Love Trumps Hate

In the midst of today’s extremely serious and tragic social, political, racial, gendered, and other conflicts, can amateur and professional music makers and school and community music programs contribute to positive social and community transformations?

Yes. To demonstrate our solidarity with and support for all those who are suffering, we’ll post one example of active music making for positive social transformations every day from today (08/16/2017) until the American Labor Day holiday (09/04/2017), at which point we’ll resume our regular schedule of posts on related topics.

If an important part of positive social transformations includes exposing social injustices and preparing future music makers to “put their music to work” for human betterment—as many classical, pop, rock, and hip-hop performers and composers (and others) are doing now and have done for decades—then we begin to see the potential of what we and others call “artistic citizenship education.”
So artistic citizenship goes beyond academic talking and writing about social justice because it emphasizes actions for transformation. “Intellectualizing”—reading, writing, and discussing—do not by themselves move people to take meaningful embodied and social actions for social change. This point is extremely important for educating our students’ dispositions to participate (now or in the future) for social change. To motivate people to join a social movement of any kind, small or large, it is essential that they engage in some kind of action. For example, students in school and university music classrooms can learn to compose, perform, and record songs, or create musicals and/or other kinds of musical events that challenge a wide range of social injustices.

Engaging in some kind of action is essential because “people’s personal identities transform as they become socially active, and actions for social justice create new categories of participants, and political groups: identities modify in the course of social interaction” (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 126). As Jean Anyon (2005) says, “One develops a political identity and commitment … from walking, marching, singing, attempting to vote, sitting in, or otherwise demonstrating with others” (142).

Musical actions of all kinds, small and large, often rise to the level of what Stephen Duncombe calls “ethical spectacles.” An ethical spectacle is a “dream” imagined (“I have a dream,” said Martin Luther King) that is made concrete when members of social movements of all kinds—including music makers of all ages and levels—participate democratically in creating the spectacle. Their political aims are expressed in their means of protest. (171). Duncombe cites the example of the civil rights movement in which leaders often modeled their interracial “beloved community” in the ways they actually organized and carried out their protests, which included singing and playing music. In these cases, music was not an escape; it was not usually a “staged” performance but participatory music making (Turino 2008). Its meaning was in the actions of transforming the oppressors and the oppressed.

A musical-ethical spectacle “demonstrates” against oppressions. Ethical spectacles help to disrupt cultural hierarchies, build safe communities, promote diversity, and engage with reality while asking what new realities might be possible (Duncombe, 126).

Our students can—we believe they should learn to think critically about and, we suggest, be prepared to—engage in music making to create small and large ethical spectacles in/for their schools and communities.

Crucially, if we conceive “music” not as a noun with rigidly encoded power relationships, but, instead, as a process of mutual music making, shared musical-ethical responsibilities, and reciprocal musical power sharing toward a joint social project involving sympathy and empathy, then we might find a major path to reconciliations through groups that make musics together. This is already happening in many schools worldwide.

5 Examples of Music for Humane Values

Music and music education can yield a wide variety of humane values, including the following:

1. Brass for Africa: Music can engage, empower, and repair.

2. The North Jersey Home School Association Chorale is an award-winning chorus directed by Beth Prins. Prins teaches music as a vehicle for “doing good” in the world. For example, as part of their schedule of events when touring France one summer, they performed at special-needs schools, private boarding schools, juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, and gave two charity concerts to raise money for the victims of a recent earthquake in Haiti. According to their personal testimonies, the singers make music for “civic goods.” In their minds, their voices embody their personal and collective sense of mutual care, community, and spirituality.

3. Jahmir Wallace and his trumpet provide a moving example of helping a person to make a life of personal and communal significance and meaningfulness.

4.  After graduating from the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, Mary Piercey chose to become a school and community music teacher in a small Inuit community on the western shore of Hudson Bay, in the Region of Canada called Nunavut. When Piercey arrived in Arviat, it was an impoverished, hopeless, drug-infested wasteland.  To make a long story short, and largely because of Piercey’s skillful and imaginative use of musics in the service of social activism and artistic citizenship, the people and the traditional culture of Arviat and the surrounding region began to heal and blossom.

