Why Music Education Matters

The arts education situation in America is less than ideal. In Chicago, it is downright abysmal.

According to data collected in a recent survey representing one-third of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), just one in four are providing the two hours per week of arts instruction as charged by the Arts Education Plan set forth in 2012. Over half, a whopping 51%, provide less than two hours of arts instruction per week, while 14% provide no arts instruction at all. Only 9% provide more than two hours of arts instruction per week. Nearly one-third of CPS schools experienced a decline in arts instruction from 2013 to 2014.

In the two years since this data was collected, conditions have grown even worse: the Chicago Public Schools Fiscal Year 2016 Budget reveals an additional $200 million in “painful” cuts, as well as a $1.1 billion operating budget deficit. This translates to an especially tough road ahead for arts education, often the first and hardest hit area.

Keep in mind that the above information accounts for all arts education instruction. When parsed out between the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpting, digital media, design, etc.) and the performing arts (music, theatre, drama, dance), the total time spent in each area is even less.

As a musician myself, what is most alarming about this information is not that arts-deprived students will grow up unable to correctly count quarter notes or discern the difference between a violin and a viola; rather, it is that these students are missing out on key opportunities to develop fundamental life skills and values. Even worse is that the students most severely affected are also those least likely to receive similar guidance in character development outside of their schooling.

A quick Google search results in literally thousands of articles, reports, research, studies, and surveys advocating for the wide range of benefits of music education. Music educators are well-versed in their recitation (and have grown weary from repeatedly pitching them to school board and government officials in justification of their positions). To them, I am literally preaching to the choir. However, as a starting point for those who may not be as familiar, I have compiled a list of just a few of those benefits.

Music education:

  • fosters habits of good discipline
  • encourages good behavior
  • increases school attendance
  • improves literacy and numeracy
  • boosts confidence and self-esteem
  • inspires creativity and imagination
  • provides a safe outlet for self-expression
  • strengthens mental and emotional health
  • creates school and community cohesion
  • crosses economic cultural and social boundaries
  • engenders cultural harmony
  • teaches self-worth and pride
  • reduces recidivism
  • brings joy and fulfillment

Still not convinced? Even more information – replete with cold hard data points – may be found here.

Considering these statistics only fills me with a stronger sense of gratitude to be a part of the Civic Fellowship Program. I am truly proud to work alongside such driven colleagues within an organization whose mission it is to address the concerns posed by this significant social crisis – one project at a time: numerous chamber performances and masterclass presentations in CPS schools across the city; December’s Bach Marathon; coaching and mentoring young musicians through the Chicago Youth in Music Festival throughout January and February; collaborating with the Professional Theater and Dance Youth Academy on a set of performances at the UC Woodlawn Academy Charter School in celebration of Black History Month, and many others.

I am fortunate to have grown up in an excellent public school system boasting a healthy budget, thriving arts programs, and the finest faculty music educators. Most of my peers could probably say the same. It is undoubtedly a big reason why we are where we are today: by partaking in music, we were taught not only notes and rhythms, but also life’s indispensables: respect, grit, teamwork, adaptability, responsibility, flexibility, compromise, diplomacy, problem solving. We were taught that sometimes we have to do things (ahem, practice) that our present selves do not want to do for the benefit of our future selves; that it is OK to fail so long as we pick ourselves back up, brush off the dirt, and keep going – even in the wake of miserable hardships; how to be courageous when we are scared; how to plan and execute the specific steps necessary to achieve our goals. Our music teachers believed in us and taught us how to believe in ourselves.

This is most certainly not the case for many current CPS students.

But imagine if it was.

As Fellows, we find ourselves equipped with the means to help mitigate the substandard circumstances faced by many today. We do not expect to radically influence every single student, nor do we expect them to immediately recognize the benefit of their participation in music or fall head-over-heels in love with it.

What we DO hope is that our work and music leaves even the tiniest imprint of a lasting impact on the students we encounter; that something we said/did/played will stick with them and serve as a guiding force in a future choice or behavior; that they will grow into thoughtful and culturally appreciative critical thinkers capable of positively contributing to their families and communities.

Day by day, the Fellows venture out into the city and endeavor to make it a little bit better than before. The task in front of us looms large, but we are up for the challenge, united by our shared passion: music. We learned from (and continue to learn from) the best. After all we have been given, it is our civic duty – and the least we can do – to pay it forward.

By Melanie Erena