor of a major symphony. Marin Alsop is a powerful leader, someone girls look up to. And they’ve created programming just for kids, to help expose them to our greatest composers.
The BSO is doing incredible work, and it’s a world-class orchestra. But programs like OrchKids cost real money. That’s why this year I’m donating my birthday to the BSO.
Whether or not you live in Baltimore, I hope that you’ll join me.