Elementary school students from Staten Island’s PS 22 perform at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Video courtesy of PS22 Chorus.
From visits to my elementary school by members of the Richmond Symphony orchestra to conducting my own group of students as a project in high school, music education has been —and still is — deeply embedded in my life. Music enhanced my creativity and curiosity and taught me patience and how to overcome failure. As a student musician who played the cello from sixth grade to the end of college, music opened up many opportunities for me. I can’t imagine anyone being deprived of an education enriched by music.
Students are hungry for music education, but unfortunately, many do not have access. Currently, more than 1.3 million elementary school students and about 800,000 secondary students fail to get any music education. High-poverty schools with greater proportions of students of color, in particular, are less likely to expose students to music education.
For example, in the Detroit area, only 31 percent to 60 percent of schools with high concentrations of students of color offer any music instruction at all. Access is limited by the number of curricular and extracurricular course offerings or an insufficient amount of staff dedicated to musical instruction. While research has shown that the cost for a basic music education can average as low as $187 per student annually, school districts serving predominantly low-income and students of color have competing priorities and limited access to necessary resources.
A number of studies have demonstrated the benefits of music education. Elementary school students who take part in high-quality music education programs have significantly improved scores on standardized tests — including 22 percentage points higher in English and 20 percentage points higher in math scores — than students in low-quality music programs. Furthermore, musical training has a number of benefits for cognitive and language development for young children.
Beyond these facts and figures, I strongly believe music in and of itself is incredibly valuable. Music is an important avenue for self-expression and a vehicle for the preservation of culture. Without a high-quality music education, students can miss out on an opportunity to understand and appreciate something so integral to us as humans.
While tax-funded, school-based music instruction is ideal for large-scale support of music and arts education, school districts facing budget cuts may take years to prioritize and adequately fund music education. Rather than waiting, young students should be able turn to smaller scale community-based interventions.
One program in East Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra (BHCYO), provides free music education to students aged six to fourteen in response to cuts in public school music education funding. Based on Venezuela’s El Sistema model in which underserved students are provided with free instruments and individual and group music instruction, the BHCYO provides a free classical orchestral training for low-income students. The youth take part in weekly rehearsals and a six-week intensive summer program. The orchestra relies on community partners such as the local Boys and Girls Club and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for resources and rehearsal space.
Community-driven organizations, such as BHCYO and the Silver Lake Conservatory in Los Angeles, or the Opportunity Music Project in New York City, dynamically enhance and supplement students’ learning needs and help them access the music education they crave and deserve.