The other day I received an email from Katherine Williamson, the music teacher at Mar Vista Elementary where my children attend school. In short, it was a plea to parents to write letters documenting their positive experiences with music classes at our school so that music teachers like herself can keep their jobs.
Sadly, it was one more reminder of how low music education is in the pecking order as compared with its academic cousins, at least where budgeting at LAUSD is concerned. Luckily, Mrs. Williamson's job is safe due to the generous contributions from parents and the Mar Vista community through the Mar Vista School Enrichment Group, a parent run nonprofit. But others are not so fortunate.
It was a letter I felt compelled to write. I’m a musician and a songwriter and this year I became the PTA’s coordinator for music programs at Mar Vista. A highlight for me from our recent winter show was playing guitar and teaching Donovan’s "Happiness Runs" to my daughter Hannah’s second-grade class.
It took just a few sessions for the students to learn the song, and the first time they really nailed the harmonies, it sent chills up my back. I could feel a sea change happen when the kids shifted out of their heads and into their hearts. That hour of music gave balance to their day and like a balanced meal, it didn’t just feed them, it nourished them. The electricity that occurs when kids tap into the magic of music really did make happiness run throughout the auditorium during those weeks of rehearsals, and the song has become a part of their personal soundtrack.
I’m the type of person who can hardly remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, but ask me to recall my own childhood musical memories and many come bubbling to the surface in great detail: my father’s daily piano playing of Gershwin, Mozart or Chopin; or buying my first album—James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James—with my own money at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, circa 1973.
I remember loving that my favorite fourth-grade teacher, Ellie Geffert, made learning fun by playing the autoharp and teaching us French folk songs. She was married to the brilliant late jazz pianist George Shearing whom she introduced me to in the hall at West Hollywood Elementary School, and I was thrilled to shake his hand. The first guitar tune I ever played, Cat Stevens’ "Where Do the Children Play?" I learned at camp when I was 11, right about the time I found my teenage brother’s copy of The Doors’ Waiting for the Sun in our den cabinet and my Jim Morrison obsession took root.
This kind of musical memory does not happen by accident. According to the book Musicophilia by renowned British neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life.” For virtually all of us, he says, “music has great power, whether or not we seek it out or think of ourselves as particularly ‘musical.’ This propensity to music—this 'musicophilia'—shows itself in infancy, is manifest and central in every culture, and probably goes back to the very beginnings of our species. It may be developed or shaped by the cultures we live in, by the circumstances of life, or by the particular gifts or weaknesses we have as individuals—but it lies so deep in human nature that one is tempted to think of it as innate.”
In other words, music is inextricably linked with being human. And we’re asked to judge the value of keeping music alive in our public schools? I guess one could argue that students will learn about music one way or another, from YouTube, iTunes, the radio, their friends or parents. Private lessons if they’re lucky. But music in school, whether or not these kids turn out to be passionate musicians, will teach them lessons beyond the notes and measures.
Mrs. Williamson has taught my children Swahili folk tunes and Hebrew chants that are hundreds of years old. She teaches them the language of music, of harmonies and rhythms, that are universal and help them in other subjects such as math and reading. Lessons like these inspire curiosity about other cultures and transform the foreign into the familiar. I can’t think of a more human way to cultivate compassion, to “engrave” positive memories for them to take into adulthood.
I don’t know a math class that can do that.