Want Smarter Citizens? Bring Back Music Programs
Recently, I published a little short story about my fourth grade teacher, who was too damned good for this planet, and the 194-year-old lady who visited our classroom once a week for music appreciation. She wanted us to love Vivaldi, but I wanted to love whatever my cool hippie teacher loved.
It's a short story that does not end happily, but reality didn't end too badly; well, not for me, at least. Forty years down the road, I appreciate Vivaldi, and I still love the hippie music that the dearly departed Gar Rigoni shared with me. There's no doubt in my mind that listening to scratchy records in an elementary school classroom enriched my life.
Gar's classroom was neither the first nor the last in which the younger me was exposed to new music. I remember bringing records to school for musical show and tell as early as the first grade. It was during one of those afternoons that I first heard Kiss, courtesy of a kid named Michael who brought in 'Destroyer' and scared the heck out of us.
My third grade music teacher, Mr. Krause, introduced me to electronic music via Mike Post's 'Rockford Files' theme. "In the future this is how all music will be made," he told us. I don't think Mr. Krause anticipated Auto-Tune, but there's not much daylight between that day at the elementary school record player and my love for krautrock, Tangerine Dream, and synth pop.
Woody Guthrie, too. We sang Guthrie songs all through grade school -- 'This Land Is Your Land,' 'Roll On Columbia,' Grand Coulee Dam' -- all while beating wood blocks, triangles, and tambourines. How much did I learn about civics during those afternoons, not to mention the power of collaboration?
My last memory of grade school music appreciation involves Dolly Parton, whose pneumatic physique and Jiffy Pop hair were an endless source of amusement for a bunch of 11-year-old boys. Our teacher eventually had enough of our jokes, so she dropped the needle on 'Jolene' and let it fly.
Even a bunch of snot-sleeved kids like us couldn't escape the emotional gravity of that cut. When the last note faded and the needle went kathup kathup kathup against the record's label, Mrs. Brannon said, "I think Miss Dolly deserves more respect than y'all boys give her."
She did. All women did, and I learned that during music appreciation.
Music appreciation ended in the sixth grade. Some kids joined the school band, taking up brass instruments that sounded nothing like the future that Mr. Krause promised. Others adopted the black t-shirts and love of heavy music so expertly modeled by the high school kids when they leaned against their Camaros, Sparkomatics blaring their 8-track glory through the open windows.
Music and other art programs are gone from most elementary schools now, replaced with what a friend of mine once called a TWBOTT curriculum --This Will Be On the Test. In our effort to win some unofficial international "our kids outrank your kids" contest, we've forgotten that we learn in myriad ways. For example:
- You'll get no argument from me that math is important, but don't musical and mathematical aptitudes strongly correlate?
- As a writer, I certainly care about those other two R's: Reading and 'Riting. So did Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Jim Carroll , Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen.
- History, civics, geography -- they all come alive in music. Somewhere out there is a doctoral candidate in astrophysics who hums "the Sun is a mass of incandescent gas / a gigantic nuclear furnace" whenever the center of our solar system is mentioned. They Might Be Giants may have given us our next Nobel winner.
My life was enriched in ways that I'm not even aware of thanks to my childhood exposure to a diverse assortment of music. I'm more emotionally and culturally intelligent as a result of those "worthless" music appreciation classes that weren't on the test. That kids today don't get that same exposure both concerns and depresses me.
We can fix it. We may not be able to change the public school system, but we can fix it. You have children in your life. Maybe they're your siblings, cousins, nephews, or neighbors. Maybe they're your kids or grandkids; regardless, there are kids in your world.
Play them a little Vivaldi. Spin Zeppelin's 'Rain Song.' Let them hear Dylan's story 'bout the Hurricane. Play them some Black Keys and Leadbelly back to back.
Plant those cultural seeds at 33 1/3 -- no lectures, no tests. Plant the seeds and watch them grow.