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A Noteworthy Dilemma: The Importance of a Balance Between Music and Academic Subjects

By Natalie Martino | Final Research Essays

As soon as the heavy metal doors of the school slammed behind me and I took a step into the building, I could sense that something was different. Something was missing. The last time that I was in this middle school the halls were alive with excited children carrying instruments, humming or singing new pieces of music, hurrying to their classes. Bright posters and artwork covered the walls, advertising the upcoming band concert and the greatly anticipated spring musical, The Wizard of Oz. Peaking through open classroom doors, I saw teachers actively engaging students in innovative ways for the purpose of granting knowledge. Faint echoes of classical pieces drifted from the band and chorus rooms and diffused a comforting sound throughout the halls. Now, as I wandered through the quiet halls, it was impossible to ignore that something had definitely changed. The once excited children were replaced with robot-like beings, silently, methodically walking to class. Alas, the walls were largely bare except for a few posters for a math club or debate team. Where there once was creativity and laughter in the classrooms, there now was the drone of the youth obediently filling in the circles of a standardized test. The missing element was music to fill the halls and delight the ears; without it, creativity and imagination were lost.

Though this is only a bleak nightmare for me, this grey world is becoming a harsh reality for many schools today. Music programs are being sacrificed in order to create more class time for subjects of greater significance, such as math and English, under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2001. Standardized testing is conducted to measure academic improvement in these subjects. In many schools, students will only have one year of music in seven years of schooling. Ironically, it is believed that the implications of the Act, including cutting music opportunities, have pushed children further behind and stifled much creativity. This has provoked outrage from a considerable portion of voters. There is no doubt that the academic courses which include math and English individually have great benefits; however, if you combine these courses with music classes, the benefits will create a deeper meaning and a stronger base of knowledge for students. The skills learned and the positive effects from music are ignored and overlooked, leaving the youth less prepared for a global job market which demands creative thinkers. Now is the time to alter the direction of the United States’ public education system in order to allow for a balance between music and academic subjects, between creativity and logic. Music must be considered a significant academic subject in order to ensure a complete education of the youth.

The skills that can be gained from music are vastly underestimated. It is assumed that music courses can only provide the single skill of musical competency; however, music courses promote multiple proficiencies such as problem-solving methods and analysis of primary sources: skills associated mainly with standardized academic subjects.  James S. Cantor, a professor in teacher education at California State University, finds that engagement in the arts nurtures the development of “cognitive, social, and personal competencies” (59). Socially, music has been attributed with leading to the abilities to communicate, work in a group, respect multiple values, and set goals (Arts Education Partnership). Singing in a chorus or playing an instrument in a band requires a student to work with others in his or her section and balance their part with the other sections. No one part is more important than the others, no individual of greater significance, and leaders in the groups have the opportunity to rise. The ability to work with others effectively is a valuable skill for use in other classes as well as the job market.

Music education also promotes the skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist who worked to identify tools to improve students’ learning capabilities, found that “arts based teaching stimulates learners to break down concepts into component parts, combine parts into new and meaningful wholes, and make judgments about the worth of how ideas or materials are applied” (Cantor 59). Though all academic courses promote essential skills, music courses provide a real-world environment within school to put these skills into practice. For example, English courses promote critical thinking skills through analyzing literature and writing. However, music courses provide another environment within the school-day to use this skill through reading and composing music and working with other musicians.  In addition, studies have shown a connection with music education and motivation in other areas such as involvement in student government, succeeding in additional academic subjects, and participation in science fairs (Buchanan 38). You cannot put a price on this kind of opportunity for students to actively engage the skills that they have learned in other academic courses and extracurricular activities.

Besides the skills that can be attained, there are other benefits that are manifested in the arts. Merryl Goldberg, an author of several innovative books on education including Arts and Learning, finds that music courses, as an element of a necessary multicultural education, can bring out visions of “equity, empowerment, pluralism, empathy, and knowledge of others.” She goes on to assert that music is a universal language with the power to unite all peoples. It is immoral to deny the youth this connection, this “[engagement of their] hearts, minds, and bodies” (Cantor 61). These benefits aid in creating a youth that is more culturally aware.

The debate over music education brings up the question of how American people wish to be identified. Walter Askin, a Professor Emeritus of California State University, Los Angeles, and a world renowned artist, expresses that “the arts… challenge students with a series of ethical choices about what is worth doing, where we are going, which aspects of our reality need focus and attention, what needs to be changed and why.” He believes that exposure to music will socialize the youth to be a “sensitive, intelligent, self-governing, and self-directed people” (Kennedy Association). These traits characterize an enlightened youth, a youth that should be promoted by the principles of a democratic state.  It would be terribly alarming and hypocritical for the United States to be characterized by people of the opposite persuasion: individuals without a voice, mindlessly, blindly following the leaders.

