I recently wrote an article titled The Reality of Music and Creativity, and in that article, I made the case that development of creativity has no place in the music advocacy discussion, at least the way music classes are conducted in today’s public K-12 education. In this article, I am going to address inaccuracies within music advocacy more generally.
The goodness of music advocacy is a sacred cow; the very act of challenging it has a way of making the challenger feel dirty. This is unfortunate enough for the average person, but for a music professional such as myself to engage in the apparent self-defeating task of challenging it, well, I might as well confess to a hate crime while I’m at it.
This would be my first criticism of music advocacy: it is held up to be so holy that even the most sincere, honest and humble criticism offered in the most joyful spirit can so easily be painted and dismissed as negativity. But even if I were to do nothing more than identify problems with music advocacy, this alone would create progress. There are no tragic truths; there is only tragedy in how certain people choose to respond to them. Additionally, once I fully convey what is wrong with our current music advocacy, I will also convey exactly what arguments music advocacy ought to consist of if the goal of music advocacy isn’t just to persuade, but also to be honest.
Secondary benefits seem to be the most common justification cited by people advocating for music in schools, such as in Hearing the Music, Honing the Mind (Scientific American) or Think Twice Before Cutting K-12 Music (Northwestern University). There are three big problems with these secondary benefits:
- Correlation: Secondary benefits have not been proven to be the sole result of musical study; they are only shown to be correlated with it. A student may not have more discipline because of their musical skill; a student might instead have more musical skill because of their discipline.
- Non-Exclusivity: Secondary benefits of musical study have not been shown to exceed the secondary benefits of other areas of study. There is cognitive benefit to learning chess, physical benefit to learning to play volleyball, and psychological benefit to studying yoga, but we can’t draw any conclusions about the merit of these disciplines in school curriculum when we don’t really understand the opportunity cost of studying something else.
- Music Therapy: Even without #1 and #2, citing secondary benefits does not advance the cause of music, it advances the cause of music therapy (music used as a mere tool to achieve other goals). If society is really serious about improving math, reading or speech skills, the most efficient way to accomplish that goal is to give more attention to math, reading and speech. Math teachers would be in trouble too if their primary argument for “keeping math in the schools” consisted of helping students develop their reading skills because math word problems give students reading practice (“math therapy”).
To address this topic more demonstratively, I am going to respond in parallel to the secondary benefits cited in an Americans For The Arts article (The Top 10 Skills Children Learn From the Arts), one benefit at a time. Although my discussion of each point below focuses mostly on one or two of the problems above, many of the points below are at least partially negated by all three problems above. Let’s examine the list:
- Creativity – The arts encourage students to think ‘outside the box’. See my article, The Reality of Music and Creativity. This is the biggest fallacy on the entire list, at least, promoted in the context of music. (Quoting from my article, “Music is a hitchhiker on the creative arts highway.”)
- Confidence – Performing in front of large audiences gets people out of their comfort zone and develops confidence in front of large audiences. Does musical study develop confidence better than speech and debate? I would argue no, based on the extremely high confidence I’ve sensed in the kids who are most successful in high school debate. Their confidence level seems to exceed the level of confidence that even the best artists have. But this is all speculation until someone finally decides to do a comprehensive comparative study on confidence among many confidence-building disciplines such as martial arts and other sports, leadership clubs/classes, speech and debate, etc. with music.
- Problem Solving – Again, see my article on creativity. This item should be a sub-item of Creativity (item #1 on this list) since half of creativity comes from problem-solving (the other half comes from divergent thinking, something that I argue in my article can be nurtured but not taught). It is true that the arts offer problem-solving opportunities, but these opportunities pale in comparison to the more constant and more challenging problems that must be solved when writing a persuasive speech or coding a useful computer program.
- Perseverance – This of course assumes mastery is the goal of musical study. When mastery is the goal, which discipline in this world does not develop perseverance? Any discipline develops perseverance, even the playing of video games. This leads me to believe that innate qualities of perseverance lead to mastery more than mastery leads to perseverance.
- Focus – K-6 musical instruction does not have kids playing music that proceeds independently of others’ musical parts, so there is very little attention given to actual issues of ensemble such as balance and togetherness. While I do believe there is promise to this argument within grades 7-12 since that’s when musical curriculum finally incorporates truly independent ensemble and score reading (there is no merit to this argument in K-6 music education), the research doesn’t actually show causation nor does it show exclusivity yet.
- Non-Verbal Communication – Breaking down body language through dance (or to add my own example, learning facial expressions in theater) is an interesting skill, and I’m not sure that the problems of correlation or exclusivity would apply here. But I do believe that someone studying dance or acting with the goal of developing their non-verbal communication is most definitely engaging in dance or acting therapy.
