Does music matter in schools?

Many students can’t even take a music class in school anymore, but for the ones that can and do, it matters a great deal.

Recently we had the chance to interview Spencer Caldwell, this year’s Teacher of the Year for Cajon Valley Union School District, a band and choral teacher at Hillsdale Middle School for the last 17 years.  Caldwell was also Teacher of the Year in 1996 and 2005.  Clearly he is doing something right!

One of the many ways Caldwell has made a difference for students is by founding a nonprofit parent organization called Hillsdale Music Department Parent Association, to help raise money to support his music program, as well as the district’s five feeder elementary schools’ programs.  They raise about $30,000 annually, which makes it possible for students to have music education and performance experiences that extend beyond the basic classroom curriculum, providing instruments and concert attire at no cost to students experiencing financial hardship, providing funding for an assistant band director, piano accompaniment and individual instrumental coaches, supplemental choral instruction, and more.  Some of the parents involved have kids who graduated from the program 5-6 years ago, but they have stayed on the board because of their dedication to the cause.

Spencer Caldwell

Spencer Caldwell

When it comes to implementing the new Common Core standards this year, Caldwell feels like he doesn’t have to change much, because he already uses many of the strategies they espouse, and his students are all very engaged.  Also, when they tracked SAT scores, they found that kids who took music classes were ahead of the rest by an average of 60+ points. However, he doesn’t want his program to be looked at for test scores, but rather for the fact that many kids who take music have their lives change so positively.  He often hears his kids tell him that his class is the reason they go to school.

In music class when a student hits a wrong note everyone hears it, which forces them to want to go back and correct it.  This creates an emotional stimulus; we remember things better when there’s an emotional component, such as when we’re sad or happy.  So when the child goes back and corrects it, it makes them feel great, and when they feel good they often apply that positively to other subjects as well.  On a side note, many of the world’s top CEOs play it by ear.

When it comes to the idea of muscle memory, and stimulating the brain, music excels.  The brain is so involved in making music, that maybe that’s another reason for the higher test scores, as it’s getting such a workout.  Spencer says that when learning an instrument, one’s brain is in a high pressure situation: you have a conductor telling you what to play, how high, how low, you have to listen, read music, as well as make it emotional, all at the same time.

Another real world opportunity Caldwell provides his students is the chance to play in a very professional and public arena.  Disneyland has a community arts program where any school in Southern California can audition for a chance to perform on one of their public stages.  Hillsdale music program this year has 5 groups accepted to perform. When you play for Disneyland students get to experience what a true professional musician might experience. Disneyland gives a backstage warm-up area with dressing rooms, and a stage set by their stage crew, with a light and sound man. They also offer an extraordinary workshop called a Sound Track Recording Session, where students get to sit in a real recording studio and experience first hand what it is like to record the music for Disney movies. This is the only place in the world that you can do this. Disney takes the professional sound track out of Disney scenes and the students get to record the music like the professionals did right into the movies, working with a top conductor. Imagine a studio with studio mics overhead, wireless headphones and a huge screen for video playback. Students, through this experience, also learn how to strive for the best they can be. In the professional world, studio musicians can’t make mistakes. Students get to rehearse and record with the conductor, then see the movie scene with their music playing the background.

The things that Caldwell attributes his success to is that he is always learning and getting better.  Also, since his class is an elective, he has to stay on top of everything if his program is to move forward, and he consistently has to promote the importance of music.

I asked him what one thing he would change in education, if he could.  He said that it is to allow the teacher to teach as they feel is best.  The teacher’s job is to teach, and he feels much of that has been taken away from them.

image credit – Brandon Giesbrecht