Is music education getting short shrift in schools?

‘I wouldn’t be as good at math or science without music’

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Freshman Nolan Reed, son of Ron Reed and Cindy Ryan, practices with the Durango High School Symphonic Orchestra at the school. While music budgets have been cut in many school districts, Durango School District 9-R has avoided the big cuts seen elsewhere. Still, many fret the declining importance of music in schools is hurting overall academic performance. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald Freshman Nolan Reed, son of Ron Reed and Cindy Ryan, practices with the Durango High School Symphonic Orchestra at the school. While music budgets have been cut in many school districts, Durango School District 9-R has avoided the big cuts seen elsewhere. Still, many fret the declining importance of music in schools is hurting overall academic performance.

Across the country, music education is in crisis.

Faced with budget shortfalls, school districts in Florida, Kansas and Arizona have all but eliminated their music programs, and in California, the percentage of kids with access to music education has declined more than 50 percent since 2003.

As yet, this has not happened in Durango. Laine Gibson, chief financial officer of Durango School District 9-R, said slightly diminished funding for music education stems from declining student enrollment in music programs, not recession-era parsimony.

Indeed, last year, Durango High School’s band and orchestra swept the most competitive competitions in the state, culminating in their being invited to play the national anthem at Coors field in Denver. Fort Lewis College and programs run by Music in the Mountains, the annual classical music festival, ensure that thousands of local students are exposed to music and that talented student musicians have access to world-class instruction.

But local champions of music education say music education in Durango is nonetheless in decline.

Rochelle Mann, who has been chairwoman of the music department at FLC for nine years, said enrollment was way down because the feeder programs have been cut.

“9-R students don’t have music two or three times a week, every week, all year long. They’re not exposed to music as frequently as they have been in the past,” Mann said.

Mann spoke with pride of the success of Katherine Reed, who just completed her first year as DHS’ music director and is widely credited with coaching its award-winning music teams to new heights.

“One of the interesting things – she’s still not even full-time. There’s a public perception that music education is a frill, something extra – but it’s not extra if you look at all the research in child development,” Mann said.

Durango School District students currently receive mandatory music instruction in preschool, kindergarten and elementary school. Lauri Kloepfer, the district’s executive director of curriculum, said “they take some in middle school, and can take more if they want to, but it’s not mandatory. In high school, music is elective.”

Music in the Mountains’ assistant executive director Angie Beach said its Music in the Mountains Goes to School program – which helps thousands of local students access music education through busing, music assemblies, scholarships for private music tuition and an instrument library – was “an effort to help fill the gap in our local schools.”

Superintendent Daniel Snowberger said there are 10 music positions in the district, and 4,400 students.

Your brain on Mozart

John “J.P.” Skeath, a senior at DHS and first trombone in the marching band, said his three best subjects were math, science and music.

“I wouldn’t be as good at math or science without music,” said Skeath, who is ranked fifth in class, has a 4.0 grade-point average and perfect scores on four advanced-placement tests.

Reed said the overlap between the orchestra and marching band’s roster and the upper echelon of DHS’ class rankings was remarkable.

“Basically, playing an instrument calls upon circuitry from many areas of the brain. It’s amazing to watch kids’ minds suddenly expand,” she said.

The nexus between math and music has been anecdotally evident for centuries. Aristotle considered music a branch of math. Bach’s compositions are models of fractal geometry and mathematical symbolism. Galileo, himself a musician, was born to one. The obscure violinist Albert Einstein wrote that Neils Bohr’s model of the atom was “the highest form of musicality in the sphere of thought.”

But in the last decade, neurological research has demonstrated – in study after study – that music education in early childhood profoundly advances children’s literacy and foreign language acquisition; later, it improves kids’ SAT scores, on average by 41 points in math and 57 points in the verbal section, according to the College Entrance Examination Board.

The day the music died

In a phone interview, Dee Hansen, co-author of the 2004 book The Music and Literacy Connection, said that despite the enormous body of research that shows music education makes children better at reading, math and foreign language, parents remain dismissive of its value.

Hansen said No Child Left Behind had encouraged school boards, faced with increased testing in math in reading, to view music education as a frivolity.

“Nationally, music education is not only underfunded, it’s under-respected,” Hansen said.

Local music teachers said the same was true of Durango.

Reed noted that at DHS, music is a fine-arts elective, not mandatory.

“9-R definitely supports music, but with the economy, teachers are being cut and music programs are being reduced. Whereas my philosophy of music education is that every student deserves music education,” Reed said.

Arkady Fomin, director of Music in the Mountain’s Conservatory program, said regardless of music’s accelerating children’s cognitive development, music education was priceless.

“It’s a very important aspect of general education of future generations – it is a language without barriers,” Formin said.

Mann agreed that music education in Durango public schools is currently inadequate.

“Going to a concert once a year is not the same as having music in the elementary school every day. It’s showy, and it’s great, but it won’t teach students the music of our culture, the lullabies, the anthems – our artistic heritage,” Mann said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Jessica Pohlman, daughter of Sheri and Cliff Pohlman, sings with the Durango High School Jazz Band at The Durango Instrumental Music Program’s inagural Awards Banquet. Studies have shown music education in early childhood advances a student’s SAT scores in later years. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald Jessica Pohlman, daughter of Sheri and Cliff Pohlman, sings with the Durango High School Jazz Band at The Durango Instrumental Music Program’s inagural Awards Banquet. Studies have shown music education in early childhood advances a student’s SAT scores in later years.

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