Music for All is a Group Activity
Hi there. The most common question I get as CEO of San Diego Youth Symphony is: what instrument do I play? I’m sharing with you today the instrument I don’t play.
This is a cornet. It’s a little bit shorter than a trumpet, a little more conical. I started to learn it in the sixth grade, but today, all I can play is the mouthpiece.
That’s not very musical, is it? I should be a lot more musical. I come from a very musical family. My grandfather, from as far back as I can remember, at family gatherings, would sit at the organ, and we would all circle around and sing together.
This is the kind of feeling I wanted to have beyond my family, and I wanted to be one of the family musicians. My uncle Jim, my uncle Ned, my great-uncle Ned, they were all family musicians.
I finally got my chance in middle school. When I started sixth grade, I enrolled in band class. My mom started to make the payments on this cornet, and I added practice to my afterschool homework routine.
I was a musician. Day-by-day, I was becoming a musician, but within three months, this dream of becoming a musician began to unravel.
My family, at winter break, moved from Michigan to California. Though my mom made the commitment that she’d keep making these payments and we’d find music opportunities for me in California, when we arrived, there was no music in my school.
She got me private lessons, but private lessons by yourself means you’re only playing music by yourself. That wasn’t what I wanted in music.
She tracked down a local youth orchestra conductor. He needed a violist. He offered to lend us a viola, so that I could join the viola section. I gave it all I had to try to learn the viola, went to my first rehearsal, and completely floundered.
I realized that you can’t play music in a group without training, just like you can play music by yourself with training but you’re missing a group. I was demoralized. This is where my music career ended.
Thankfully, my career in the arts did not end at that point. My mom, at this time, was in college studying acting and costuming and so she got me involved in theatre.
In theatre, I found that same sense of connection, that same opportunity for collaborative, creative interaction, voice, an opportunity to find my own sense of self and self-esteem.
I spent the next 20 years producing, acting, directing and stage managing theater. Now, I’ve dedicated myself to making music and arts education happen for everyone.
I realized not every child is as lucky as I was. Not every child has a parent so deeply involved in the arts. For most children, the arts experience they’re going to have is going to be in school. If they don’t have it in school, they’re not going to have the opportunity.
Many of you are aware of what benefits come with studying the arts. Maybe you’re aware; maybe you’re not. I’ll say to you, I’m convinced by my own experience, but not everyone will be convinced by my experience. They need to see it for themselves. They need to understand it for themselves.
I’m sure you’ve heard mathematics improves if you study music or teamwork skills develop if you’re part of an ensemble.
There are so many other unexplored aspects and benefits to participating in the arts and participating in music. For example, there’s a social benefit to having an adult mentor who is not your parent.
Children who have adult relationships that are stable and on-going, outside of their household, make better lifestyle choices, have higher sense of self-esteem and are much more deeply engaged in school.
We saw this play out just this past year as the very first group of our community opus project students, who had started music in third grade and transitioned into middle school.
There was a whole group of girls who had thrived in elementary school, both musically and academically. As they moved into middle school, they began to struggle. They stopped doing their homework. They stopped practicing. Their parents began to panic. They turned to the music teacher for some help.
With some very modest adjustments to how he was instructing them, providing more small group instruction and some more one-on-one instruction, they became re-engaged. First they re-engaged with music and then they re-engaged with school.
There’s also a profound physical benefit to playing music. We’re going to do little body experiment. You’re all going to participate.
I want you to lift up your left arm, as though you’re going to play the violin. Feel the shoulder rest on your neck. You have to hold that violin there. Then you’re going to lift up your right arm, and with energy and emotion and vigor, I want you to start playing. Play that violin.
Oh my gosh. Oh, you sound so wonderful. Did you feel how much of your body you were using? Now imagine you’re going to do that for the next 45 minutes. That’s only the first half of an orchestra concert.
The kind of physical stamina, the kind of physical embodiment that music requires is fundamental to us. In fact, playing music is more than just playing the instrument. It’s actually playing the body to play the instrument.
Later today we’re going to hear from Dr. John Iversen. He’s going to share with us the cognitive benefits of music and the brain.
Then there’s artistry. What and how is it that music becomes more than the notes that we hear? How is it that music begins to translate into our spirit?
I want you to think about imagination for a moment. Musicians have to imagine in order to play the notes they want to play. They have to hear it in their heads first. They have to imagine themselves presenting it and performing it.
Being a musician, in a lot of respects, is like a constant imagining into the future.
At San Diego Youth Symphony, we think that the same power of imagining into the future can be applied to creating the world that we want to see. We are now imaging what the world would be like if we could make music education accessible and affordable for all children.
When we imagine this, we see young people in their schools thriving, growing, maturing, and ultimately succeeding, succeeding socially, succeeding academically.
We see parents recognizing these transformations in their children and we see them rallying for more music in the schools. We even imagine school administrators finding the prioritization to make music fundamental to their school programs.
We’ve undertaken this effort. We started in 2010, and we started with the Chula Vista Elementary School District. For those of you who don’t know, that’s about 10 miles south of here, about five miles north of the Mexico border.
In Chula Vista, there are 29,000 elementary school children. This is California’s largest elementary school K-6 district. Over 50% of the students come from low-income families, or they’re coming from English-language learning families.
We started at two schools, two Title I schools, with 65 third graders. At the time we started, there was no arts education in Chula Vista elementary schools.
Very quickly, the schools and the parents started to see some changes. Bruno was no longer bored in class and was actually doing his homework. Daniel was going less and less frequently to the principal’s office.
The parents were coming onto campus and volunteering. Even if they didn’t speak English, they found a pathway into their child’s education. The classrooms became more focused and even the administrators started to see these changes and recognize the value in them.
We had thought they’d need to see test scores. Well before they had test scores, they decided to make a new investment in music education.
They had us expand our program from two schools to six schools. We’re now serving over 200 third and fourth graders. One year later, they had us begin piloting music during the school day. All third graders at these six schools had music twice a week.
For the first time in over 10 years, there was music education as part of the regular school curriculum. That was year three.
In the fourth year, they brought in full-time music teachers to two schools, and they created a visual and performing arts plan for all arts education.
In the fifth year, they actually hired their first district-level administrator to start managing this visual and performing arts plan, begin implementing it, adding more music teachers and providing professional development.
The campuses were transforming. One campus had 1,000 parents and family members come to their winter concert. Compare that to 200 coming for back-to-school night. At another school, the special needs children were more and more frequently mainstreaming into the school activities.
That very first class of parents and students who had gone on into middle school? Those parents did rally for a new orchestra at their school, and the middle school, for the first time, was offering orchestra for them.
This June, Chula Vista Elementary School District made a completely transformative decision. They invested $5 million and began hiring over 70 visual and performing arts teachers in music, theatre, dance, visual art and media art. Every single child in Chula Vista is now learning in the arts on their campus every week of the year.
This does not have to be a story that only Chula Vista tells. This is the future that I imagined for myself when I came to California. This is the future that the San Diego Youth Symphony imagines for the children of San Diego County. It’s the future that the Chula Vista Elementary School District is creating for all of the children they serve.
You can actually help make this future become real also. All it requires is for you to start telling people, and especially the people who run the schools, whether it’s the superintendent, a school board member, a teacher, a PTA president, “I want our neighborhood schools to offer music and arts education just like Chula Vista.”
What I want you to do is I want you to practice saying this today. In music, we always practice. I’m going to break it down into three phrases: I want our neighborhood schools. To offer music and arts education. Just like Chula Vista.
Let’s say it all the way through. I want our neighborhood schools to offer music and arts education just like Chula Vista. Thank you.