Education Opinion

College-Ready, Career-Ready--and Playing Music.

By Nancy Flanagan — January 27, 2014 3 min read
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Years ago, in a mid-70s masters class in The Future of Education, the professor told us that we should be prepared to live in a future world where discipline-based 30-year careers with a single focus would fade away. The Renaissance man--it was the 1970s, so we weren’t talking about Renaissance women--would re-emerge as national creative force, and our problem-solving and scientific progress as a nation would depend on giving everyone a (wait for it) well-rounded education.

“I’m not talking about sports,” he said, smirking. “Did you know that 83% of the physicians in the United States were musicians in high school?”

This was news to me, which is why I think the remark lodged itself in my brain. I have since looked, several times, for some confirmation of that factoid. I have no idea if it’s precisely true--but it makes a certain sense to me that people with the drive to make it into and through medical school would also be likely to have accepted the challenge of learning to read music and stuck with playing an instrument or singing in the choir through their K-12 education.

There are plenty of studies and testimonials around the positive benefits of music education in the lives of children. I always worry a little, however, about articles suggesting a stint in the high school orchestra will yield higher lifetime earnings or the ability to “work in teams.” Plenty of my band students have ended up in what you might call low places. Hoping your child will spontaneously turn out to be the next Jimmy Kimmel, Band Geek is probably not realistic.

Still, learning to play an instrument or sing in a group can be a rich growth experience for a student. Teaching yourself to sing or play is possible, but it’s infinitely more enriching to learn from and with other people. Positive social aspects of music-making may not be as sexy in current technocratic thinking as brain-wave patterning or rigid discipline or incorporating the arts into engineering design--but the simple joy of performing with other musicians is an increasingly underrated practice as educators “prepare students for the future.”

When people talk about future-preparation aspects of learning music, they usually begin by mentioning the connection between music and math. I’ve asked many folks to explain how they think music teachers could weave conventional mathematics into music education and the typical response is “You know--quarter notes? eighth notes?”

Actually, the entire process of producing sustained musical sounds is based on the harmonic overtone series, so perhaps we should begin with physics, before moving on to fractions. I personally think the richest interdisciplinary access point is history. Very few middle school students have a clue about the cultural roots of the music that fills their daily lives and feeds them. In my last years of teaching, I spent much more time incorporating the humanities into my band classes, but the trend now is incorporating more technology into music education rather than exploring the social value of music-making.

I went to see Jeff Daniels this week. He was incredibly entertaining--verbally incisive, self-deprecating, political and hilarious, all at once. In addition to his acting talents, he’s a fine guitarist and a very deft lyricist. He brought laughter and shared values to an appreciative crowd on a bitterly cold winter night. And he closed with an old, old song that left many of us shiny-eyed: Michigan, My Michigan.

On the way home, I started thinking about the way “reformers” describe federal education goals--to make all students college- and career-ready--and how empty those goals are. Jeff Daniels was a college dropout, and I am positive that his early “career goals” were alarming (or amusing) to the folks in Chelsea, Michigan, where Daniels grew up and still lives. Daniels says his sixth-grade music teacher dragged him off the basketball court, onstage and into community theatre. Started him down the road to Renaissance man, 21st century.

I wish my professor’s prognostication had been correct--that our education system had moved toward encouragement of dabbling, experimenting and creating. I wish we were taking advantage of the incredible tools now at our disposal to custom-tailor a rich, broad education for all kids. I wish every student had multiple opportunities, every day, to play--in all aspects of that joy-filled word: Drama. Music. Games. Playing together is what we were born to do, as human beings.

We can do much better than “prepare” students for the next educational level. And--should we even be thinking about how to prepare students for an efficient (read: profitable) workplace? Is that our job as educators?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.