President’s Perspective – March 2011

A Song in My Heart
By Barbara Chester, NAESP President
March 2011, Volume 34, Issue 7

Every other month or so, I spend a few hours at NAESP headquarters in suburban Washington, D.C., taking care of various tasks that pile up. Usually, I know what to expect—phone calls and e-mails to return, meetings to attend, and routine mail to open. During my most recent visit, however, I spotted a piece of mail that I immediately recognized as being anything but routine.

I knew I was in for a real treat the moment I saw the plain white envelope with the address handwritten in pencil in the careful penmanship of an elementary school student. Tucked inside was an eloquently written and carefully typed letter from a boy in Maine asking me to talk to all of you about the importance of school bands in elementary schools. Harry—a clarinetist in the fourth grade—makes a compelling case. “Did you know that playing an instrument helps build self-confidence?” Harry asks in his letter. “How would you like it if you didn’t have anything to look forward to at school? How would you like it if all of school were boring? How would you like it if there were no extra-curricular activities? That’s something to think about,” he writes.

Indeed it is.

Harry and his band-mates get no argument from me or the elementary and middle-level principals I know about the intrinsic value of extracurricular activities to teaching and learning. Research validates what our hearts and minds instinctively know: The arts support learning; in particular, they cultivate and nurture the critically important 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, and creativity.

Here’s what our colleagues at MENC: The National Association for Music Education had to say about the power of music in Why Music Education? 2007, Facts and Insights on the Benefits of Music Study: “Skills learned through the discipline of music … transfer to study skills, communications skills, and cognitive skills [that are] useful in every part of the curriculum. … The discipline of music study—particularly in ensembles—helps students learn to work effectively in the school environment.”

In other words, just as my young friend Harry says, school bands matter! They bolster study and work habits, teamwork, and communications. What’s more, music supports the kind of learning that is measured by standardized test scores—math and English. The following research comes from MENC’s 2006 Journal of Research in Music Education in an article titled the “Examination of Relationship between Participation in School Music Programs of Differing Quality and Standardized Test Results” by Christopher M. Johnson and Jenny E. Memmott from the University of Kansas.

“Students in high-quality school music programs score higher on standardized tests compared to students in schools with deficient music education programs, regardless of the socioeconomic level of the school or school district. Students in top-quality music programs scored 22% better in English and 20% better in math than students in deficient music programs. Students at schools with excellent music programs had higher English and math test scores across the country than students in schools with low-quality music programs. Students in all regions with lower-quality instrumental programs scored higher in English and math than students who had no music at all,” Johnson and Memmott write.

Harry did his own research too, which he recounted in his letter. “I interviewed my friend Will and he thinks that all schools should have a school band and that all kids should have the choice to play in it, too. He plays the trombone and he thinks it’s awesome. That’s how Will sees it,” Harry writes.

Harry, that’s how I see it too. And I’m willing to bet that all of you see it just as Harry does. Although nearly every school district in the nation is grappling with the tough choices that come with tough economic times, the arts should take center stage in our schools.

Harry’s letter about the importance of music in his life put a song in my heart. And as I’ve read his letter at gatherings of elementary and middle-level principals throughout the country, it invariably receives the ovation it deserves. Thanks, Harry, for your wonderful reminder to listen to the songs in our hearts and to help every child find his or her own voice through music.

Copyright © 2011. National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP’s reprint policy.