5. Performing, composing, and improvising music—among other musical engagements—can assist people with physical, psychological, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges. One example of music making for well-being is found at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. In any given music therapy session at the 30th Street Men’s Shelter there is a revolving number of participants. While the unit usually consists of 30 men, the number of participants in any given session varies, depending on the men’s needs and desires. They are not forced to go to music therapy; they go because they want musical-communal interactions. The sessions focus on musical improvisation. Percussion and string instruments are placed in the center of a session room. When the men walk into a session, they are free to choose whatever instrument appeals to them on that given day. They sit down and, as they wait for the session to begin, they play their chosen instruments, reacquainting themselves with musical materials. Research supports the claim that the men experience transformative communal engagement, and a feeling of power and control over their own lives.

While some people may assume that the values experienced in each of these cases are extra-musical—values such as a sense of community, well-being, social healing, and spirituality—they are not. They are all MUSICAL values because they are products of personal and group music making and listening.

Distinguishing between “musical” and “extra-musical” values makes little sense. The eminent UCBerkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin argues that the musical/extra-musical divide yields more harm than good. He states: “music regarded as set off from the world is still in the world, doing worldly work…musical meaning [arises] out of relation between music and its many contexts.” To characterize these meanings (namely, all results from musical experiences) as “extra-musical” is as illogical as it is pretentious.

Relatedly, music education philosopher Wayne Bowman states that to distinguish between musical and extra-musical value misses the mark entirely. All values, states Bowman, are functions of “the differences they make: the ways they enable people to thrive.” And whether or not music does achieve this potential depends on the ways it is experienced. We agree with Bowman when he says that music does not automatically “make people smarter, or more sensitive, or more perceptive, or better citizens.” It all depends. It depends on so many variables, too numerous to mention here.

Musics are a hub of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through music occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of music making and listening. In other words, “we make it true” that one or more musical values happen in/to us when we participate in musics.

5 reasons to advocate carefully for music education

Peter Greene’s blog post—Stop “Defending” Music Education (6/11/2015)—has been floating in the blogosphere for a long time. Some people “Like it,” others don’t, and some don’t read it carefully.

The gist of Greene’s argument is not that music educators should stop defending music education. He’s arguing that we should stop defending what we do by “touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter.” In the end, says Greene: Don’t advocate like this!

We agree—which doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says in his blog. Some of his points are right on target, but some need deeper probing.

For now, we’ll spotlight 5 issues and/or mistakes that some music educators overlook when they automatically believe “pop” advocacy claims and/or disagree with Greene’s main point. But before explaining these issues, let’s review some obvious points.

In American schooling, literacy and numeracy, and standardized tests of math and reading, are highly valued, very often at the expense of other aspects of education. The message that some music teachers take from these facts is that if we want our music programs to survive, then we should surrender to educational policymakers, which means telling parents and administrators what they want to hear (“whatever works”) like “music raises math and reading scores,” “music boosts the brain,” or any other non-musical “added-value gains.” So, many music teachers use the “whatever works” strategy to support and save their music programs.

We understand why teachers feel this way, but we don’t support these assumptions and actions. Here’s why:

1. There is NOT a critical mass of excellent research that supports claims that music raises math and reading scores, or that music boosts the brain, etc. Scholars who’ve studied possible links between music and different forms of cognitive achievement for 20, or 30+ years haven’t developed anything approaching a consensus on these issues.

So if you’re a teacher who makes “added-value” claims, be ready for one of two results:

(a) Someday, a parent or administrator will challenge you to produce solid evidence to support your claims. If you haven’t spent a lot of time studying research, good luck defending your claims. If you have, you’ll find out that nobody knows for sure—not even close.

(b) Someday, an administrator might believe you when you say that music raises math and reading test scores. If so, s/he may start evaluating your music students based on their math and reading scores, not on their musical achievements. And s/he will start evaluating you on your students’ scores.

As we mentioned in a previous post, we have many school music-teacher colleagues in New York City and beyond who are being assessed on their students’ test scores in math and reading, and so are their students. If you decide to defend your music program with empty claims about the non-musical benefits of music, this could easily “kill the music” in your music program.