- Receiving Constructive Feedback – Receiving constant constructive feedback is not something that is exclusive to the arts; it is also encountered in sports, other extracurriculars, and even academic classes themselves (depending on the teaching style).
- Collaboration – The arts offer great opportunity for collaboration, but I would only consider this point valid if students’ grades are determined by the artistic process rather than the artistic outcome. Any time collaborative outcomes are graded in school, unfairness is inevitable because not all students will work equally hard and yet one student’s grade is still based on another’s (in my Read Twedt article Public School System Changes Needed for the Benefit of Students, I make a compelling argument against group work in school).
- Dedication – This point seems to be a problem with the author’s article, because if we take “dedication” to mean what it means, then it’s nearly identical to “Perseverance” above, and much of her supporting wording would indicate this is the case. But the author also ties dedication to “respecting the contributions of others” (which puts it in the collaboration category) and even “the warm feeling of an audience’s applause” that make “all your efforts worthwhile” (this isn’t a secondary benefit of study, this is one of several extrinsic rewards to help motivate study).
- Accountability – Again, this is derivative of points above. To address the author’s description of this point, the idea that collaboration teaches that actions affect other people is part of point #8 above. Admitting you made a mistake and taking responsibility for it would be part of point #7 above (receiving constructive feedback). The author’s last sub-point of this point should have been the whole point itself: “Because mistakes are a regular part of the process of learning in the arts, children begin to see that mistakes happen. We acknowledge them, learn from them and move on.” I would have instead written as point #10, “Children learn not only to accept mistakes but even to embrace them since they are such a normal part of the artistic process.” Even then, it still overlaps significantly with point #7. More importantly, again we have the problem of exclusivity – we experience mistakes and learn to overcome them regularly in sports and academics too.
I could write a similar response to Edutopia’s Why Arts Education Is Crucial, and Who’s Doing It Best, but suffice to say just a couple things: 1) the article begins with lack of causation (pay special attention to the words “linked” and “associated” in the first two paragraphs) and lack of exclusivity, and 2) everything that follows in the rest of the article is written as if to assume causation and exclusivity are a given.
I hope my critique makes it obvious what needs to happen next in order to move forward: there needs to be a long-term study involving a few hundred randomly-selected children (an involved study, but also a very worthwhile one), evaluated for certain traits (claimed secondary benefits of musical study) at the age of 5 or 6 and then again at the age of 18. While some of the kids would have been found at the age of 18 to have studied music, others would have gotten involved with other hobbies such as reading, chess or computers. For the study to be valid, it would need to be very thorough in documenting what kinds of activities the students engaged in significantly during their free time, not just the arts. I believe that such a study would show that, for example, those with the most perseverance at the age of 6 will probably also have the most perseverance at the age of 18. I believe arts would nurture these qualities too, but I also believe that other disciplines might even nurture them even more effectively. If such a study were to show these secondary benefits to be both caused by musical study and also developed best through musical study, we are still left with the problem of promoting music therapy rather than just musical study. That is why my own list of music advocacy arguments at the bottom of this article consist entirely of direct, primary benefits of musical study.
Secondary benefits are not the only weak or fallacious arguments that I believe harm the cause of musical advocacy.
Pocketbook bias is certainly a huge reason that we teachers have for promoting music, whether we admit it or not. Let’s consider a quote from one of the monthly “Dear Reader” articles in American Music Teacher (Oct/Nov 2011):
“However, to advance the notion to society that music lessons are valuable, thus ensuring that music teachers have students to teach, is a different story [not easy to do], especially in a time of diminished interest in classical music, of scores of other activities vying for mind space and attention, and the elimination of school music programs.”
Promoting the cause of growing or maintaining one’s own livelihood does not require that the livelihood merits growth – it only requires self-interest on the part of the promoter. I’m not spending much time on this point, but it’s a point we musicians need to spend a lot of time thinking about. How much of the music advocacy you engage in can be traced to self-interest?
Other arguments I hear to justify the idea that music lessons need to be more important than society are arguments that use emotional and/or poetic language, slogans/quotes such as, “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without” (Confucious) or “Human beings are in need of music – not as frill and luxury but as a basic necessity” (Theodore Bikel), testimonials such as the Karl Paulnack Welcome Address at the Boston Conservatory, and other sacred cow arguments. Don’t get me wrong – I’m moved emotionally just as much as anyone else by the Karl Paulnack text. I agree with the Confucious quote. I too feel that music is a basic necessity in my own personal life (but I can’t speak for others, including one person I know who says he hates all music but sings it in church anyway because the Bible commands him to). I get emotional when I listen to music. That’s what makes these arguments sacred cows – they resonate. So why aren’t these arguments actually valid?
