From Chapter 1
No person I have ever known has become a musician in hopes of improving his or her ability to think. Nor do I know of anybody whose love of music is based on anything other than the beauty of sound, the profound emotional and spiritual response, and the intellectual satisfaction the musical experience brings. The art of music is perhaps the most sublime human communication—ineffable, yet universally understood or felt. Even in its most unsophisticated and simple states, music is a powerful force that compels the emotions and often incites the body to motion. As such it stands alone, sovereign, without need of defense or justification.
Music has always been integral to education. Our ancestors knew this intuitively. Yet in our own time, music and education have parted ways in many school systems. As music came to be regarded as art—as opposed to a natural and instinctive human activity—it has been treated as a luxury rather than a necessity. My own bias makes me sure that its loss to general education is one important reason for the poor state of learning about which we complain year after year. This book is the story of how one school district and a woodwind quintet brought music back to school in a new and modern way and, by doing so, may have helped turn mediocre learning performance into high achievement.
In the spring of 1996, when the third graders at Bolton Elementary School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, took the state-mandated tests in reading and arithmetic, they made a poor showing. Fewer than 40 percent of the children scored at or above grade level. Their mediocre performance was unsurprising. After all, this was a school population in which poverty, low IQs, and broken homes were more the rule than the exception.
One year later, the next crop of Bolton third graders took the same set of standard state tests. This time 85 percent scored at or above grade level in reading, and 89 percent were at or above grade level in math. Yet as far as the pupil population was concerned, the 1997 class was just like the 1996 class.
The children who excelled on the state tests in 1997 had had an extra element added to their instruction: an ensemble of classical musicians had taken up residence at Bolton in the 1994–95 school year, when these children were in first grade. Over a period of three years, the children’s curriculum had been augmented by a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, a bassoon, and a French horn.
The quintet, made up of musicians from the Winston-Salem Symphony, was formed for the specific purpose of using music to improve the learning prospects of these at-risk students. From the spring of 1995 until 2002, the quintet visited classrooms at Bolton two or three times a week, for 30 minutes per visit, in residencies that were as short as seven weeks of the school year and as long as twelve weeks. The Bolton project, as it became known, has since moved to a charter school, where it can be scientifically observed and measured, but the musicians’ approach has continued essentially as they developed it in the first year or two.
The musicians’ lesson plans are integrated with the subject matter of the classroom teacher. The quintet members know the academic curriculum for each grade level. What they do in the classroom may clarify or extend a unit on arithmetic, poetry, teamwork, or any concept in the regular school curriculum. The quintet is not there to teach music, but to teach through music.
Each half-hour lesson begins when the musicians enter the classroom carrying their instruments, portable music stands, and sheet music. The quintet immediately launches into a short piece of music. Whichever musician has been chosen to lead that day’s lesson then introduces the subject to the class. The other musicians, and the regular classroom teacher, fan out through the classroom. Within minutes, the children may be clapping out rhythms to understand how a half note is different from a quarter note; listening to a piece of music to learn about story elements like character, setting, conflict, and resolution; or standing up and waving their arms and stamping their feet to lock in their understanding of opposites like high and low, and bumpy and smooth.
The Bolton experience has attracted attention from many parts of the world. This different way of integrating music into the basic curriculum continues to be examined, refined, and extended to other schools and school districts.
Did musicians in the classroom directly affect mathematical proficiency? Did A Little Night Music help create a lot of bright readers? What does listening to music have to do with learning to learn? That’s what I set out to discover, and that’s what we continue to explore.
In my 25 years as music director and conductor of the Winston-Salem Symphony, some of my most rewarding work was the design and development of music programs for children. Whether we were playing for audiences of preschoolers or giving gifted young soloists an opportunity to perform with a professional orchestra, I saw over and over again how live music fills children with a joy that is hard to match. Through my work with young people, I witness the many ways that learning and listening to music enriches and ennobles their lives. The project I initiated at Bolton Elementary School built on those convictions, which I think most musicians share.
The quintet and I went to Bolton daring to hope that we could make a positive difference. And over those first three years, we had indications that we were helping. Teachers asked us what we were doing that had caused the improved attentiveness of the children. They told us that school attendance was better since the quintet had started visiting. Parental involvement in the school increased, and parents began planning fund-raising car washes to ensure the continuation of the program. The children’s confidence and self-esteem seemed to grow. As word about the symphony musicians at the school spread, some children transferred to Bolton from other schools.
It wasn’t until the test scores came down from Raleigh three years later, however, that we felt confident that we were making a difference. It happened to be the day of an orchestra rehearsal. As I read the test results, I could not keep my voice from breaking. And when I looked up, I saw my own emotions reflected in the eyes of the orchestra members. After three years of getting to know and care about those children, we were simply overwhelmed!
As laypeople, we cannot claim to know precisely what is happening in the brains of the children we teach. What we can do is relate in some detail what the musicians do in the classroom, and describe current scientific thinking that sheds light on why and how human beings are quintessentially musical beings. This is the story of how we use music to teach children to listen, and why we believe careful, active listening helps them learn to read and to reason.