In Anne Midgette’s February 2013 article for The Washington Post magazine, the headline asked “Can the Arts Save Students?” After spending many years working in the arts and education arena, I think the better headline might read, “Can the arts plant seeds for a brighter future”? And, I believe the answer is a firm and resounding—YES!
During the 1950s and 60s, school systems in the United States believed in the importance of the arts as part of an excellent education. I actually began my career as a music teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools during the ’60s.
At that time, there were music teachers—indeed departments—in every elementary, middle, and high school. There were bands, orchestras, choirs, and general music throughout the grades. There were performing opportunities for the students. Thousands of children attended Baltimore Symphony Orchestra education concerts. Some of those students went on to become musicians and teachers. Most went on to other professions.
One of my fondest memories is of giving blood at a Red Cross blood drive, and while laying there with a needle in my arm, the nurse began to sing the Western High School song. She had been my student decades before and still loved to sing. I was stunned that she actually remembered the song!
After the decentralization of school systems in the ’70s and the push for testing in the decades since, the arts have by and large been forced to take a giant step back—and unfortunately in some cases have been eliminated all together. That is not to say that there aren’t pockets of robust support for music education. Maryland continues to be supportive of arts education and it thrives in many of the counties throughout the state
Unfortunately, Baltimore City Public Schools, a district that arguably needs arts education the most, falls far behind the rest of the state in access to the arts for all of its children. There is a notable bright spot in the Baltimore School for the Arts, a wonderful high school for talented young people. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra OrchKids program, which is immersing nearly 600 pre-K through fifth grade kids from the most challenged areas of the system in a strong music education and social development program, is making a huge difference in the lives of these children—as shown by their test scores, attendance rates, and significant improvement in social and personal development.
I firmly believe that the United States has fallen behind in the world, in large part because of the lack of focus on the arts, most especially music, in these last decades. According to a 2012 report by Pearson, the United States places 17th in the developed world for education. Finland and South Korea top the list of 40 developed countries with the best education systems.
The study indicates that while funding is an important factor in successful education systems, a culture’s support of learning is even more critical—as evidenced by the highly ranked Asian countries, where education is greatly valued, and especially in music.
In the United States, we have lost several generations who weren’t involved in the arts in school—it isn’t surprising that they don’t get the importance of the arts. The same study found that American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading. There has been a great deal of research of late which points to the direct correlation between music, brain function, math, and language skills development.
Why as a society are we not getting this? The arts are FUNDAMENTAL to an excellent education and a creative, innovative society—we have too long considered it a frill—and see where we are!
President Obama is calling for expanded pre-K education and I couldn’t be more excited about the possibility that at long last we might as a country do something about this problem. But music must be a central part of the core of the early childhood curriculum—this is critical to development of the brain, language, discipline, focus, creativity, and self-esteem.
At the Baltimore Symphony, we are inaugurating the Music Box Series, concerts for the very young—6 months to 3 years—to help teach parents/caretakers the importance of immersing their children in music early as possible. In partnering with Ready at Five, an organization devoted to learning for the very young, we hope to underscore the importance of music in developing language, listening, focus, rhythm and coordination, pitch, and self-awareness.
I am hopeful that perhaps we are turning a corner in the United States in our understanding of what is needed to educate our children in the 21st century—and we must start now with the very young—and with the arts.