In Which We Properly Term It “The Playing-an-Instrument Effect”

Music teachers have known like, forever, that the Mozart Effect was suspicious.  Mr.  Campbell always seemed to me a little too eager to have us believe that Mozart was key to unlocking the hidden genius in every child. And your child was certainly worth X amount of dollars for him to give you a program for how to do it.  Many teachers, including some that I worked with, jumped aboard the Mozart Effect bandwagon, believing that it would increase enrollments in instrumental music programs, thinking that more kids would benefit from the Campbell-guaranteed raises in test scores, which would in turn save music from all future budget battles because there would finally be a large enough body of scientific evidence that supported music as the most cost-effective academic indicator of success. I remember being told, as a public school string enrichment specialist, that I should quote from his “research” in my parent demo/performances.  I was happy, along with many teachers, that somebody was finally doing research on how younger students learn and what kind of impact classical music would have on the findings. As we slowly discovered, parts of the Mozart Effect had been studied, scientifically proven and documented. Other parts of it were not, but were generalized to make it sound more scientific than it was. I personally figured this out about ten years ago.

So, it’s interesting that Melissa Healy of the  LA Times reports something that the rest of us knew all along.   In  “Playing Along With The Mozart Effect”, there are a couple of really important points that I definitely agree with and would like to share here. First, Healy writes that, “music is little more than ear candy for the brain if it is consumed only passively.” What a great, creative way to say it! “Ear candy”.  I love it! More seriously, though, I have heard story upon story that bears this out.  As Ms. Healy pens, “You gotta get in there and play.” Amen to that, sistah!

She also notes an older study done by neurologist Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard.  Dr. Schlaug and his team studied thirty professional musician brains and thirty adult non-musician brains.  They found that in the musician brains,  the corpus callosum — the part of the brain that bridges the left and right hemispheres — was much larger and denser than that of non-musicians. This study also found that musicians who started playing before age seven had the most pronounced difference.  I didn’t start til I was nine. Boy, that explains a lot. Heh.

The article also cites a study done by Laurel Trainor, a highly-respected researcher in Suzuki circles,  which found that brain response in Suzuki-trained students was two to three years ahead of children who did not take music lessons.

So what can parents and teachers glean from this? Well, first off, Mozart doesn’t really have anything to do with how smart your kids are, or even how smart they could be. His music is certainly  beautiful, and because it’s so aurally complex, it is probably good for helping a child develop focused listening skills.  Adults too, for that matter. What teachers know, however, is that the listening skills are only one small part of developing and nurturing the whole child.  Listening lays the groundwork for the real work of programming the brain. Learning to play Mozart is another small part of the process, but it’s the part where the benefits are actually developed and perfected.  As we tell students over and over:  Listen. Then Play.

There are literally hundreds of skills — physical, mental, psychological and emotional — that are developed through learning to play an instrument. If these studies are correct, then we should be focused on getting kids to play instruments, yes?  The music itself doesn’t matter; it’s simply a tool we use to teach the technique.  It is the actual playing that produces the improvement in cognitive skills we keep blindly hoping will magically appear one year in the latest batch of test scores. You would think that school districts would be falling over themselves to come up with money to fund unlimited participation.  We have no evidence that taking math makes you smarter, but we know that taking music lessons improves your ability to do math.  Ditto for any quantitative, reasoning or comprehension skill taught in any elementary school classroom.

So.  Why does it have to cost so much? Who says? Where are you getting your numbers? And how come we’re still in the “b*tch and moan” stage? Why is nobody organizing a group to find a permanent solution to this?  (Um, Des Moines, that would be your cue 🙂 Where are the national organizations, like VH1’s Save the Music and the Grammy Foundation? MTNA and ASTA?  SAI?  MENSA? The National Endowment for the Arts? Did I forget anyone? Oh, yeah, the National Education Association. Anyone else? Ooops, the American Federation of Musicians. Whether you agree or not with every single principle of every single organization, they all have one thing in common: education. My point is that this should be a national dialogue, not just a local discussion, because it affects our quality of education on a national level. It has the potential to redefine our republic.

All I keep seeing is: Write or call your state legislators. While that is admirable, it is not going to be the solution. Nobody truly wants to cut the arts. The Governor and the legislature know as well as the rest of us how important the arts are and why we should fund them. They’ve heard all the statistics too. They know what great kids we’ve got, what well-trained, highly motivated musicians we’re producing, because they have seen and heard them. Many of these kids live with legislators. Maybe even legislators who are musicians. But state money isn’t the permanent answer. And we are only deluding ourselves when we entertain the possibility that it might be.

Music instruction is cheap compared to administrator salaries. It’s cheap compared to the costs of housing an inmate. Just a guess, since I don’t have access to actual figures, but based on what expenses average in the Midwest, we probably spend less on school-sponsored music lessons, per student, sometimes per school, than the average American family spends on food for a year.  Private lessons probably equal the annual cell phone or cable bill in an average family. I don’t expect anyone to forgo either in order to afford a houseful of music.

I feel like I should apologize for beating this subject to death, but the more I focus on it, the more determined I become to help save it, at least in the Des Moines Schools.

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