Let's hear it for music in the house! Between my mother's piano playing (Beethoven), my older brother's guitar banging (YES and Zappa) and a constant stream of LP's on the turntable (Simon & Garfunkel, Carol King) I inherited a music education that would shape my life (and eventually my career).
Cocktail parties meant my Dad literally rolled up the rug while I played DJ, spinning records by Dionne Warwick, Dave Brubeck and Bill Cosby "Sings" -- yes that Bill Cosby -- R&B covers that turned the house upside down. Though I was just seven, I knew that music was not only fun, but a powerful unifier, a universal language.
This was my introduction to music -- nothing formal but omnipresent. In school, music teachers took us through a litany of music history and genres (where square dancing fit in, I'm still unclear). Taking up an instrument was mandatory. Reading music was commonplace, not a rarity.
Mine was a completely normal middle-class upbringing. Across America in the '70s, kids of all backgrounds and locales engaged with music of all kinds: encouraged to take up an instrument and introduced to a language far better equipped to express the huge range of kid emotions than school book poetry. Music shaped our understanding of the world and, better yet, of ourselves.
Today, thanks to state-by-state budget cuts, music education is rapidly disappearing -- down about 20 percent since 2001, according to MENC (the National Association for Music Education). No longer able to provide all the "perks" of a liberal arts education, our public schools are abandoning arts education, starting with music. Music is expensive (instruments aren't free). Music is non-essential (they can listen at home, right?). And most of all, music isn't on "the test" to which we teach.
This alarming trend ignores the immense value of music training on a child's development. Children who study music consistently perform better on standardized tests in both math and reading and earn higher grades. Through music study they learn vital life skills: problem solving, self-discipline, frustration tolerance, creativity, empathy, compassion, and the value of hard work.
More importantly, poor students, the underserved, and the emotionally disturbed -- who might otherwise be unreachable -- can often be taught through the inspiring power of music. Yet as a society, we are turning a blind eye. We are cutting funding for the arts when we could be creating opportunity and a life-long love of both music and learning. And with additional cuts due to the Sequester, funding for the arts is projected to be cut an additional $4.8 billion, $750 million for music education alone.
Three years ago, I embarked on a feature-length documentary, Some Kind of Spark, to draw attention to the value of a music education. I approached The Juilliard School in New York about their Music Advancement Program (MAP), a Saturday program designed to help inner-city kids in communities that are underserved.
Admission to MAP is not based on musical skills but on potential -- a willingness and desire to learn, a love for music, and a certain drive -- as one teacher puts it, "some kind of spark." Although the film spotlights kids at MAP, the themes explored on-screen are universal and speak to the value of music education programs in cities large and small.
In my early visits to the school I found myself in the presence of budding musicians -- many with little or no training -- who had never even heard of Juilliard. Pete, a nine-year-old Haitian boy forced to leave his country after the devastating earthquake of 2010, was learning the flute (he auditioned on a recorder!). Suzanne Morello, a former MAP student herself in 1994, who "came from nothing and now I'm working here?!" teaches viola at the prestigious institution. Ten-year-old Lesley studies piano after her Ecuadorian parents have made every sacrifice to make sure she stays in the program. There are too many stories to list, each one a testimony of the power of music to transform lives.
"It's about personal development," says Major Scurlock, a 10-year veteran piano teacher for the program, "so that they can identify their own voice."
Bill Ruyle, a percussion teacher of 20-plus years aptly says, "You don't have to become a musician to benefit from music or music education. It can inform you in many ways. It's about being a human being."
In post-production now, the film is scheduled to hit the film festival circuit in 2014 -- hopefully in time to inform our next national debate about budget cuts, education, and the fate of millions of kids who don't even know what they're missing in music class, square dancing or not.
If you've read this far, check out the film and its progress -- our kickstarter campaign ends March 22 .