George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Music and the Spirit of Schools

April 23, 2013
Photo credit: vocalessence via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I love all types of music, from John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" to Bruce Springsteen shaking the rafters with "Promised Land" to Hilary Hahn's rapturous performance of a Bach Partita. And lately I've been thinking more about the place of music in schools -- all music, but especially classical music.

The audience at classical music concerts is getting older. The place of music in schools, especially secondary schools, still seems confined to a handful of kids in a band or orchestra. Music for most kids is something that takes place outside of school and is confined to a narrow range of listening and participation.

I think this can all be changed, and I know there is a wealth of resources and programs that can help it happen.

Music in Action

A series of experiences has brought the importance of this home to me in spades.

I observed a Spanish class at a local high school and experienced what happened when the teacher began the class with a video of Manu Chao singing "Clandestino." The students were instantly alive and connected to the music. The class ended with a contest between two sides of the room singing the song in Spanish. It was electric. I wish I had suggested that he also try using recordings of some Latin American classical composers, like Silvestre Revueltas, but I only discovered his music recently myself. Following is the Manu Chao video.

At a concert last November at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela, with 160 members between 18 and 28 years of age, performed brilliantly and finished with three encores for a wildly applauding standing audience that included many young people. There was some playful interaction among orchestra members between pieces and a performance filled with that same spirit. Here is an excerpt from that same tour showing the Simon Bolivar Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Earlier that week, students from San Francisco Bay Area schools had attended a workshop with the orchestra and its conductor in which they learned more about the music.

All of the musicians and Gustavo Dudamel, the 31-year-old conductor, who also leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic, are products of the revolutionary Venezuelan music program, El Sistema, a nationwide system that puts instruments into the hands of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids, often transforming their lives.

Which leads to my third experience. On a recent Saturday afternoon in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael, a primarily Hispanic immigrant community, my wife and I attended a concert in which children from preschool age to early adolescence demonstrated their developing musical talent, playing both Latin and classical music. The children are all participants in Enriching Lives Through Music (ELM), a program now associated with El Sistema USA, focusing on children who often fall through the cracks in our educational system. There was a pride and excitement that I rarely see in our schools, and an exceptional feeling of connection among and between families. The following video is from ELM.

Finally, while writing this piece, I discovered a story in the NY Times about an exciting concert at Carnegie Hall that included students from two New York city public high schools in the performance.

Infusing Music in Our Schools

Look, here's the point; these are all kids, and they're all deeply engaged in playing and enjoying classical music, often classical music that connects them with their ethnic roots. Many of these experiences include kids who are not usually exposed to this music or given the opportunity to play an instrument.

I am convinced that we need to do more to infuse the experience of creating music, and especially ethnic and classical music, into our schools. This is about more than a school orchestra. Music should become part of the total life of a school. And this needs to start well before high school.

As with the Spanish class I attended, it should be integrated across the curriculum. Every social studies class could include music related to the period and countries being explored. Including that music would broaden students' knowledge of the culture of the period, increase student appreciation for a diverse range of music, and raise the level of spirit in the class. Teachers might also consider asking whether there are any students in the class who are musicians and who could perform some of the music.

Of course, music can be integrated with other subjects, especially humanities and foreign language classes. There are many exciting examples of how to achieve this. An art teacher I know has a different student bring music to play every day as background while the students work on their art.

Resources for Connecting Kids to Classical Music

The website EnglishClub focuses on using music to teach ESL, but its ideas and insights extend well beyond ESL. It's worth checking out.

"Jazz and Similes," which you can find on the Teaching Channel, is a great video that also shows how music can be integrated with teaching language arts.

This NPR piece, "How Do You Introduce Classical Music to Kids?," although directed a bit more at the experience of younger children, is applicable across all ages and has some great suggestions.

For resistant high school students with no exposure to classical music and for whom classical music is assigned to the "boring" category, the challenge is always greater. There's a wonderful moment during Mr. Holland's Opus in which he uses The Toys' "Lovers Concerto" to introduce students to Bach, and miraculously transforms his whole class into students motivated to learn classical music. Hollywood-ized as it is, the message is on target: (a) always accept the music students already listen to; and (b) establish whatever links you can between their music and culture and the music you want to introduce them to.

The website Boing Boing offers an example of engaging elementary aged kids by having them sing lyrics of their favorite contemporary songs to classical melodies.

And this short article, "Classical Music, Youth & Social Change," with its wealth of references, is one that nobody with an interest in expanding the musical horizons of kids should miss.

Music for the Soul

Something special happens when kids are fully engaged with other kids in listening to and playing music. It frequently takes them to another level of the spirit. Most of us know what it is to experience a feeling that lifts us out of ourselves, connects us to others and to some unseen level of spirit that defies easy definition.

One of my favorite teachers some years ago, a great veteran of the San Francisco schools, said, "I don't know exactly what it is, but in my African-American culture having 'soul' is really important, and I just don't see it in my school." Well, here's one way to add some soul and expand the horizons of kids in a way that will enrich the rest of their lives.

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