Let’s consider a worst case scenario, and let me be clear that I’m not advocating I want this (I don’t!): what I’m advocating is in the last section (and title!) of this article. Suppose all musical study were completely eliminated from all public K-12 schools. Aren’t we forgetting the fact that people create, perform and listen to music whether it’s part of public schooling or not? With the Confucious and Bikel quotes in mind, consider that human nature cannot do without love and that love is a basic necessity of life (at least for the vast majority of people). We have never and will never formally study love in grade school. Similarly, the ubiquitousness of music explains why almost everyone listens to music and why some are compelled to write and perform it, but it does not explain why everyone needs to study it. If it did, then every time I watch a shallow, action-packed Hollywood blockbuster, I ought to feel shame for not ever taking a single film studies course in college. I don’t.
So then, why should someone else who has limited or no appreciation of classical music feel any shame when they listen to “mindless” hip-hop music on the radio? They shouldn’t. (And for the record, it’s not mindless. If we understand anything about what it takes to produce music today with computers and recording technology, we would bow down and kiss the feet of some of these musical engineers – the best ones in this field are just as much artists in their environment as we are in ours.) Music is like alcohol: even if it were absolutely prohibited everywhere at all times, music would still be created, performed and appreciated, and it would probably mean more to people precisely because of the prohibition. Prohibition would backfire, causing music to become even more powerful and expressive than it already is.
So, in fact, the Confucious and Bikel quotes could be taken as evidence that music does not even need to be legal, let alone formally studied in school, to thrive. Public funding of the arts is not required for people to learn, participate in, and support the arts.
In Theory But Not In Practice
We obviously wouldn’t pay $1 billion to keep one music program alive at a single high school, so the value of music does indeed have a quantifiable price. But while we nod our heads in agreement at this general principle, we always seem to have trouble accepting real examples of it when it comes into practice, no matter how well-justified the decision makers might be in their decisions. Allow me to describe an example I experienced myself.
When the Music Teachers National Association announced to its 20,000-or-so members in 2011 (a time of financial hardship for the entire country) that various instrument categories would be eliminated from their national competition in order to cut some costs since hiring/flying/lodging judges is expensive, there was absolute outrage all across the country from MTNA members. A good amount of this outrage came from state affiliate organizations after having board discussions about it. The people at the top of MTNA who made this decision strongly advocate for music in every way they can, so this decision could not have been made lightly, and yet the full-of-disgust tone of MTNA members’ responses seemed to insinuate that those making the decisions must have been uninformed (lacking the correct information), stupid (having the correct information but not realizing its implications), lazy (drawing the right conclusions but failing to act on them), or evil (drawing the right conclusions and choosing to act against them). These are the four irresponsible beliefs people form about opposing viewpoints when they believe they’re right with too much conviction, as outlined by Kathryn Schulz in her book Being Wrong.
One reason eliminating these categories would be no tragedy is because students and teachers of strings, band, orchestra and choir already have their own organizations, festivals, journals and conferences. For example, public school districts everywhere have an annual solo/ensemble festival that very few, if any, private piano teachers find out about, let alone participate in. As another example, NATS includes a national conference and competition just for singers. Piano teachers don’t have their own exclusive nationally-unified organization like vocal teachers do, and yet many vocal teachers were very vocal about the fact that they would leave MTNA if MTNA were to eliminate the vocal category from the competition. Well of course they’d leave, and is this really a bad thing, considering the reality that MTNA represents mostly piano teachers? Eliminating these categories from the competition would be an improvement to the MTNA since it would allow MTNA to cater more specifically to the members who need it most: members who not only make up a majority of the membership, but who also don’t seem to have any national piano-specific organizations of their own (but who probably won’t ever form one since it would compete with MTNA). Like it or not, the fact is that MTNA is mostly dedicated to piano teachers, and it would be of great benefit to these piano teachers if sessions at the MTNA conferences, articles in MTNA’s AMT journal, and categories in the MTNA competition weren’t diluted with obligatory distractions that serve only to make sure the non-piano MTNA members don’t complain too much about not being given proportional attention.
I brought these arguments up at my state’s board meeting, but only after I sat very patiently and quietly for at least 20 or 25 minutes, listening to teachers respond mostly emotionally to this decision. There was a lot of second-guessing and a lot of assuming that the national board was lazy: apparently they did not try hard enough to think of other ways to fund the competitions. Nobody seemed to want to think critically about whether an organization is truly more effective trying to cater to all possible types of music teachers than it is when it devotes itself specifically to one type of teacher. Such discussion was off the table before the discussion even began, because when music advocacy and music honesty collide – especially when coupled with loss aversion – music advocacy automatically wins.