So let’s be very careful what we claim and wish for, which is Peter Greene’s point, too. Claiming that music “makes students smarter,” or better at math or literacy, could produce negative outcomes for music teachers.

2. A big issue many teachers fail to think about is this: What do advocates mean when they say “music” raises math and reading scores, or “music” boosts your brain? Do they mean Jay Z’s hip-hop music boosts your brain? Or do they mean West African drumming, Philip Glass’s minimalist’s pieces, or Shakuhachi flute playing increase cognitive functioning? Maybe they mean that kids who play Holst’s First Suite in Eb for Military Band—or Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, or sing “O Music, Sweet Music,” or play “Twinkle, Twinkle”—will get better math scores. Or maybe they mean kids will develop better language skills if they listen to Taylor Swift’s songs, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “Music” is hugely varied, which is another reason why researchers don’t know whether or not “music” has specific non-musical benefits.

For example, is there any solid research that demonstrates there is a one-to-one causal relationship between playing or listening to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and (a) a significant increase in (say) all 8-year-old boys’ math scores in Los Angeles (or any place), or (b) marginal improvements in all adolescents’ listening abilities in Harlem, or anywhere else? No. There is absolutely no valid and reliable research that indicates or “proves” any such claims. If you don’t believe us, read these researchers, who’ve spent their lives studying such things: Glenn Schellenberg, Ellen Winner, and Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

3. The eminent British music scholar Susan Hallam also questions the relationship between music and mathematical abilities. She asks: What math? All math? Specific mathematical principles? Geometry? Calculus?

4. One variable that people tend to omit when they talk about “music and the brain,” or “music raises academic scores,” is that TEACHERS play a huge role in whether or not music students succeed musically, or whether music motivates them to achieve more in school and life. A great—an effective, educative, and ethical—teacher, who is also musical, may improve students’ lives. But s/he can’t claim that there’s a causal relationship between her music teaching and better academic achievement because there’s far too many variables involved in students’ lives.

5. Do you = your brain? No. Do scientists know everything there is to know about the human brain? No.

Neuroscientists aren’t even close to understanding everything about the brain. Scientists’ current knowledge of the brain is extremely incomplete. Imagine that the brain = Mt. Everest. From this perspective, the majority of scientists argue that our present understanding of the brain is only in the foothills of Everest. Scholars aren’t even close to the summit.

As neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explains, the brain “is the most complexly organized structure in the universe.” The brain contains 100 billion nerve cells or “neurons” that engage in “something like 1,000 to 10,000 contacts with other neurons” all the time, which means the brain is entirely capable of making and maintaining about 100 trillion synaptical connections. Stated another way, “the number of possible permutations and combinations of brain activity … exceeds the number of elementary particles in the known universe.”

If each person is unique, and if it’s true that the current population of our planet is about 7 billion people, is it likely that today’s scientists know enough about the brain to be sure that every American adolescent hears, feels, interprets, and values Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, or “If I Had Hammer,” in the same way? No.

Takeaway message: The next time you read an advocacy blog that says music boots the brain, or that music is good because it stimulates the right brain, or music increases math or literacy skills, it’s nonsense. Music is processed throughout the brain, the body, and the mind. Our experiences of music making and listening result from our unique conscious (and nonconscious) interactions with the world. Such interactions are extremely complex.

Summing up, scientists simply don’t know exactly how the brain functions. Accordingly, it’s dangerous to advocate for music education using music-and-math, and music-and-brain claims. However, we do know why music is valuable for its own sake—for the “goods” of actively engaging in music making and listening, as we explain in MM2 and elsewhere.

Destroying Public Education

Thank you to Diane Ravitch who quotes Ira Shor on the Senate Revision of NCLB:

“The private war on public education is not about education, not about good teaching or deep learning, or about what kids need to become strong students, or what families need from their local schools to nurture them and their communities. It’s about theft, period, the private commercial seizure of the vast budgets and assets of public schools, transferring them to private hands, enriching private entrepreneurs and religious schools with the tax monies once set aside for public units. Hollowing out the public sector so that public schools lose capacity, morale, and appeal is absolutely essential to the success of this theft. We are the targets of crime initiated by the private sector and enabled by their cronies in government.”

