Music Education . . . do you recall . . . the day the music died?

CJ Westerberg, March 6, 2013 8:44 PM


"A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they'd be happy for a while
. . .
and moss grows on a rollin' stone . . .
 . . .Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

                                - American Pie, Don McLean

The day the music died . . . and moss grows on a rollin' stone. . .

by Craig M. Cortello

Do you believe in art for art's sake?   I do.   Here's the problem - those who are tasked with prioritizing education funding believe in art for art's sake as well - they just don't always believe it's a function that the education system should be subsidizing,  at least when push comes to shove, in difficult economic times.

Essentially, legislators and administrators believe that when forced to choose between worthwhile priorities, the most essential function of education is to prepare students for their careers.  Art for art's sake is an argument that essentially frames the music education funding discussion in this way:   "Do I fund programs that are necessary, or those that are a luxury in the context of preparing students for the 'real world?' "

Math and reading are seen as essential in any vocation, music only for the aspiring musician.

Music education is viewed as the garnish on the education plate.

We need to reframe the terms of that debate.

While recent research into the benefits of music education focuses on improved math, science, and I.Q. scores, successful professionals generally attribute only about 15-25% of their success to technical proficiency, even in very technical fields.   It's a common occurrence that college graduates become disenchanted at how well prepared they are in terms of traditional education metrics, yet how ill-prepared they are to succeed in terms of "softer" skills that are often greater determinants of success.

"One of the things that musicians and artists tend to do is explore other people's art and other people's way of doing things"

Business leaders clamor for young employees equipped with marketable abilities such as communication, teamwork and collaboration, creativity, poise and self-confidence, and branding and marketing skills. There's increasingly a lack of congruence between the allocation of time spent on these skills in the classroom relative to their importance in the 21st century.

That's where music education comes in.

The very well-intended accountability motives that have driven the demand for standardized testing have led us to a more narrow approach to education. These changes come in an era when the workforce is demanding more well-rounded, diversified individuals possessing artistic sensitivities, a concept expressed very articulately by authors such as Daniel Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, Ned Herrmann, and John Kao.

And music education is precisely the vehicle for addressing that learning gap, according to legions of musicians who have succeeded in the business world.

Confidence and Self-Esteem (Stepping Up to the Mic)

"The absolute terror of freshman in college
for 90 percent of the population is public speaking,"
- Dean Deyo, drummer and President of the Memphis Music Foundation,  
and retired Division CEO/President of Time Warner

One of the most common benefits of music participation expressed by participants is the development of confidence and self-esteem. And consistently, musicians who enter the workforce speak of the positive effect that performing in front of an audience, mastering a
new musical piece, or simply connecting with other musicians in an ensemble had on building their ability to believe in themselves and perform under pressure.

"The absolute terror of freshman in college for 90 percent of the population is public speaking," says Dean Deyo, drummer and President of the Memphis Music Foundation, and retired Division CEO/President of Time Warner.

"I never understood it [that fear] because I had already been on a stage in front of thousands of people, and it was no big deal. For me communication, presence, poise, and confidence are all things that any good business person has to have. You've got to get to the point where you can make a presentation in a small room or make a presentation at a big gathering. Those performance skills that a musician would learn really translate well."

Creativity & Innovation (Improvising From the Charts)

Most all research on the topic of creativity conveys some version of the following concept:
Creativity is like a muscle. Everyone has potential for creativity, but that creativity "muscle," either gets stronger with exercise or withers with inactivity.   It's the "use it or lose it" theory. Musicians enter the workplace with toned and fit "creativity muscles."

"One of the things that musicians and artists tend to do is explore other people's art and other people's way of doing things," says Dan Burrus, CEO & Founder of Burrus Research, Technology Forecaster, and Best-Selling Author of the book Technotrends.   Dan is also an accomplished lead guitarist.

"I think we're looking for inspiration. I think we look at a level that non-musicians don't.

Most non-musicians more easily stay in their rut.   Musicians tend to find ways out of
the rut, because that's what gives us joy - learning the new thing.