I believe another reason for this was personal pressure: almost every piano teacher knows one or two non-piano teachers who would drop membership if the categories were eliminated. For fear of seeming non-empathetic toward a colleague’s feelings, piano teachers replace whatever empathy they might have had for the greater good of the organization with limitless empathy for the individual colleagues who might be offended by a decision to change. This is actually a form of corruption; people can’t make decisions for the greater good if they are too busy instead being loyal to a personal friend.
The relationship between public and private music study
Music advocates don’t just present questionable reasons for supporting the arts, they also convince their audience that we can measure the love society has for the arts by looking at public school budgets. I find this argument to be extremely passive-aggressive, no different from when someone says, “You must not love me,” just because their spouse wants to have a guys’ (or girls’) night out. A good example of this would be the same AMT quote I used above (this time emphasis placed in a different spot):
“…to advance the notion to society that music lessons are valuable, thus ensuring that [private] music teachers have students to teach, is a different story [not easy to do], especially in a time of diminished interest in classical music, of scores of other activities vying for mind space and attention, and the elimination of school music programs.”
The author seems to be saying that elimination of school music programs contributes to a societal mindset that music (and therefore music lessons) are less valuable. I don’t believe the mindset is one of undervaluing of music programs; rather, it is one of practicality that when a school budget is cut, the core disciplines must stay, and music is not a core discipline. This is a budget problem, not a problem with how much we love music. Additionally, those experiencing (and even deciding on) these cuts are going value the private music teacher more, not less, because of the growing gap private teachers fill in society.
And to really set straight the relationship between public and private study, a fairly common reason my high school students have quit piano lessons in the past is because they simply don’t have time to balance their piano practicing with the requirements of band, orchestra or choir. These school music programs sometimes start one period earlier than the rest of the school starts (“zero period”), and they require daily practice. Most importantly, they always end up taking priority over private lessons, not only because a school music program is part of the student’s report card, but also because students want to avoid embarrassment in front of their peers when they rehearse each day. Students are required to perform many times per semester around town and often out of town for competitions and festivals. Performance in an ensemble is a much less intense musical experience than solo performance since the group covers the individual’s mistake, so for all this extra time spent in class and on road trips, the benefits aren’t reaped as efficiently as in the private studio. But no matter – public school music ensembles win out over private lessons most of the time. As awful a day as it would be for our education system if public school music programs were eliminated (something I am not advocating for – again I’m only advocating that our advocacy choose a more honest path), this elimination would be one of the best things that could ever happen to the studios of private music teachers anyway.
Implications For Music Advocacy
Music advocacy groups do a lot of great things, and there is a lot of compelling evidence to justify it, such as this page. I haven’t really had much interest in disputing or verifying various secondary benefits of musical study (I can say that recent research disputes the notion that listening to Mozart makes us smarter); the intrinsic value of music is always what attracted me to it. What I firmly dispute is the notion that music is the best and/or only way to achieve these benefits. Again, a lot of these benefits are examples of correlation, not causation. Are dropout rates among music students low because they study music, or is it that students who care the most about school are much more likely to be interested in studying music? This same argument applies to music students attending colleges at twice the rate of the national average and music students outperforming others on achievement tests. Piano lessons improve spatial-temporal reasoning skills, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other disciplines that enhance those skills too. Music can be used powerfully to form memories, recall memories and stimulate speech, but these benefits are reaped equally by anyone who hears music, not just those who have studied music.
If our only criterion for advocacy is that whatever we’re advocating for is “good,” then there are countless causes worthy of advocacy in this country. My criterion for advocacy goes one step further: show me that it’s the best. We shouldn’t be aiming for good solutions to problems, we should be aiming for best solutions.
