What a Well-rounded Music Education Should Mean for All Students

Atlanta Falcons guard Justin Blalock plays the tuba during a rehearsal for a concert featuring youth musicians and members of
Atlanta Falcons guard Justin Blalock plays the tuba during a rehearsal for a concert featuring youth musicians and members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, as part of a four-day youth workshop at the Atlanta Symphony Hall in the Woodruff Arts Center, Thursday, June 27, 2013, in Atlanta. Blalock, who grew up playing the tuba and continues to play the drums and guitar, is a strong advocate for music education. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)

President Barack Obama passed a law in December that explicitly names music as a subject to be included in K-12 schools under the rubric of a well-rounded education. This designation will not only give music and arts educators leverage to prevent cutting these subjects from school budgets, but also access to Federal and State Title I and Title IV funds--specifically designated for disadvantaged students.

The National Association for Music Education is rightfully celebrating this victory for school music. But it is all young people in this country who could benefit from music education, and the lessons we learn from them show us that a diverse curriculum that enhances creativity is a tool for a better life.

Music educators in K-12 education have continually been fighting for a place at the curriculum table. Advocacy efforts abound-some more desperate than others such as the now false (but persistent) myth that "music makes you smarter." Some may recall in 1998 when Governor Zell Miller of Georgia sent home classical music tapes with newborn babies.

The "Every Student Succeeds Act" of 2015 replaces "No Child Left Behind" as a hopeful antidote to the heavy testing-craze that has enveloped the nation for the past 20 years, and presents a wave for music educators to ride on in their advocacy efforts.

The proclamation that an education is well-rounded, was recently touted by new Education Secretary John King, as the answer du jour. Yes, arts and music advocates should take advantage of this.

But what does a well-rounded education mean and is the definition different for different audiences of students?

In my research in music creativity as well as my most recent work in prison music programs, I witness the incredible power of music making and the passion and engagement of incarcerated youth in their creative work.

These young people ages 12-18 are telling their stories through music creation that is culturally relevant to their lives. Often this is rap and hip-hop. the vast majority of arts programs in detention centers and prisons are student-centered and offer culturally relevant experiences.

Residents in the majority of these program engage in making choices, they compose, they tell their stories; and the centers that host these programs see positive differences in the residents as a result.

In the traditional school setting, ideally music education provides a welcome break in the school day for students. It offers alternatives to "right-answer" subjects such as math and reading, and can provide a creative alternative to the state and federal mandated testing. Music fills out a well-rounded education for all of our students.

But advocates as well as parents and supporters of music education need to continue to carefully examine just how "well-rounded" music education is in schools.

Some consider music classes geared toward the development of creativity through composition and improvisation as optimal. In some music classrooms allowing students to fail and make mistakes in their explorations with sound is preferred. And if schools honor music from all cultures and genres, not just the hallowed "Western canon," some say that is the best approach.

Music educators need to look more closely as to why and if music is indeed helping to provide a well-rounded remedy to the competitive "right-answer" classes that fill the majority of students' days.

There is certainly a place for continuing these special offerings. I was a "band junkie" and the social aspect alone helped enhance the quality of my school day. From my perspective now as an educator for over 30 years, however, I feel that the large ensemble programs could do a better job of incorporating more student-centered and creative thinking as part of their curriculum.

Band, choir and orchestra programs should not (and likely will not) disappear, but many students in our schools find the large ensemble experience uncomfortable, irrelevant to their lives, and not able to foster engagement in creative musical independence.

There is a need to think more imaginatively about the kind of music curricular offerings provided in a K-12 school day in order to indeed be more "well-rounded."

Many students would benefit from engaging, culturally relevant and creative music making opportunities in schools. If and when schools begin to collect grant funds in the name of providing well-rounded music programs for students, I hope it is not to remedy the situation by simply exposing them to the traditional Western European Art Music that is prevalent in school music curricula.

Music educators should indeed celebrate the victory of the recent Every Student Succeeds Act, and in this celebration begin to imagine new ways to make a difference in the lives of all students.

Maud Hickey is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music Education in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.