Educational “Reform” Measures the Wrong Things

Steven Nelson (via Diane Ravitch), Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, makes extremely important points when he says that so-called Educational “Reform” (e.g., Common Core “Standards”) is not intended to make deep and lasting improvements in education, but to “measure” students and accumulate “data” for the purposes of deciding the amount of funding schools will get and to make it easy for huge Corporations (e.g., Pearson) and Wall Street investors to reap huge profits:

“It is not coincidental that the education policy and reform business is highly profitable. Public education is estimated to be a $600-700 billion market. Those who drive the measuring and testing industry are first in line at the trough. Pearson Publishing, for example, has its greedy tentacles in nearly every school district in America. All the iterations of reform—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and, more recently, the Common Core— are driven by (and driving) the collection and interpretation of data.”

So it’s not only that “what gets tested [using high-stakes tests] is what gets taught,” it’s “what makes money for corporations and investors is what gets taught.”

Because music education has no immediate, short-term, hard-currency profits or products that narrowly educated business people and policymakers can measure—music is often eliminated to make room in the curriculum for math and literacy test prep that’s not “educational,” because standardized test scores are neither valid nor reliable indicators of deep mathematical and literary understanding. Or anything else.

Well-educated, experienced, and ethical teachers, says Diane Ravitch, “seek development, not accountability. What matters most cannot be measured.”

Nelson puts it this way: “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors. This simple statement succinctly characterizes why the American education system continues beating its head against the wall.”

The same goes for music education. It’s exceedingly important for music teachers—and NAfME advocates—to keep in mind that “reform” policies were not developed by expert educational researchers. They were initially developed by economists and corporate employees who conceive education as a business; instruction as input, output; students as widgets. These business-based (e.g., Pearson) “educationalists” are not well-educated assessment experts—not even close.

Not surprisingly, then, reform policies have done irreparable harm to students, parents, and school systems across the U.S., and to public school music teaching and learning at all levels.

As music educators know, the irreparable harm of “reform” includes a national assault on arts education that’s resulted in the elimination of countless excellent school music programs and expert and dedicated music educators.

Therefore, as well as advocating for the intrinsic values of music making and listening of all kinds, it’s equally important that music educators join the ranks of thoughtful scholars, teachers, and parents who are resisting reform efforts, boycotting testing, and fighting for holistic curricula.

Music will become a central component in every child’s education if and only if public stakeholders push back hard against undemocratic corporations, politicians, and policies. Music educators must help other educators break free from narrow, ill-conceived concepts of education such as Common Core.

Let’s join and support perceptive, courageous, and well-informed parents, teachers, testing experts, and scholars, and the Badass Teachers Association who have valid reasons for being anti-testing and anti-Common Core Standards; people like Fred Smith, a veteran testing expert who worked for the New York City Board of Education. Smith warns parents that Pearson will be administering field tests in the schools in June. He provides a list of schools where the field tests will be given. He urges parents to opt their children out of the field tests.

The opt out movement is proving to be the most powerful tool that parents have against the whole agenda of test-and-punish “reform” that is being foisted on children and schools, benefiting no one but the testing industry.

As Diane Ravitch reports: “Long Island is the national hotbed for opt outs. It is a model for the nation. Parents are organized and active; they have the support of many principals and superintendents.” Their message is: “We are taking back our schools.”

Sadly, the music education profession has a long and destructive history of jumping into bed with every new state and federal “educational” policy that comes down the road (e.g., NCLB, Common Core)—without first analyzing and anticipating the potentially harmful consequences these policies will have for music education. Too many music education advocates are obedient followers, not reflective and wise leaders. NCLB didn’t result in the addition of more and better school music programs, and neither will Common Core. So, why is NAfME supporting Common Core? It might make some sense in the immediate political environment, but not in any truly educational sense.

Nelson’s last points are equally applicable to music education:

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced of this simple statement: ‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’ is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave.

“Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

“Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured, even if only in our hearts, the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors” among which he includes music—“reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery . . .music, cooperation rather than competition.”


