The jazz disease

By Vicci Johnson
Director of Jazz Bands, Murray JHS, St. Paul MN
Education Chair, Twin Cities Jazz Society

Public school music educators employ varied strategies to promote and support their programs. Here are some thoughts why these strategies must be supported by the nation's music communities, from a Minnesota public school music educator and advocate, Vicci Johnson.

Today in Minnesota my 70-year-old next-door neighbor listens to the radio shows of Jerry Swanberg, Arne Fogel, and Garrison Keillor. She also listens to her favorite recordings by Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and the Carpenters. She also holds season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra. Her Minnesota public school experience helped gift her with an appreciation for diverse forms of music.

Times have changed. How many students of hip-hop hold season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra or attend jazz concerts? Few young people today appreciate more than one form of music. How could we allow this to happen?

Today there are only a few urban public elementary schools remaining in which a young student might acquire and develop the basic skills and inspiration that could lead to careers in the fields of music education and professional music. I worry that too few urban schools spawn future arts aficionados and patrons.

Reasons for school music’s decline are familiar to concerned observers. There’s less funding for public school music programs. Policymakers and the public often consider music to be unnecessary and less “core” than math, reading, and science. From computers to ipods to athletics, there’s more competition for a student’s time. And today’s graduate students in school administration often fail to appreciate music as an essential component of public education.

To reverse this trend, it will take more than projects like “April is JAZZ in Our Schools Month,” noble as such efforts are. Surely a basic requirement is for today's community of adult musicians and music devotees to fight cuts to school music programs across the United States. And the value of music in elementary schools must somehow be driven home. Consider the following:

Group performance in an elementary school music classroom trains young people in the discipline of collaboration (win-win)—great preparation for adulthood in culturally diverse social and workplace settings.

Kodaly (founder of Kodaly vocal education for children) understood that music is an ‘indispensable part of universal human knowledge.’ Believing the slogan ‘Let music belong to everyone!’ he insisted “it is only natural that music has to be made part of the school curriculum." Evidence shows how vocal music alongside math, reading, and science can raise student grades. It makes learning fun, not dry. Class control and discipline problems are minimized.

Communities with large and healthy ARTS economies enjoy a richer quality of life, with more people benefiting from post-secondary education and less poverty.

For more in-depth testimonials to the value of music in school curricula, read Richard Florida's three books on the creative class and local economies. A fine treatment of how to use Kodaly vocal music as a tool for teaching reading, math, and science, is found in Dr. Elizabeth K. Berry Olson's thesis, “Affirming Parallel Concepts among Reading, Mathematics, and Music through Kodaly Music Instruction,” University of Iowa, 2003.

Regarding the worth of music education as taught in the public schools, and in support of Dr. Olson's findings, note the following statement from Dr. Grant Venerable, chemist and educator at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in his book, The Paradox of the Silicon Savior: "Significantly, one of the most striking facts in Silicon Valley industry is that the very best engineers and technical designers are, nearly without exception, practicing musicians."

Consider also a Nov. 17, 1992 keynote speech by Harriet Mayor Fulbright for the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education. She referenced Ellen Harris, a provost from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who wrote: "The ARTS have helped prepare MIT students in business. An alumnus at a large New York accounting firm recently stated at an MIT alumni meeting that his firm interviews about 40 MIT students every year. Of the ten they recently hired, four presented minors in the arts. This latter (ARTS) fact so significantly set these candidates apart from the others in terms of creative thinking, flexibility, and presentation, that the firm is now using the arts minors as a screening criterion."

Projects like “April is JAZZ in Our Schools Month” can be very important for urban communities because so few public officials consider the evidence, no matter the source. Music in our schools encourages young students to practice creative strategies in preparation for everyday challenges in their personal and professional lives. Music in our schools is essential for future support to any city's arts and tourism economy. Whether a musical performer or a music patron, an individual’s quality of life is enhanced by the embrace of music. The public school, the great equalizer, must be encouraged and supported to play its part.

To that end, if you happen to find yourself near a public school celebrating "April is JAZZ in Our Schools Month," please attend a performance. The music teacher and the students will appreciate your support. It will send a message to administration that the community values and boosts the arts.

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.


January 18, 2008 · 1 comment

  • 1 J. Pisano // Jan 22, 2008 at 02:20 PM
    Vicci/, What a great well written article. You bring up a number of great points. In particular, the point about today's student's only appreaciating one form of music. I've never thought about that aspect in the terms you present. It's very thought provoking and worthy of further exploration, discussion, and even research. Thanks for the great article. J. Pisano