Commentary - December 18th, 2013
11:43 am
Wed December 18, 2013

The Holiday Gift That Keeps on Giving

Of all the tasks involved in being a school board member, certainly the most pleasant is attending holiday concerts. Every year I drop in on school programs throughout Great Falls, and this year, I’ve been focusing on the elementary schools.  The talent and sophistication are certainly more evident in the high schools, but in the elementary schools, every child is part of the program.   And for a couple of hours, you get to be part of the unique mini-community that develops around the hub of a neighborhood school. 

Every venue is packed with parents, grandparents, and pre-school brothers and sisters. The program usually begins with the kindergartners, who file into the multi-purpose room completely awestruck by the crowd.  Then they spot a family member and start waving wildly and the family member responds in kind and it takes about 5 minutes of concerted intervention by the music teacher and the kindergarten teacher and the principal to get the kids up on the risers and the families back in their seats.  

The older the group of students, the less distracted they are by their families.  By the time the sixth-graders enter, it’s clear that they will be mortified by anything beyond eye contact, and their parents respect their wishes.  Most of them.  The mom beside me at Sunnyside Elementary elbowed her husband when he beckoned to their sixth-grade son.  Don’t you dare!” she whispered fiercely.  “You’ll embarrass him.”

Discipline, teamwork, and creativity come into play at every level.  For kindergartners, just getting lined up on the risers without mishap requires practice.  Keeping them focused on the task at hand is a challenge.  “Look at my antlers, Grandma!”  a little boy at Riverside School cried out just before his class belted out “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  But when the teacher clapped her hands, signaling that they were about to begin, all eyes were on her.   With each progressive age group, the music gets more challenging and the roles more individualized.  There are partner songs and speaking roles and even a solo or two.  You’ve heard the songs a million times – and they’re often shouted, rather than sung, with occasional clarinet squeaks, but the crowd could not be more enraptured by the Boston Pops.

Many people’s understanding of music education boils down to these holiday programs.  They like music in the schools, but often view it as a frill – a cheerful little extra that makes the kids feel good and the public as well.  When budgets get tight or when some new alarmist report raises the cry for more emphasis on the academics, music programs are too often the first to be watered down or eliminated entirely.

But music education is more than an annual rendering of “Jingle Bells.”  Language development during the early years is critical to kids’ academic success and social competence.  Musical training physically develops the left side of the brain, which processes language, making kids more nuanced in their own language and more receptive to learning others’.   Music instruction also develops spatial intelligence, helping children visualize elements that should go together, like they do when solving math problems.  Research shows that students in high-quality music programs score better on standardized tests, have better attendance records, and are more likely to complete high school.

But that’s not the main reason I think music education, delivered by properly credentialed teachers, is so important in our public schools.  Nor is it because students involved in music learn that practice really does make perfect.  Nor because singing in a choir or playing in an orchestra teaches teamwork in a  powerfully authentic      way.  Nor because the study of music necessarily exposes children to cultures and heritages different from their own.

The thing that impresses me most about kids immersed in making music is their emotional intelligence.  You cannot sing “Pie Jesu” without understanding on a visceral level the tremendous sorrow of losing a loved one.  You cannot sing “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika” without understanding the yearning of a beleaguered people.  You cannot play Beethoven’s Ninth without sensing that such  transcendent joy rises – or is perhaps negotiated – through discord and despair.   Hopefully, school-aged children have not yet experienced such sorrow, such yearning, such discord.  But someday they will … and if they’ve had a rich music education, they’ll have a reservoir of light to draw from in those dark days.

I leave every holiday program happy, surrounded by happy people.    Inspired, knowing that the good things we see in December are but the tip of the music education iceberg.  And grateful for Montana’s music teachers, who put off their own holiday season to fill ours with joy.

This is Mary Sheehy Moe, retired, but still advocating for free, quality, public education in Montana.

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