Music Education and Advocacy

My father was an exceptionally good jazz pianist. He was a self-taught amateur. He played every night at home after his daily work and at sing-along parties with our neighbors on Saturday nights. And he composed songs for his own satisfaction and for the delight of his friends. I loved the sounds he played, improvised, and composed.

The joy and excitement that swirled around his music making at our family and neighborhood musical get-togethers was infectious and socially transforming. I wanted to be like him; I wanted to be able to do what he did. So after starting me out at age 4 with informal jazz piano lessons at home, he took me to a local community music school in Toronto for regular lessons with Vincent Cinanni, a professional jazz, pop, and classical pianist and composer—a wonderfully artistic, creative, and kind man. I was five-years-old. Soon I began to play at our musical gatherings, surrounded by supportive adults who sang and played along on guitar, harmonica, and violin.

Although my K-6 elementary school music education was unsystematic, with infrequent opportunities to engage in music making, I was asked to play piano at many school and community functions. These little gigs started to build my musical-personal identity as “the musician” among my peers and teachers.

During my middle and secondary school years, two deeply talented musicians-music educators—Glen Wood and Bob Cringan—worked diligently to involve my peers and I in all forms of music making and listening. Because of them, I became involved in band and jazz band groups as a performer, arranger, composer, conductor, and a novice teacher of my peers.

These rich and varied experiences allowed me to take leadership roles in my school music programs and in many community music groups, including my own professional dance bands and jazz bands. And so it was—with a rich and joyful foundation of musical experiences—that I began to study music at the University of Toronto and that I made a commitment to music education.

All of these experiences formed the bedrock of the praxial philosophy of music education I wrote in the first edition of Music Matters (1995) and, now, in MM2, with Marissa Silverman.

Advocacy in Action!

My point in relating my personal story is to suggest that although verbal statements about the values of music education are necessary and fundamental forms of advocacy, the most powerful means of making our case are the processes and social settings of musical particip-action that yield deep satisfactions for participants of all ages and ability levels.

For example, a parent engaged in joyful music making and listening usually means a child engaged in music making and listening. A school principal, politician, or business person involved in personally and/or social satisfying experiences of singing, playing, composing, and listening is likely to support school and community music education.

So in addition to teaching our students, we need to find more and various ways to provide meaningful musical experiences for our students’ parents and friends, other teachers in our schools, and political and business leaders in our communities. And we need to find ways to create community music groups and school-community partnerships that provide opportunities for parents, colleagues, and others to engage in joyful music making and listening and witness our music teaching expertise in action.

So what about written and verbal advocacy? Yes, of course, it’s imperative to consider scholarly views about the values of music and music education as a basis for evaluating advocacy statements and as material for valid and reliable advocacy claims. But it’s essential to keep in mind that music education advocacy (or MAD, for short) and music education philosophy (or MEP) are fundamentally different. Why? Because MAD too often focuses on the “short, fast sell” using fluffy sound bites, incomplete or “pop research,” and t-shirt slogans (“Music Raises Math Scores!”) tailored to fit the latest “school reform” mandate (e.g., Common Core Standards). Thus, MAD blogs, ads, and articles often “dumb down” the complexities of our profession, mislead parents, and demoralize excellent music teachers. This is why it’s so important to approach MAD cautiously and critically, and to teach future music educators to do the same.

By the way, I’m terrible at math. TERRIBLE!

MEP is about thinking very carefully about what people say and do, being skeptical when reading MAD claims, and asking: Where’s the large body of recent and excellent research that we must have before we can be confident in saying music education can raise math and reading test scores, or music education improves academic achievement?” MEP is about combining scholarly sources in many fields—and the informed, practical wisdom of experienced teachers—to carefully formulate our professional aims, goals, objectives, curriculum content, teaching strategies, and assessment procedures.

But, and……….— here’s the takeaway message—long before I started to read advocacy statements and scholarly discussions about the natures and values of music, music education, and community music, I experienced over and over again—in my childhood and adolescent years—the creative and emotional powers of music through active music making and music listening. This probably holds true for many people, including most music educators and community musicians.

If so, then our concept of “advocacy” should include but go far beyond words. We should—we must— put our musical, educational, financial, diplomatic, and social skills and understandings to work to make it possible for more people in our communities to experience the joys and satisfactions of music-making and, therefore, to “make a life in music” to the extent they desire.

