Three minutes goes by in a flash when you are trying to say something important. That is what I found when I spoke at the Long Beach Unified School District board meeting Tuesday night. I had so much more to say but I just couldn't fit it into a tidy enough package for Roberts Rules of Order. So I am taking advantage of my ability to post my opinions here, and I sincerely hope you will read carefully and pass this on to as many people as you possibly can.
So here goes:
I am not a musician but I know how to read music. I am not an artist but I know how to shade and judge perspective in my drawings. I am a product of public schools from kindergarten through graduate school, and I had music and art in my life because of that.
When I was in second grade, an itinerant music teacher came to our classroom on some rotating basis, whose schedule was completely mysterious to me but she came, and it was always a lovely surprise. That is where I learned the classic rhythm—some of you may know it so clap along with me--TA TA TI-TI TA. Those are quarter notes and eighth notes, for the uninitiated. We sang songs like Skip to My Loo. In 3rd grade I had the awesome opportunity, that was like winning a golden ticket, to learn to play the violin. The day I got to take the instrument home was a wonderful one. I can still remember that weird, musty smell emanating from the case, the old cracked resin that looked more like an amber fossil that might have been holding prehistoric mosquitoes than a tool for making my bow work better. I know the sounds I made with that instrument were awful! But I made them and learned about music, reading music and enjoying making it. Then in 5th grade I was fortunate to be at a school with a full music program. Because of my introduction to music, I had the confidence to answer the call for students interested in studying an instrument. The teacher thought I looked like the type who could learn to play oboe, one of the hardest to play well. As it turned out, he was wrong. But I learned so much, and played in my school orchestra with pride. In 7th grade the music teacher took pity on me and said, "why don't we try saxophone?" That turned out to be my instrument, and it has led me on a lifelong journey of musical appreciation and enjoyment.
With a saxophone borrowed from the school, I got to play in jazz bands and symphonic bands and the all-district band. Some of my early favorite tunes were Take the A Train and Satin Doll, both Duke Ellington standards, and Sing Sing Sing, which was a Benny Goodman standard. I would never have learned about that music and enjoyed it so much had I not been playing it, introduced to it by music teachers. I used to love how the sheet music looked so ancient and brittle. It probably had been sitting on shelves for years, having been used by generations of students, perhaps even from when it was actually popular music!
In high school I continued with music and was lucky enough to have a great teacher, Mr. Dimitri Kauriga, who fostered a love of playing music in thousands of kids over the span of his career. I got to play concerts in front of huge audiences at my school, it was a big high school, and even at other venues like hotels where we played for groups of little, old lady alumni. Those were some of the best experiences of my academic life. I learned confidence in my own abilities.
I convinced my parents to scrape together the money to buy me my own instrument as a high school graduation gift. I took that alto sax to college with me, where I was no virtuoso and I didn't pursue a career in music, but I did join the marching band at Cal Berkeley and I got to play in some great venues there too. Like Memorial Stadium on the hill of the Berkeley campus that overlooks the whole Bay Area. We traveled to play in Oregon at a Bear-Beaver game; I played in the LA Coliseum at a Cal-USC game, where they threw stuff at us. I was on the field, if any of you are old enough to remember this or sufficiently versed in California football lore, at The Big Game of 1982, where a Stanfurd trombone player was infamously trampled in "The Play" as he ran on to the field before the game was quite over and, you may know, Cal won. (John Elway was the quarterback for Stanfurd.) I played in “hit bands” on San Francisco BART train platforms--where we would run down into the station, play the Cal fight song or some other loud tune, and jump on the train as soon as it was over.
(This is where I had to end it at the board meeting.)
Coming from Philadelphia I am not sure I would even have gained admittance to Cal had I not had music on my transcript and in my essays. Those were the experiences that made me a candidate for one of the best universities in the world.
And I still have that alto sax right here and now my son uses it. He started in the 4th grade and has been playing straight through 8th grade, now with Mr. Hamilton at Rogers who takes on entirely too many students but he doesn't turn anybody away as far as I can tell. Some of the kids are awesome players, some are just players but they are learning music. My son now plays a tenor sax, and keeps the alto at home to practice on. His friend comes over and noodles around on his own sax as they talk and goof around. It is the sweetest music to my ears. My son has learned about music that he never would have known of, he has played at Disneyland, and this weekend he will travel to San Diego for a music festival and have one of those lifelong memorable experiences just like I did.
Music will stay with him for the rest of his life--even if he never does practice. Even if he never pursues any kind of musical career, he will have that mind broadening experience. It will help him to understand other people and places in ways that would have been closed to him. He will recognize common threads in music and literature, and he will pick music to listen to that would never have populated his iTunes playlist. It will connect him to the world in so many more ways.
But NONE of this would have happened if I didn't have music in school when I was in elementary school. If I didn’t sit in a circle on a dirty, old, dusty carpet remnant and clap my hands to TA TA TI-TI TA. My family wasn’t musical and we couldn’t afford to buy instruments. I would not have begged my parents to buy me this alto saxophone, that cost more than anything I had ever owned, that I can still run my fingers over and play a chromatic scale on, and I would not have kept this old instrument for 30 years until my child could play it. I would never have even thought I could teach a child to play a recorder, but I did with both 1st graders and 4th graders, and I taught them to read music because I knew how.
I am not a musician. But music and art have played such a huge role in my life that I don't know what I would have done in high school and college without them. My life path would have been completely different. My children's life paths would have been altered.
My daughter was fortunate to be one of the last string players in third grade, that program has been suspended. She played a cello that a neighbor lent to us. It was way too big but she loved it! She put that thing on like a giant backpack every week and brought it to school to screech out some music. She gave it up at the end of the year and went on to trumpet, which she could not have done this year either. Because both her father and I uphold music in our home, we have a keyboard and saxes and recorders and drums, she is now taking drums and percussion seriously and is looking forward to music in middle school like a shining dream. When I told her that music and arts might be cut this next year, she was devastated for the students that would miss out, for what it means for middle school music and high school music. It is an erosion with an unhappy eventuality. Music is the reason she wants to go to middle school!
If we cut music, we take away a little more context for all the reading and writing. You have to provide a reason to want to read about something, but if we are just expecting our kids to be little automatons who take tests at the end of every week, quarter and semester and we don’t give them the opportunity to learn more about their world in creative and ancient ways, then we are doing them all a great disservice.
Not every child will play an instrument, unfortunately, but every child could have the chance to try. With the cuts to elementary music, the kids whose parents can afford instruments and lessons will still get them and those that can't, won't. And they will not have the chance to open up a whole other world of experiences.
That is what I would have said had I been able to finish my thoughts. I know they are long thoughts. But it is all true and all incredibly poignant to me. I am not alone. I heard other parents and educators speak to the same points at the board meeting and I know there are many more stories out there.
If you agree with me, forward this to every person you know who might be willing to speak up for music. I know the budget cuts are horrific for everybody, the school board included. But I am asking that the cuts be made somewhere else.
Links to important information about funding for the Arts in schools: