Spotlight ON: Music and The Brain: A Call to Action, a Southern California Radio sponsored community event

Dr. Suzanne Gindin

Dr. Suzanne Gindin

By: Vernon Nickerson

On Sunday, January 25, 2015 a typical sunny and warm Sunday California winter afternoon, I had the pleasure of being in a standing-room-only crowd at the Crawford Family Forum, broadcast headquarters of Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) station KPPC, 89.3 FM, in Pasadena, California. A diverse group of parents, children, musicians, music and arts educators, student musicians, graduates of public and private school systems across this country gathered to hear about the significant body of ongoing research that proves that prolonged and consistent exposure to music in the classroom actually improves students’ academic outcomes. Specifically, the latest research is now documenting that children receiving music education for one class period five days a week for at least 2 years actually improves the brains comprehension of language and ability differentiate sound in general.

The panel consisted of: Moderator- Mary Plummer: reporter on SCPR’s education team, covering arts education and Panelists- Suzanne Gindin, D.M.: Founder and Artistic Director, Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra, Nina Kraus, PhD., Hugh Knowles Professor in Communication Sciences, Neurobiology and Physiology, and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University, and Kristen Madsen, Senior Vice President , The GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares

In addition, we were treated to a delightful mini concert by the Boyle Heights Community Youth orchestra, directed by panel member Dr. Suzanne Gindin.  The elementary-school-age musicians displayed a performance skill level well beyond their chronological age/ developmental stage as well as being mature and articulate when questioned during the panel discussion. Dr. Kraus and the other panelists provided helpful links provided at the end of this article. There’s usually one curmudgeon in every public forum that chooses on general principal to be vocally against whatever the majority of the audience is in favor of, however, such was not the case for the audience at “Music and the Brain”.

My first red flag came up as one LAUSD teacher stood up during the question and answer time to state that her school offered no arts education and pleaded with the panel to direct her as to how to access in-service resources to train her in teaching her children to play the recorder, a common introductory level woodwind that resembles a clarinet. Recorders are used to introduce music basics to young children and give them the experience of using an instrument other than their voice to make music.  I was disturbed to hear Dr. Gindin talk about her experience of losing teaching positions when school principals lost budgets for music education in their schools.

Like this writer, every adult in the room came with their own stories of the how arts education made a profound difference in our lives. The fact that all the research supports these statistically anecdotal and self-reported outcomes is the reality of our collective lived experience. In the 1970’s at Lincoln School #9 in Paterson, NJ, music appreciation and visual arts were required elements of the curriculum, in addition vocal and instrumental music. The same was true for my cousins in rural and urban areas of California, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, and Alabama.  When I and student representatives travelled to Washington, DC in 1977 as Presidential Scholars to meet then-President Jimmy Carter, arts in education was offered in the remaining 37 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US. Virgin Islands.

Consequently, I was appalled to learn the following inconvenient truth about schools in my adopted Golden State:  Even though Federal and State Education Law require visual and performing arts education in grades K-12, such instruction is not being provided in every public school in the state.  Helpful link for parents and other advocates are:

 http://www.artsed411.org/resources/status_of_arts_ed_in_public_schools;

See also: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/index.asp for state adopted arts standards and framework.

Moreover, since 2006, all students entering the California State University and University of California systems must complete “a year-long, sequential sequence in dance, music, theatre or the visual arts that is aligned with state arts standards”.  If parents cannot afford the financial commitment and transportation required to provide arts education outside of the K-12 public education system, some students born, raised and educated in California cannot take advantage of lower in-state resident tuition and the high quality educational opportunities provided by these world-renowned institutions.

Now, in my opinion, fine and performing arts education is just as much a right of every child in America (and the world) as learning to read, learning to write, learning arithmetic, getting exercise, eating right, and more. So, I asked each panelist who parents of children in public schools with no art education being offered in direct violation of existing Federal and State laws should be calling and/or writing on Monday morning.

