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Reading, writing and eighth notes
by Christine Whitmarsh
May 08, 2010 | 1454 views | 1 1 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I had been looking forward to the day since I first heard about it. It was the day at my Massachusetts elementary school where “the music guy” brought all sorts of shiny, new musical instruments to the cafetorium and we fourth graders got to peruse and then “audition” the ones we were interested in. Later that afternoon I giddily leapt off the school bus, ran down the street and burst into the kitchen, exclaiming to my mother, “I want to play the flute!” 

That was 28 years ago and I’m proud to say that once I started, I never stopped. I’ve played solo on stage in recitals and I’ve worn a white blouse, black skirt and patent leather shoes in the front rows of concert bands. I have even donned a heavy, polyester marching band uniform and traipsed up and down the football field during freezing halftime shows and up the main street of our town in Memorial Day parades, tooting my tiny piccolo. At some points it seemed like everything else I was doing and learning at school completely revolved around my music education.

Here, across the country from my hometown, in the summer of 2008 the UNR marching band lost its university funding and became a club, rather than an official school program. Band members, supporters and community leaders immediately rallied and raised the $150,000 needed for the band to survive another year. By March this year, the tide had turned a bit and UNR was defending a lack of cuts to its music and fine arts programs, citing the long-term benefits of a cultural education. Now, the Washoe County School District, forced to cut its own corners, is aiming the budgetary laser at music and athletic programs in some county schools.

Music and athletics are historically easy academic targets when it comes to budget cuts. They do not fall under the traditional “reading, writing and arithmetic” essentials for academic greatness. Sports sometimes get a pass when parents and coaches point to their teamwork, leadership and health benefits. The benefits of music, however, often leave people scratching their heads. Marching band, they’ll concede at least involves physical activity, coordination and, yes, teamwork. But classical music, to the naked eye, consists mainly of sitting on a stage with a musical instrument and mastering the fashion statement of white tops and black bottoms. As for reading, writing and arithmetic, does reading sheet music, writing in cues from the conductor, and counting the number of beats in a measure, count? Can music education improve test scores and academic potential?

According to the research, it can. Separate studies over the years* have revealed that students who study music or play musical instruments consistently show improvement in the math and verbal sections of the SAT, standardized IQ tests and long-term academic success as measured by academic honors and grades. A higher number of music majors are also accepted into medical school (as compared to other majors). This should be music to the ears of educators, parents and politicians who continue to fret about improving our national test scores and remaining academically competitive with the rest of the world. 

(*University of California Irvine, 1993; UCLA 1997; Music Educators Conference, 2001; University of Toronto at Mississauga, 2004; Neurological Research, 1997; U.S. Department of Education National Educational Longitudinal Study, 1988)

I cannot say for sure whether my IQ is any better, test scores higher or math skills improved because of my lifetime of music education, uninterrupted from the fourth grade all the way through college. I also never applied to medical school so I can’t speak to that either. Although I was the only music performance minor in my nursing school class and I did make the Dean’s List a few times. I can only say what I gained from my music education. I learned the value of being one sound in a symphony of others, working toward achieving a common goal on stage in front of friends and family. I learned how to handle the inevitable rejection that comes with auditioning and how much sweeter that makes success when it comes around. I learned self-discipline, focus and how to tap into a part of my brain that marched to a different beat than the rest of my classmates. These are only some of the joys and lifelong effects of playing music that cannot be measured in research studies or calculated on a budgetary spreadsheet. The true value of music is discovered by those who are given the opportunity to play it. 

Christine Whitmarsh is a Reno-based freelance writer and founder and owner of Christine, Ink. She can be reached at christine@christine-ink.com.
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Jeffrey Benjamin
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May 09, 2010
Excellent article on the importance of music. Although I no longer play, I listen to music constantly and know that music has increased my quality of life.
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