The future strength and security of school music programs depends not on using music for MAD purposes, but on our ability to combine valid, evidence-based verbal and written explanations about the values of music education with our best musical actions toward achieving much wider and more varied approaches to music instruction inside and outside schools.

We must find ways to engage more and more people of all ages, in all walks of life, in personally and socially meaningful, satisfying, and joyful musical particip-action.

Music = ax2 + bx + c. Huh?

As music education professor and music psychologist Don Hodges says  “we should teach music for all the wonderful humanizing benefits that accrue, and if—big “IF”—academic achievement is affected positively, that is extra value added.”

If you’re tempted to believe all the hype about how music education definitely, actually, absolutely increases the likelihood that students will achieve higher scores on standardized tests of math and reading, consider three counter arguments by top scholars who’ve spent their long careers researching relationships between music education and achievement scores: Dr. Ellen Winner, Dr. Glenn Schellenberg, and Dr. Eugenia Costa-Giomi.

1. Ellen Winner is Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College and a Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. Winner is the author of over 100 articles and four books. In 2000 she received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts. Winner has devoted her long and distinguished career to supporting and improving school arts programs through copious scientific research on relationships between the arts and intelligence, thinking, and creativity, and the “invaluable habits of mind that arts education teaches us.

Winner rejects the claims of arts advocates when she says “there is NO definitive evidence that music improves math.” To take one example, her research team studied “mathematicians’ self-reported musicality” and compared them to people in other fields: “We asked over 100 PhDs in math . . . to self-report on all kinds of measures of their musicality. And guess what we found? No difference.” People in other fields “are just as likely to report being musical (including playing an instrument) as people in mathematics.”

2. Glenn Schellenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has spent decades investigating possible relationships between music, math, and reading. After one (among many) large meta-analysis of correlation studies, Schellenberg concludes that if music lessons correlate with improved math abilities, this does NOT mean that music causes improvements in math abilities. It may only mean “children with high IQs (who perform well in a variety of test settings) are more likely than other children to take music lessons.

To repeat: correlation is not the same as causation. Just because two things occur together doesn’t mean that one thing (e.g., music making, or music listening) caused the other, even if it seems to make sense—or even if we desperately want to say something like “musical participation will raise math scores.”

3. The renowned music education researcher Eugenia Costa-Giomi (University of Texas-Austin) argues that there is not a single study” supporting the claim “that classical music improves young children’s cognitive development.” Like Schellenberg, Costa-Giomi acknowledges that even though there might be “a strong relationship between music participation and academic achievement,” she warns that “the causal nature of the relationship is questionable.” Why? Again, because what NAfME and other music education organizations’ advocacy bloggers often fail to understand is that statistical correlations “do not necessarily mean that arts instruction produces [or causes] achievement gains.”

In fact, it may be the other way around because “it is known that students who choose to participate in the arts are more academically inclined than students who choose not to do so.” In addition, considerable research does not support claims that musical participation might improve academic achievement because, says Costa-Giomi, “it’s difficult to disentangle the true effects of music instruction from the effects of many other variables [e.g., a student’s capacity to concentrate during music teaching and learning interactions; her family’s income; the social dimensions of her musical experiences in her band, rock band, choir, etc.; the positive emotional effects she experiences during her teacher-student interactions] that mediate participation, persistence, and success in learning music. And this is why we must be cautious in our assertions about the long-term intellectual benefits of music instruction.”

It follows that any claims we read about music improving any specific dimension of cognitive functioning are premature at best, and invalid and unreliable at worst.

Let’s take a moment now to put these points in the broader context of American educational and political policymaking.

This past summer, the eminent NYU educational scholar Diane Ravitch wrote: “I don’t know about you, but I am sick of the test score obsession. I think our schools need to have a prolonged testing moratorium so we can figure out what education should be about and how to reduce our dependence on testing.” We couldn’t agree more. And we’re very concerned about what today’s testing obsession—and music advocates’ manic drive to link music and academic test scores—has done and is doing to music education.

