Seat 31A, 6:12 a.m. May 20, 2019.
I am on a very early flight to Washington, D.C., munching a not-so-edible cracker. I have a hard time sleeping on planes so I am brushing up on the reading materials for the 2019 NAMM Music Advocacy Fly-In. It’s my first year as a delegate for the Fly-In and I am imagining how the conversation might go as we advocate for the complete funding of Title IV and music education. We have a day full of meetings lined up - the offices of two Oregon Senators and a Representative, and the Governor’s office. We'll also be stopping by the offices of roughly a dozen legislators from other states. The meetings will be short, focused, fast-paced, and intense. Who-are-you-what-do-you-want-handshake-photo-op-thanks-for-coming-bye!
Elected officials and their staff must navigate a mountain of information at light speed like they’re drinking words through a firehose. Every 30 minutes, someone like me walks through their door and pleads with them to care about an issue as much as we do. I am an “expert” on music and learning - I expect that they are not. I care a lot about this topic - I have 30 minutes to convince them why they should care, too.
To be fair, I shouldn’t begin with the assumption that whoever I speak to will look negatively upon music education. Who’s going to say that they don’t support music education? And Oregon has elected some of the best allies in the biz - Senator Merkely helped draft the budget appropriation we support, and Congresswoman Bonamici was our guest of honor at last year's Fly-In.
Yet there’s always that chance that someone has to “tell it like it is” or say that they’re “just being real” about funding. I don’t want to be ill-prepared or caught off guard. So I let my mind wander for a while, imagining what I would say if I encountered resistance to the idea of spending federal money on “extra-curricular” activities. Come wander with me.
To begin, let’s break some of this down. Although music and the arts are commonly perceived as extra-curricular activities, they are (and have been for decades) declared to be part of a well-rounded education as required by law (Title IV Part A). It leaves some room for interpretation, especially concerning the distribution of funds, but legislators know that you can’t leave it completely out of the equation. These days, we’re seeing the acronym STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) more commonly said as STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Mathematics). The disciplines aren’t siloed and classroom teachers are already well aware of this. To increase skill in the sciences requires strengthening math and language arts abilities, to increase writing skills requires history and cultural studies, and to increase skills in nearly any activity is augmented by time spent in the arts. You don’t offer the best education to a student by cycling through a list of independently exercised disciplines, you educate the whole child.
We’re really not talking about a lot of money here. Sure, $1.65 billion is a lot of dollars, but in the grand scheme of government budgets it’s a relatively small amount. The Oregon PERS retirement system, for example, carries an unfunded liability that’s more than $25 billion. In other words, our state alone has a single budgetary problem fifteen times the size of what we’re asking the federal government to provide for Title IV. So if Oregon pays down the PERS liability over the course of 15 years, we will have seen a single state provide more money to a pension plan than the federal government will provide to all public schools in the country for the arts in each of those years. Currently, Oregon is looking at several business taxes with hopes of raising $2 billion per year to pay down PERS. I am flying to D.C. to ask Congress for far less than that for an entire country’s worth of students.
Also, including the arts in the core curriculum gives you, Congresspeople, something you want. Or at least what you claim to want. Research is showing, in ever-increasing amounts, that including music and the arts in regular curriculum gives you marked results for many of the things you claim to want out of public education. New studies are published all the time, and the data continues to pour in, demonstrating that including music and the arts in education delivers the results that you say you are looking for.
You say that you want academic achievement to increase in all disciplines.
Almost nothing engages the whole brain simultaneously like playing a musical instrument, enhancing engagement and achievement at every level and in every discipline. This is exactly what you claim to want your education system to accomplish.
You say that you want America to have a competitive advantage in future markets and economies.
Education in the arts boosts creativity, which many smart and published folks forecast to be the key ingredient to future world leadership. This implies that the key to a thriving U.S. economy is creative minds who can move markets; while facing and fixing humanitarian crises will take creative problem-solvers to address unforeseen challenges. The future leaders of every endeavor will be those who are the most creatively minded. This is exactly what including music and the arts in education produces.
You say that you want schools to develop productive, engaged citizens.
Participation in music and the arts builds community. It binds people together, giving them common language, interests, and skills. It gives them an outlet for expression and safe spaces. It bridges gaps between peoples and heals social wounds. Music and the arts can create community where none exists. These are exactly the productive citizens you desire.
You say that you want schools to bolster diversity and serve the needs of marginalized students.
Access to music and the arts within a school that furnishes instruments and materials can remove the barriers to entry for its students. As with many activities, purchasing art supplies and instruments, or even renting them, can be cost-prohibitive for families. A recent Yale study showed that students’ access to music decreases as poverty increases. When education in music and the arts provides demonstrated advantages and those advantages are available only for certain segments of the population, the disadvantaged become even more disadvantaged. Privilege is not a choice made by the child, but it is a reality they feel every day. If you want to level the playing field, music and the arts are a great place to start.
You say that you want solutions to students’ mental health crises.
Actually, to be fair to educators, we haven't equipped schools to address mental health. We just blame them when they don’t. As I listen to student after student talk about what they need to be successful and feel secure, mental health support is the request I hear most frequently. Students are stressed and scared, overburdened and under a microscope, and they’re desperate for an outlet. They’re smart enough to recognize that social media has poisoned their relationships and they’re bored with reality TV and video games. And we, you and I, have given them an apocalyptic world full of climate change, terrorism, mass shootings, discrimination, body shaming, conspiracy theories, and wars of every kind.
Maybe we should give them something else instead.
So whaddya say, Senator? My flight is about to land, and our nation’s kids need us. Thank you for your time.
Comments will be approved before showing up.
Is there a “Music Center” of the brain? Time to get nerdy.
I frequently make the claim that “playing music engages the whole brain.” This is intentional, and I use that exact phrase for good reason.
First of all, it’s true. More on that in a minute.
Also, I am directly responding to a common misunderstanding of how a human brain actually works, and specifically how it processes music.