Keeping Notes Afloat in Class

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

Third-graders at Hunters Woods Elementary School are required to learn the fundamentals of the violin. They know how to stand up straight, how to hold their instruments and how to use the tippy tips of their fingers when they press on the strings so they don't make what their teacher calls "an icky sound."

After learning a grand total of eight notes, they also know how to make music. Their repertoire one fall morning included pieces from a range of cultures and styles: "Caribbean Island," "Seminole Chant," "Good King Wenceslas."

In Fairfax County and elsewhere, students often begin studying violin in fourth grade. Hunters Woods, an arts and science magnet school in Reston, gives them a one-year head start. Experts say the earlier children begin, the more likely they are to succeed in music.

Hunters Woods, with 950 students, is one of more than a dozen local schools in which teachers are trained through the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to infuse arts education into other subjects. For instance, students might build instruments from recycled materials, learn science through lessons on sound and vibration or study math through measurement and patterning. Some also compose songs with lyrics inspired by Virginia history.

But music programs and the rest of the education budget are under scrutiny as the county School Board seeks to close a $220 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July. One proposal to save about $850,000 would trim band and strings teaching positions, making it tough to keep such programs in third and fourth grades, said Roger Tomhave, fine arts coordinator for Fairfax schools.

In any economic downturn, music education becomes a topic in public hearings. How does fourth-grade strings fit into core academic goals? Is it superfluous, or is it essential?

For Schools & Learning this week, music educators chime in on why such lessons matter and what they impart beyond knowledge of scales and rhythm.

Responsibility And Discipline

Before the Hunters Woods third-graders were allowed to lift their pint-size instruments to pluck or bow a single note, teacher Kara Feigleson asked them to sit in a semicircle and tell her how many days they have practiced. They opened their music books and counted the X's penciled into their practice record, representing the days they reviewed music at home.

Some students said they have practiced once; others, every night. Samuel Gordon, 8, said he sometimes practices an hour a day because he studies piano, too.

"Music is one of the strictest disciplines," Feigleson said. "You have to practice every day. It's not like riding a bike. If you don't keep it up, you're going to lose it."

Students also have to take care of their instrument -- not a small challenge. At the beginning of class, a student arrived with the first casualty of the school year: Her borrowed violin had a missing string and broken scroll.

21st Century Skills

Educators and business leaders agree that it's not enough to prepare children for repetitive, low-skilled jobs. Today's workforce requires creativity, higher-order thinking skills and teamwork. "These are things you learn in music programs," said Michael Blakeslee, senior deputy executive director for the National Association for Music Education.

The ability to work well with others is something that can be learned by playing with an ensemble. Improvisation, an important musical skill, is key to navigating a fast-changing environment. "If we are ever going to climb out of this economic downturn, we need a flexible and goal-oriented workforce," he said. Music trains people in this way.

Math and Reading

Some researchers say music can help students achieve in other academic fields. A study by Frances Rauscher, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, helped popularize the term "Mozart effect" by showing that adults performed better on some parts of an IQ test after listening to classical music.

Rauscher said the narrow results of that study were widely misinterpreted and misapplied, with musical products being marketed to make people smarter, for example. But she has continued her research, turning her focus to young children and how music instruction affects their learning.

In one study, she found that math test scores for preschool-age students rose for those who received instruction in piano, rhythm or singing. The students who studied rhythm had the biggest gains, and she was not surprised. Rhythm is, after all, "the subdivision of a beat," she said. It's about ratios and proportions, the relationship between a part and a whole -- all material from math classes.

Now, Rauscher is studying how children learn to read and process the sounds of words after receiving music instruction.

A Passion at School

Still, music's role in academic achievement is highly debated. Wayne D. Parker, director of research and evaluation at Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, has researched music instruction and math performance and found a negligible connection. He is not compelled by arguments that people should invest in music for the sake of math or reading. "You don't hear math people saying you should study calculus because it will help you be better at the violin."

Rather, he said, people should invest in music education because it teaches students to meet a challenge and instills confidence, or because it is a class that will appeal to some students.

"Kids do best when they can do something with joy. Most kids don't love math, but there are those who do love math and have a passion for it. And kids in our schools need as many opportunities as possible to be passionate about an area of learning. The more we divorce the arts from our schools," he said, "more and more, kids are going to be cut off from having something within the academic system that they are passionate about."

Equity and Opportunity

Music and other arts education can give an especially powerful boost to students who live in poverty, music advocates say.

Tomhave, the Fairfax schools fine arts coordinator, said that's one reason why the school system seeks to ensure that the cost of an instrument is not a barrier to participating in a musical group at school. Anyone who qualifies for free or reduced lunch can rent an instrument from the school for $20 a year. Last school year, such students rented nearly 7,000 instruments, including clarinets, flutes, trombones and violas.

Budget cuts and the federal No Child Left Behind law's focus on testing in reading and math have winnowed the amount of time devoted to music in many schools. But music education remains popular with the community and the School Board. About 50,000 students in Fairfax participate in elective instrumental or band programs. That's nearly 30 percent of the county's 169,000 students. Put another way: That's more than the entire enrollment for many local school systems, from the District to Southern Maryland to Arlington County and Alexandria.

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