Why We Need Music Education

A Statement by John J. Mahlmann

“Music of the Heart,” the Miramax film is based on the real-life story of Roberta Guaspari, a woman who started and maintained—as she maintains to this day— a music performance program for kids in East Harlem. The plot highlights the teacher’s strength and spirit in overcoming adversity, the friendships that helped her accomplish her goal, and the way that the kids and community benefit from her efforts.

All of which makes for a great movie. But the part that really interests me, as the director of an association of more than seventy thousand music teachers, is the fact that she meets her goals and touches the lives of children through music.

Now I suspect that most viewers will find this eminently believable. Most parents can reflect on their kid’s experiences in school— or think back to their own school years—and conclude that many, many children stay engaged in school and rise to new heights as students because of involvement in the music program. Students are drawn into the unique mix of group identity and personal accomplishment offered by the experience of playing music with others in an ensemble. And they soon learn something of the nature of work as they strive to make the group sound better and be better by the collective and individual efforts of each musician—a learning process that they carry over into their other studies.

This result of music study—the development of a deep sense of community accomplishment based on personal effort— comes out beautifully in Streep’s portrayal of the music teacher in the movie. It’s a believable portrayal because parents and students seem almost universally to grasp this result of music study and to expect it from their music teachers and music programs in their schools.

But can parents universally expect that their local school has an adequate music program? The answer is more nearly “yes” now than it was five or ten years ago because of two factors: first, our current national prosperity has meant fuller funding for schools in general, and second, the establishment of national standards for music education and the development of similar standards in most states has forced music teachers and everyone else in the educational establishment to reconsider any ill- conceived notion that music study can be marginalized

And the standards have come just in time for a new wave of expectations by parents. Parents now have higher expectations, based on a growing body of research that shows that music study will help children grow and achieve success in many ways —in society, in school, in developing intelligence, and in life. There are enough solid results from this research (though, to be sure, some results of the earliest studies in the field continue to be debated) that parents are on firm ground when they add these expectations to their arguments calling for a well-planned music curriculum.

But though the picture for music education for kids is rosier now than in the recent past, we are not yet at the point where parents can expect an adequate music program in every school. True, our strong economy has allowed most school districts to feel capable of funding music programs —but too often, problems in the local picture outweigh the national trend. Too often, local decision-makers are faced with hard choices regarding time and funding for various academic programs—and too often, the music program suffers. Too often, schools and school districts with low levels of achievement are faced with making these hard decisions—and too often, the children that could most use the discipline and engagement brought by music study are the ones to be denied the opportunity.

“Music of the Heart” shows what can happen when a school gives kids the opportunity to study music. I hope that everyone who sees the movie comes to understand the importance of music in our schools and our communities and spreads the word about why music is so essential to us all. And then, we need to work together to support music programs, keeping the benefits of music in mind when making decisions as parents, as taxpayers, and as citizens.

If it can be done in most of the country in the midst of prosperity—and if it can be done in East Harlem in the context of an economically struggling community—we can ensure that it is done everywhere in our nation. For all our children.

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