Music is full of connections to humanity’s past as well as connections to the present. Understanding these connections leads to greater clarity and the ability to use the knowledge of the past to make informed decisions in the present. When in a music class, students will recognize musical works as primary sources which provide glimpses into human ideas, customs, and traditions. This will expand on knowledge gained in history classes. The Consortium of National Arts Education Associations stipulates that, “the arts are one of humanity’s deepest rivers of continuity. They connect each new generation to those who have gone before, equipping the newcomers in their own pursuit of the abiding questions: Who am I? What must I do? Where am I going?... we depend on the arts to carry us toward the fullness of our humanity” (Gerber 18). Without art education, which includes the greater music education movement, a piece of the human culture will be gone, therefore eliminating this connection and sense of purpose and belonging.

Music has the power to inspire deep meaning in each individual’s life that it touches. The purpose of music classes in public school is to develop musical intelligence so that any music listened to or played will encompass more importance than it would have contained without this knowledge. In his writing, “Principles for Principals,” Timothy Gerber, a Professor of music education at Ohio State University, quotes the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations:

Perhaps not all principals have experienced the glory of participating in a great performance, but surely they are familiar with the peak musical goose-bump experiences stimulated by private iPods and public performances. They know that even beyond arithmetic connecting to learning fractions and reading symbols, music is valuable for itself. Perhaps most important, the arts have intrinsic value. They are worth learning for their own sake, providing benefits not available through any other means (19).

This quote grasps the emotional feelings and sensations involved with music, on the most basic or advanced level. These feelings are ones that cannot be replicated by any other means.

Not only does music provide general knowledge and creativity, but it can bridge the gaps between the fundamental learning of other disciplines. Learning about Renaissance or Baroque composers in my European history class only consisted of memorization of the facts. However, I was fortunate enough in my chorus class to be able to sing pieces from these time periods. Lessons in this manner were more insightful, creating a greater understanding of and appreciation for history. The Kennedy Center, an organization devoted to research on arts education, stipulates that an “integrated curriculum and instruction allows teachers to connect subjects, illuminating important topics, ideas, issues, and experiences along lines of convergence. In addition, integrated approaches can stimulate new forms of cognition” (A Place For Art). Music encompasses essences of diversity, intensity, and complexity, making it an ideal course to bond all academic subjects. Without music classes, each child’s education will remain incomplete.

A major goal of the education system is to prepare the youth for the global job market. Daniel Pink, the author of the book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future, argues that the modern world is characterized by a “creative economy” (Spohn 9). We are in a “conceptual age” which demands creative thinking, problem-solving, “right-brained” individuals for employment. Pink goes on to explain that “the Master of Fine Arts is the new Master of Business Administration” (Spohn 9). Harold Taylor, a former president of Sarah Lawrence College and well-known thinker in the field of American public education, presents an argument on the importance of the arts in public schools:

Is the cure… to add more blocks of science and mathematics while we allow the arts and the humanities to languish? Do we not need just as many educated men and women in the fields of public affairs, public health, poetry, social work, politics, theater, education, dance, medicine, public administration, painting, and government? Do we not need scientists and engineers who combine with knowledge and skill of a practical kind sensitivity to human values, a sense of social responsibility, and understanding and appreciation of the arts? The widest sweep of the imagination, the deepest level of intuition, the greatest command of insight are as necessary to the true scientist as to the poet or to the philosopher. (Gerber 23)

Why is the American education system preparing students for a labor market through standardized testing that does not exist outside of the classroom? If modern jobs require creativity and innovation, should we not equip them with these skills? It is in each child’s best interest for schools to promote creativity-inspiring classes such as music to complement other academic subjects such as math and English.

An example of a school district that recognizes the benefits of music education is Adams County of Colorado. Kathi Levin, a promoter of music education and author of Bucking Trends: Expanding the Arts, explains that after years of the schools not having music programs, the state school board attested that standardized testing caused the students to slip further behind academically. The music programs were restored which led to seven years of assessment gains. John Lange, the superintendent of the county, finds that “when a student learns a musical instrument, it translates into a belief that if I can learn this, I can do math” (Levin). There is no better feeling, no better boost to one’s self-confidence than from achieving a skill that takes a tremendous amount of hard work. However, being involved with music can be very expensive with the costs of the instrument, music, lessons, and performances, so the leaders of Adams County have found a way to relieve the strain. This district is characterized by low-income families so the schools resort to fundraising and grant support in order to provide instruments and private lessons to students. They recognize that the benefits to the youths’ social and academic development are worth the monetary cost. At this point, without universal federal support, each district must take it upon itself to take action to maintain music programs.

The struggle to bring attention to music and its benefits is not a recent development, since music programs have been in jeopardy since the 1950s. The Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik during the Cold War prodded the United States into a race of scientific expansion. Controlled by the government, schools shifted a majority of their focus to science, technology, engineering and math and away from the arts in order to prepare the youth for jobs dealing with national security and defense.