Here are their responses:

Ms Plummer (moderator): “…contact school board members and superintendent and me, your local public radio reporter. Sharing your personal stories can help motivate and inspire others to take action.”

Dr. Gindin: “…contact the school’s principal (who has control over the school budget), school site council, school board members and district superintendent.”

Dr. Kraus: “…contact anyone who is in a position to support research. If research can presented that supports putting resources into music education is going to enhance neural development. Research is not glamorous, but it influences policy makers at a national level.”

 Ms. Madsen:”If you have a school where there is arts education, the first call should be to say ‘Thank You!’ to the school principal; this will encourage them to continue funding and providing the services. Next, I recommend visiting 2 websites:

Arts for Alll http://www.lacountyartsforall.org/

and

Arts for LAhttp://www.artsforla.org/.

Contacting these organizations and visiting their sites will help parents and community members identify specific advocacy initiatives they can become involved with locally.”

Perhaps the best take-away quote of the day came from Dr. Gindin in response to an audience member’s question, What are the social benefits of being in an orchestra

 Playing in an orchestra, basically everything is in harmony. It’s the only activity where you can all be doing the same thing at once and you’ll agree (with each other). The students who are in them (orchestras, ensembles, etc.) have to overlook all the other differences between them. Maybe your dad makes more money or your clothes are nicer or you don’t like peanut butter or whatever it is… and in that moment, with that music, they all agree, and it ends up being something beautiful that they can then give to others as a group. And I think the process of doing that (making music) as a group gives not only a sense of confidence and self esteem, but everyone wants to be part of a group. A recent study I read showed that students who have been in orchestras enter the helping professions in much greater numbers…medicine, teaching, social work, this type of thing. I think that (the value of coming together in service of a greater good) is what is learned in ensemble playing.”

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Nina Kraus, Ph.D.

Nina Kraus, Ph.D.

Going Deeper: a One-on-One Conversation with “Music and The Brain” panelist and Northwestern University researcher Nina Kraus, Ph.D.

 What role have the arts played in your personal and professional development?

Dr. Kraus: I grew up in sound. My mother was a musician, and I was raised speaking two languages. Now I’m married to a musician, my children play music, and I’ve always appreciated how interacting with, and making meaning from, sound creates personal and meaningful connections.

What would you say to school board members and public school administrators who do not want to have arts education in general and music education in particular in schools?

Dr. Kraus: “I’m sympathetic to the very real budgetary challenges that school administrators face. What I would tell them is that music education can exercise the brain in a meaningful way that will facilitate learning across areas–in addition to instilling in children a passion.”

 How should parents start the conversation about restoring, maintaining, and/or expanding arts education in schools
…with their local public school board members?
…with school administrators?
… (in Los Angeles) with County and City leaders?

Dr. Kraus: “Parents should talk to their communities about these benefits and how they will build better learners.”

 What research and informational resources can parents, students, and the general public access to present to skeptics and those wanting to exclude fine and performing arts from public education systems?

Dr. Kraus: “Just as the currency of the nervous system is electricity, the currency of science is peer-reviewed publications in the world’s best journals.  These provide the evidence you’re looking for.

I encourage you and your readers to visit our website, www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu, including peer-reviewed publications. The website is a labor of love; we update it almost daily. By viewing lab projects, you can gain a sense of the scope of our work. Choose the individual lab project pages that interest you most to see relevant videos, publications, and more–do be sure to check out the friendly overview slideshow offered for each project. For an overview of our biological approach to measure brain activity, you can look at the animated demonstration at the bottom of our homepage. Peer-reviewed papers can be downloaded from publications.”

 Imagine a United States of America where every person of every age was able to participate in fine and performing arts from pre-school through college. What would be the benefits to society?

Dr. Kraus: “I think that the benefits would be huge. We would be equipping students to perform better and be more productive in nearly all of their pursuits, and it’s tantalizing to think about what we could accomplish…not to mention the social and emotional benefits that will come from instilling every young person with a passionate avocation that brings joy and personal fulfillment.” [TAOM]