Branding and Marketing

"I would attribute 90% of my career to my background in music," says Greg Estes, Marketing Consultant - Media and Entertainment at NVIDIA. The successful Silicon Valley marketing executive attained regional success in the Bay Area in the mid-80s as a successful keyboard player and songwriter in the band Mystery Date. The marketing skills he attained as a
musician and the technical skills he mastered learning "midi" technology provided the ideal foundation for his chosen career.

"To this day, it [music] is the driving sense of self that I have. I still think of myself as a musician with a day job, not a Silicon Valley marketing executive."

Should you hire Keith Richards or Courtney Love as your company's next CEO? 

It's unfortunate that extreme examples like Richards and Love paint a stereotype that's not typical of the experience of the vast majority of people involved in music education.

The latter are musicians who are entering the workforce with a broader skill set, and a greater capacity to fill the needs of a changing marketplace.


About the Author:
Craig M. Cortello is the author of Everything We Needed to Know About Business, We Learned Playing Music. He is also a freelance music writer, having had the pleasure of interviewing such New Orleans music icons as Pete Fountain, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Irvin Mayfield, and Henry Butler. Craig is a 30 year veteran of the guitar, a self-taught pianist, and a composer. In business, Craig serves as territory manager for S.M.I.L.E., Inc., a home technologies integration company, in New Orleans, La.

Published The Daily Riff February 2011

Editor's Note.   Lots of take-aways from Cortello's riff below on the present state of music education, and our short-shrifting of it, with the increased importance of standardized everything.  Such as, how are we "measuring" the ability to express oneself in front of an audience, or to work with a group for a real purpose?   As importantly,  what is education without understanding the importance of art in our lives (and it's not about memorizing artists, and their works, and the period)?   Isn't learning really about the same thing that drives and engages musicians -  as so well articulated in Cortello's essay - in the way they "find joy learning the new thing"?   Isn't music education the epitome of the "always learning" ethic, plus mastery, innovation, creativity, and all those "things" we talk about as being important in education?     - C.J. Westerberg

For more on this topic:
Quincy Jones:  A Three-Sixty Human Being :
"They found that people who are close to music learn other things a little faster because they are constantly using the left and right sides of their brain. Most people are making the choice between one or the other. Many computer people are also musicians. I noticed right away when Alan took me up to Silicon Valley how many of those guys had a musical background; the two fit like a glove."

Bravo, Gustavo Dudamel!  The 29-Year-old  Conductor Who is Re-defining Music Education
Dudamel speaks about the influence of poverty and how we need to "build bridges and human connection" in our very chaotic world.  Music provides the "civility and union" that kids so desperately need and deems "the Arts are a right" with the goal not to build musicians necessarily,  but to imbue the arts sensibility within all children and the ability to work with a group.  Dudamel speaks much of the importance of community and how isolation is something that can be avoided through the involvement with music education.

PBS : The Next Golden Age Of Arts In America
"I believe we have an opportunity to usher in another golden age of arts in America. I think in part, it begins with new media. . .  Advocates point out that art education boosts students' cognitive development, improves their confidence, and strengthens their problem solving skills. Students with a strong background in the arts tend to have better grade point averages, score better on reading and math tests, and have lower dropout rates . . .
public schools aren't just putting history classes on the back burner;
they're taking them off the stove completely.
This is heartbreaking, and I think this is also a huge issue for us as a country
 --- Paula A. Kerger, President & CEO, PBS

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  • Great post - I am a longtime music educator but not a band director. I work in the private sector of music education - I teach at a for-profit institution and I'm part of the team of educators who have created and manage Our demographic is 'the other 80%"; the casual music learner in Sweden, the insurance saleslady in Kansas who always wanted to play saxophone, the ex-infantryman wanting to play bugle for his fallen comrades - (all real clients by the way). Where do they go to learn? Their local elementary or high school? The local music shop who often employs non-degreed teachers? A granny teaching out of her home? No, not today. I call this group (and it is growing by leaps and bounds by the way) our 'savvy learners' - and they want their music information the same way access other things in their life - online. We do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning the current system, but the tub may need to be drained. The future of music education hinges on preparing teachers as entrepreneurs.

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