For example, as we write this post, many music teachers in our hometown of New York City are preparing their math lessons. Wait, what was that? Yes. In a growing number of public schools in NYC (and in other places across the U.S.), music teachers are being told to set aside a considerable amount of time in their music classes—including their band, choral, general music, pop music, and other music classes—to teach math and literacy skills. In addition, many music teachers are being notified that a percentage of their evaluations will be based on their students’ standardized test scores in math and literacy. And this trend is currently moving upward in the form of “report cards for teacher education programs,” as Dr. Anne Whitney explains. 

Which brings us to the first of two takeaway messages: Be Very Careful What You Wish For! Why? Because the more administrators and policymakers are persuaded that “music makes you smarter” and that “music raises math and literacy scores” (etc.), the faster music students and music teachers will be evaluated NOT on their musical achievements, but on students’ math, reading, and other achievement scores.

One of the engines powering this obsession is called the Common Core or the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Common Core is a recent U.S. school “reform” initiative that outlines quantifiable benchmarks in English-language arts and mathematics at each grade level from kindergarten through high school. On the surface, it seems reasonable and necessary. But, look more carefully—go below the surface of official U.S. documents and uninformed journalism—and you’ll see that this policy is deeply flawed.

Why and how? Ravitch, other scholars, and thousands of teachers provide detailed explanations of how the Common Core is reeking havoc on many aspects of education in the United States—and why it’s becoming a serious threat to music education. For constant updates, see Diane Ravitch’s blog and read her book: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Schools. Know, also, that Ravitch values the importance of music making as an aim of schooling.

In fact, she once said to David in person that she wished all teachers would teach as effectively, educatively, and joyously as the best music teachers she’s seen.

Books and blogs by Ravitch, Michael Apple, Alfie Kohn, and many likeminded scholars and parents explain why NAfME’s well-intentioned support of the Common Core is highly problematic—NAfME’s adoption is politically correct, but it’s educationally injurious nevertheless, as was MENC’s quick and uncritical adoption of NCLB in the 1990s.

Time for a reality check: Is it fair to say that music teachers are and should be primarily educated to teach music? Is it true that most music teachers are not fully (or even partially) educated or certified to teach math or literacy? Is it right to say that it takes a considerable amount of skill and content knowledge to teach math and literacy well? If so, why not leave the teaching of math and literacy to math and literacy teachers? We’re not saying that music students should not engage in cross-curricular experiences if/when appropriate. But this is for each music educator to determine in his/her class.

One last point—a second take-away message. What few people realize is that the Common Core movement, and Bill Gates’s initiatives, are powered by a socially and educationally damaging economic-political movement called neoliberalism. Among other things, neoliberalism aims to privatize all areas of social life, including education. Today, education is “Big Business”—education is not about education in the deep sense, it’s about preparing “job-fillers,” not well-rounded citizens—as the eminent critical pedagogue and cultural critic Henry Giroux explains in his commentary on education, social justice, and neoliberalism.

In short, the Common Core is the tip of a very ugly economic-political iceberg.

Given today’s corporate, Wall Street priorities, many politicians and policymakers fail to value music education because learning how to make and appreciate music and the other arts is not immediately “profitable,” meaning that music is not directly related to preparing kids for jobs, and money-making, and future consuming. Here’s another reason why many advocates and teachers are knocking themselves out trying to explain why music education improves math and reading and why some advocacy “stuff” tries to persuade parents that if their children participate in music, they’ll make higher salaries as adults.

What does all of this mean for students? It means the steady erosion and elimination of meaningful school music programs, musical experiences, and the end of many music teachers’ careers.

Why Does Music Actually, Really, Definitely Matter?

Perhaps you’ve read current music education advocacy claims like these:

“ . . . to improve the reading, science, and math skills of American children . . . we should be providing them with more music education.”—Blake Madden 

“You want higher test scores in math and science? Music education will help. You want children with higher mental faculty? Music education will help.”—Blake Madden

Similar claims are flying everywhere in the blogoshpere. Some school music teachers couldn’t be happier: “Wow! Yes! Now we can relax. Finally, we have hard, indisputable, scientific evidence that music education really counts! No more touchy-feely nonsense.”

