How Music Helps Children Grow

ROBERT PIERCE

October 25, 1991|By ROBERT PIERCE

When the National Education Goals panel first released itscriteria for excellence in education, the arts were conspicuously absent. When I pointed out their omission in a letter to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, he sent a courteously bland reply.

''A strong arts and music curriculum is and should be, a community choice,'' Mr. Alexander wrote, ''and not only in schools. America's young people will have spent 91 percent of their lives outside the classroom by the time they reach 18. Family and community support for extracurricular arts programs can have a terrific, and positive, impact on the value of that time.''

So once again we have it. The arts are an ''extracurricular'' i.e. ''fringe'' activity, not an intrinsic part of the overall development of the child.

If being educated implies a reasonable working knowledge of the greatest of human achievements, how can anyone justify excluding music and art from the school curriculum? Sadly, we indict ourselves with such lip-service pronouncements in support the importance of music and art in our lives. Even the much touted Japanese educational system includes music and art in the curriculum.

Everyone knows that in the schools, music and art education are the first to suffer in the climate of cutbacks. It has happened in Baltimore, as in other cities. But when the arts fly out the window, something fundamental in the childhood experience goes out the door. When that ''fundamental experience'' is banished from the classroom, it is rarely recovered elsewhere by the majority of the children, notwithstanding the marvelous educational outreach programs of our performance organizations, museums and music schools.

For the past few years, the Peabody Preparatory has run an Outreach Program in a handful of Baltimore elementary schools (Ashbur- ton, Barclay, Coleman, Tench Tilghman) in which specially trained teachers replace the music teachers lost in the budget cuts.

The experience we have gained from these programs (funded by the Aaron and Lillie Strauss and Hearst Foundations, the Bank of Baltimore and the Martin Marietta Corporation, Peabody and the city schools) has shown that music lessons can, in addition to their intrinsic value, dramatically improve a child's concentration and memory skills, verbal abilities, motor coordination and social behavior.

Children who participated in the programs clearly demonstrated improvement in their other classroom work and attendance as well. In other words, there was a transfer effect. The basic concept behind the Peabody Prep's outreach program is to guide the development of children through music rather than teach music to children.

Sure, it would be nice, as Mr. Alexander suggests, if family and community could take up the slack. Try telling a Baltimore inner-city single parent living in a drug- and crime-infested neighborhood that what she (and it is usually a she) needs is a piano at home and private music lessons for her child. The fact is that most children and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds have precious little hope of finding the basic and ongoing arts experiences they need outside of the schoolroom.

Music is an integral part of the arts. A child needs music to develop fully as a human being. I have mentioned the transfer of learning skills encouraged by early music training. There is a yet more important factor -- the emotional development of the child. In the public schools we have served, the music lesson has often served as a vehicle for the child to express feelings about such real-life situations as a parent going to jail, fear of being killed in the drug wars, death of a parent or relative.

How can we in the arts lobby prevail against those national educational bureaucratic power blocs in competition for the mind and emotions of the child, much less the necessary funding?

One thing we can do is to stop trying to win a place for the arts by lobbying for just our agenda. Rather, we must persuade those lobbying for their own agendas -- whether enriched science and math, the Three Rs (with a heavy dose of computers), the traditional core curriculum, or a multicultural mix -- that they cannot ultimately succeed without us. Together we can serve the needs of the whole child, and thereby better meet the needs of the community and nation as well.

Robert Pierce is director of the Peabody Institute.

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