By Dantes Rameau and Aisha Bowden, Co-Directors of the Atlanta Music Project
AMP Note: edited versions of the below essay appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on the Get Schooled Blog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Saporta Report.
The reduction, reconfiguration or in some instances, the complete elimination, of music classes in public schools across the country has been commonplace now for years. Generally attributed to budget cuts, it has happened in Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, among many other places.
Here in Atlanta, the Atlanta Public Schools recently decided to give their elementary schools the option to cut band and orchestra programs, potentially further reducing the amount of students who have the option to receive band and orchestra instruction. Unfortunately elementary school is the perfect age to engage kids in instrumental music education because that is when they have the most time and are more open to trying new things.
In fact, research tells us that high-intensity involvement in the arts especially helps low-income children. This is relevant for Atlanta Public Schools where 76% of children qualify for free and reduced price meals.
“The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth,” a 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that 48% of at-risk students who had low arts involvement attended college, while 71% of at-risk students who had intensive arts involvement attended college. In other words, exposure to the arts and music education is good, but arts and music education with some level of rigor is even better and yields stronger outcomes.
Furthermore, according to a 2015 survey by the The National Association of Colleges and Employers, the top five skills that employers want in 2015 college graduates include the ability to work in a team structure, the ability to plan, organize and prioritize work, and the ability to solve problems. As all professional musicians and music educators will confirm, the moment a child begins to study a music instrument and play in an ensemble, they immediately begin honing those valuable real-world skills.
But among all the surveys and statistics, there is another important aspect of music education that is often overlooked. Music education requires kids to invest in themselves, and 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 underserved youth right in their neighborhood. 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 different sites.
Thanks to their own hard work and determination, our students have been able to experience several amazing accomplishments. Among them: performances at the Woodruff Arts Center and the Atlanta Film Festival, joint concerts with the Morehouse College Glee Club and the Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestras of Atlanta, and filming a commercial for broadcast on ESPN during the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Most music teachers can rattle off the similar exploits of their own students. These musical opportunities are crucial, not only because they allow children to shine, but also because they inspire the community to action.
For example, taking notice of our students’ dedication and many accomplishments, an anonymous donor recently took the action of approaching us to establish the Atlanta Music Project Endowed Scholarships at Clayton State University. Through this fund any Atlanta Music Project student will be able to attend Clayton State as a music major or minor, with all their expenses covered.
While the Atlanta Music Project serves a couple hundred students, we will never be able to reach as many children as the Atlanta Public Schools can through taxpayer-funded public education.
Our experience in the field of music education in this city tells us that 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.