This is the first of several blog posts we’ll devote to (a) unpacking incomplete, inaccurate, and “truthy-sounding” advocacy claims about the values of music education, and, more importantly, (b) providing credible evidence about why music definitely matters.

This is not to say that music education advocacy is an unimportant pursuit, or that all advocacy materials lack credible supporting evidence from serious researchers. Not at all. Some do. But many do not. Madden’s blog post is just one among many that make misleading and/or unsupported claims, as we’ll explain in a future post on this site.

For now, let’s make two important points. First, we agree with eminent music education researchers and music psychologists like Dr. Donald Hodges, Director of the Music Research Institute (MRi) at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, who urge music educators to be very thoughtful before accepting “truthy-sounding” claims about possible relationships between music and academic achievement: “I think we would be better off being more honest. What do the data really say? Those on either end of the spectrum—from those who want to hold that music is ‘pure’ and does not have anything to do with other academic subjects to those who feel that ‘music makes you smarter’—would do well to wrestle with the complexities that are being reported in the literature.” (Personal communication to us from Don Hodges, 8/15/2014).

Second, we also agree with Hodges when he argues forcefully that “We should teach music for all the wonderful humanizing benefits that accrue, and if academic achievement is affected positively, that is extra value added.” (Personal communication to us from Don Hodges, 8/15/2014).

But what are some of the “wonderful humanizing benefits that accrue” during and through the processes of effective, educative, and ethical school and community music education? An excellent practical example is demonstrated in a YouTube presentation (see below) by the extraordinary trumpeter Alison Balsom. Balsom explains how musical participation can contribute to personal and community flourishing, which is a fundamental concept at the heart of our praxial philosophy of music education in Music Matters (e.g., pp. 17-21 and 43-52).

After beginning her presentation with a performance of Debussy’s Syrinx at Royal Albert Hall, Balsom explains and illustrates—with real-life examples—how children’s active musical participation can “engage, empower, and repair” their personal, social, and community lives. At one point, she argues that music has the potential to “heal” in numerous ways, a statement that receives considerable support from numerous contemporary researchers in a wide range of fields (*see below).

Toward the end of her presentation, Balsom shows a short film of her work with AfroBrass that focuses on facilitating children’s personal and community flourishing and overall health and well being through active music making and educationally caring relationships between Balsom, her colleagues, and the children. The children’s narratives detail how AfroBrass has made significant differences in their lives.

Is it possible that some children do not benefit from participating in AfroBrass? Probably. Must we consider that this film is carefully edited? Yes. Nevertheless, it provides tangible evidence that, for many, this community music program is making a significant difference in the lives of these children. Moreover, as Balsom and her colleagues testify, their own lives and “personhoods” have been transformed deeply through their participation in the AfroBrass program.

Are there more programs like this? There are thousands. Are school music educators carrying out this kind of work? We know many who are. But we’d love to hear more on this topic from readers who are already involved in putting their musical abilities “to work” in their schools and communities for students’ full human development and flourishing.

In a recent article in the Music Educators Journal David explains why Balsom’s kind of music teaching—which is equally possible for school, community, and amateur music educators to carry out in their own schools and communities—might be thought of as “musical citizenship” or “artistic citizenship.” A central tenet of artistic citizenship is original to John Dewey, who argues that we need to “recover the continuity” between the arts and the normal processes and needs of people’s everyday lives. Are there ways we can add social and ethical weight to some of the things we do? Yes, of course. Balsom’s teaching is only one example. Indeed, the term “artistic citizenship” is not restricted to the educational or musical work of professional artists or “stars.” As we explain fully in Music Matters (e.g., pp. 268-270), the concept of “artistic citizenship” can and should apply more broadly to the music that all people (students, teachers, amateurs, and professionals) perform, improvise, compose, arrange, conduct, record, and teach for a wide range of human purposes.

*Contemporary researchers in the neuroscience and neurobiology of music, music psychology, public health, human development, nursing and occupational therapy, emotional development, psychiatry, and so on substantiate Balsom’s claims in Music, Health, and Wellbeing, edited by Raymond MacDonald, Gunter Kreutz, and Laura Mitchel. The 34 chapters in this volume provide more evidence to support the kinds of arguments Balsom discusses.