Another thing to consider regarding music advocacy is that there is never a concrete goal to be reached, and even if there were, the advocacy would never end there. One of my favorite Onion articles of all time conveys my argument here better than I ever could in my own words. Honestly, can anyone actually outline a realistic scenario that would cause music advocacy groups to declare that all of their goals have been achieved and it’s time for them to end their cause (or redefine their cause) so they can move on to causes that will benefit school kids even more? I describe such causes in one of my Read Twedt posts, Public School System Changes Needed for the Benefit of Students. Other things worth fighting for might be to add character development to elementary school curriculum (books like How to Win Friends and Influence People should be mandatory reading for every high school student) or make finances (credit cards, loans, mortgages, stocks, mutual funds, retirement plans, etc.) part of core high school curriculum.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for music to be taken out of the schools. I simply wish to make decisions for the greater good, not just for the good of my bank account and for validation of what is personally important to me. The best thing anyone can do with their lives is to find between one and three passions in life and follow them with total devotion and dedication. Music may or may not be among those passions. Let’s have open minds about both sides of the discussion and realize that those wishing to put music on the chopping block are not doing so because they are followers of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. They want the best for children too. If you really want to change their minds, think instead about why music is the best choice of what to do with a block of time rather than why it is merely of some positive value. Show causation of secondary benefits, not just correlation. Cite more studies and less anecdotes and endorsements. Most of all, allow yourself to be humbled (and therefore more open-minded) by the fact that you stand to benefit personally by your own advocacy efforts since your paycheck increases when society values your profession more. Music advocacy carried out by musicians is no more a cause for charity than labor unions are.
The cause of arts advocacy is helped by being made more aware of its weaknesses, and that’s the big reason I’ve written this article. We shouldn’t be dishonest when advocating for anything. We are all sickened by certain lobbyists in Washington pushing for their own causes by distorting the facts through many of the same techniques described in this article. This results in legislation that damages our nation. Do we really want to be among those people who allow distortion and fallacy to be our guiding influence? Looking at the prominence of sacred cows in arts advocacy, this leads me to believe that those advocating for the arts don’t think highly of the critical thinking skills of their audience. Maybe they’re right, and maybe sacred cows work best. If so, I still don’t want to be a part of it. I want truth whether I’m dishing it out or receiving it.
In his article, “Private Music Teaching As A Business” (American Music Teacher), Robert DeFazio says, “Proponents of the arts must bring more [than art for art’s sake] to the table to justify either public or private support.” This suggests a dilemma of effectiveness vs. honesty: we must either advocate for music by using secondary benefits even though those benefits are not exclusive to music nor are they proven to be anything more than correlative, or we must advocate for music in a way that most directly conveys truth but doesn’t carry as much persuasive power over others. If DeFazio is right (and I’m not sure that he is), I’ve made it clear where I stand in this dilemma.
As promised, here are the strongest direct arguments for keeping music programs off the chopping block:
- Intrinsic value: Music is its own reward / Music is pleasurable / Students enjoy studying music.
- Cultural heritage: In elementary years, cultural foundations are built through teaching folk music.
- Exploration: It’s important for many non-core disciplines including music to be given at least a little attention so that kids can more quickly discover and follow life passions they may have. (Music should always at least be part of an exploratory class at school that changes focus every few weeks or months.)
- Universal language: People of all different cultures can communicate (or at least form connections) with each other through music, even across centuries of time.
- Music was discovered, not invented: Music is as much a part of the natural world as mathematics and science are – the science of sound is mathematically-based. More of music’s significant connections to mathematics should be taught, and this can’t be taught without a certain foundational understanding of music.
I don’t want to be part of music advocacy that is confused, misleading, deceptive, or downright dishonest. I would rather advocate for music with complete and powerful truth behind me, and humbly trust that society will prioritize my cause accordingly based on the straight truth I provide. I want my children to have musical experiences in school as much as anyone else, but I want this for direct reasons listed above, not the bogus indirect reasons recited by music advocates to their government representatives. If the decision society makes about my cause is not what I was hoping for, I need to be prepared to consider the possibility that society knows how my cause should be prioritized with other competing causes better than I do, because there is always a big picture that is easy to miss when we get too focused on our own little worlds. The world tends to be a lot less biased than we individuals are.
DeFazio, Robert. “Private Music Teaching As A Business.” American Music Teacher Feb/Mar (2013), p. 36.
Editors. “Hearing the Music, Honing the Mind.” Scientific American. N.p., 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=hearing-the-music-honing>.
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Ingle, Gary. “Dear Reader: A New World.” American Music Teacher Oct/Nov (2011).
Leopold, Wendy. “Think Twice Before Cutting K-12 Music: Northwestern University News.” Northwestern University. N.p., 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 12 June 2013. <http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2010/02/kraus.html>.
Lombrozo, Tania. “Music, Multivitamins And Other Modern Intelligence Myths.” Cosmos & Culture. National Public Radio, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/01/19/169801500/music-multivitamins-and-other-modern-education-myths?live=1>.
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Paulnack, Karl. “Karl Paulnack Welcome Address.” The Boston Conservatory. N.p., 1 Sept. 2004. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/music/karl-paulnack-welcome-address>.
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(c) 2013 Cerebroom