The reduction, reconfiguration or, in some instances, elimination of music classes in the public schools has been commonplace for years. Generally attributed to budget cuts, it’s happened in Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, among many other places.
The Atlanta Public Schools recently decided to give its elementary schools the option to cut band and orchestra programs, potentially further reducing the number of students offered music education. Elementary school is the perfect age to engage kids in instrumental music, because that’s when they have the most time and are more open to trying new things.
Research tells us high-intensity involvement in the arts helps low-income children, many of whom are served by APS schools. A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found 71 percent of at-risk students who had intensive arts involvement attended college, compared with only 48 percent of those with low arts involvement. Exposure to arts and music is good, but arts and music with some level of rigor is even better and yields stronger outcomes.
According to a 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers need college graduates to be able to work in a team structure, plan, organize and prioritize work, and solve problems. As all professional musicians and music educators will confirm, the moment a child begins to study a musical instrument and play in an ensemble, that child begins honing those valuable real-world skills.
But among all the surveys and statistics, there is another important aspect of music education that’s often overlooked. Music requires kids to invest in themselves. When we see children working hard to better themselves, it inspires us, as a community, to invest in them. We know this because as co-founders of the Atlanta Music Project, we have seen our students’ musical development open doors for them that will be life-changing.
The Atlanta Music Project was founded five years ago to provide intensive, tuition-free music education to under-served youth in their neighborhoods. Our program builds after-school youth orchestras and choirs in communities where intensive music instruction is not typically available. By this fall, we will be serving 200 students at four sites.
Thanks to their hard work and determination, our students have experienced amazing accomplishments. Among them: performances at the Woodruff Arts Center and Atlanta Film Festival, joint concerts with the Morehouse College Glee Club and Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestras of Atlanta, and filming a commercial for broadcast on ESPN.
Most music teachers can rattle off similar exploits of their own students. These musical opportunities are crucial, not only because they allow children to shine, but because they inspire the community to action. For example, an anonymous donor recently approached us to establish the Atlanta Music Project Endowed Scholarships at Clayton State University. Through this fund, Music Project students will be able to attend Clayton State as a music major or minor with all their expenses covered.
While the project serves 200 students, we will never be able to reach as many children as APS can through taxpayer-funded public education. Our experience tells us the Atlanta community wants to help children develop into great citizens. And it helps when the community sees children doing great things to improve their own lives.
Let us remember that when we eliminate or reduce instrumental music education, we minimize the chances for kids to show their best selves and inspire those around them to action.
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Dantes Rameau is co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta Music Project. Aisha Bowden is co-founder and director of AMPlify, the choral program of the Atlanta Music Project.