However, it was not until 2001 with the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act that music became systematically deemphasized. The principle of the Act was that every struggling student should have the opportunity to succeed. It focuses on gaining considerable improvement in academic achievement for each student and measures the advancement through extensive testing. Terry Holliday has experience on both sides of the music education issue as a former band teacher and now a superintendant of a school district. Holliday argues that an unfortunate repercussion from testing is the stifling and narrowing of creativity because teachers teach directly for the test (8). When a school’s scores in each subject improve, the school will benefit monetarily. However, music is a course that cannot be tested because musical talent or fluency is a subjective matter (Cantor 60). Therefore, it is pragmatic for a struggling school to focus its funding on testable subjects such as math and English instead of on music. However, with this system, children are merely “numbers on a chart” instead of “people striving to better their lives through a well rounded education, which includes the arts” (Hastings 42). A balanced education for students is lost with the sacrifice of the arts.

Schools will also pull struggling students with poor academic achievement out of music classes in order to give them double-periods in math or English. The motives behind the schools’ actions are moral, for they have the students’ best interests in mind. However, it is unclear why a school would choose to take away something that provides students interested in music with joy, provides a respite from the mundane, perhaps provides a reason for coming to school, and then gives those students double-periods of what they hate (Hastings 43). This has the potential to do nothing more than turn those students entirely against the education system. In addition, leading arts educators represented in the National Endowment for the Arts recommend that 15% of instructional time during the school day be devoted to music education for Elementary and Middle School students (Gerber 18). The recommended time cannot be allotted for students with the implementation of double-periods meaning that students are missing out on all of the possible benefits. The No Child Left Behind Act’s policies, though intending to raise the over-all caliber of every student, underestimates the vital role that music can play in a versatile education and thereby limits each student’s potential.

If state school boards do not openly recognize the significance of music education and then create policy to protect it, music programs will continue to diminish. The superintendent of the Columbus District of Ohio explained that, “one of the unintended consequences of balancing the budget and continuing our academic progress was some arts people have been reduced” (Gerber 17). However, it hardly seems that the reduction of enrollment can be deemed insignificant or discussed so nonchalantly. Though the District has grown 11% in recent years, the number of students enrolled in a music course dropped 13% for High School and 58% for Middle School (Gerber 17). An attempt was made in 2006 in Ohio to increase attention to the music education cause. The Ohio Core legislation called for a rigorous curriculum to better educate the youth and included a mandatory fine arts credit in order to graduate. In theory, this Act seemed to be a step in the right direction, but, once again, music education was deemed a trivial concern. Every academic requirement had to be completed during high school except for the one fine arts requirement. For this, students could complete the credit anytime between sixth and twelfth grade (Gerber 17). It is understandable that not every student will have an interest in music; however, because of the clear benefits and its status as an element of a complete education, the music requirement should be more than just one class in seven years of schooling.

Music classes often are the losers of scheduling conflicts because of the greater emphasis on math and English. Many music teachers in the Columbus District lost musical students to Advanced Placement courses because the possibility of college credits trumps the overlooked and underestimated musical benefits (Gerber 18). In order to further the message of the importance of academic courses, math and English have been incorporated into music classes. Though this would have the potential to add a beneficial dimension to musical knowledge, the systematic integration has left musical knowledge playing second fiddle in a class where it should be playing the lead.

Another point to consider when pursuing this issue is the opinions of the public. Public opinion shows that there is a bloc of United States voters who are worried about the direction of the education system. A poll conducted by the Imagine Nation organization and reported by Andrew Trotter, an Assistant editor of Education Week, found that 30% of voters are fed up with the education system and desire the purpose of school to be for students to gain knowledge and think critically instead of improve scores on standardized tests. Fifty-six percent of voters feel that standardized testing discourages students’ imagination and creative skills (9). Richard J. Deasy, the director of a coalition which includes the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts, said, “We’re finding that the public is seeing that if you don’t have a capacity to imagine, you’re not going to make anything anyway” (Trotter 9). Fewer than half of public schools are not teaching any form of imagination skills which has become an alarming statistic for a society which demands critical thinkers. Elected government officials should take notice of this monumental interest group and bloc of voters when running for reelection.

When discussing the debate over music education, it is vital to remember that the main goal of this discussion is to provide the most effective education for the youth of this country. The overarching goal of education is to aid children in being well-rounded and prepared for the world. The children’s best interest must be of the utmost importance. Schools should not be like factories, using standardized testing to improve the efficiency of producing knowledgeable students, for it will do nothing more than turn those students against learning entirely. The preference of a quantifiable test over a well-rounded, quality education not only drastically inhibits music but also will lead to a complete loss of creativity, understanding, of innovation in technology, math, English, and in science. Academic courses comprise the core of a strong education but music adds an essential element, a new dimension to heighten the benefits of that education. The benefits and positive effects of music courses should not be overlooked. A balance between creativity and logic, between art and academics should exist. It is absolutely imperative that awareness be drawn to the cause of music education to ensure the futures of the American youth.

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