The Music Man
Just Hanging On: Arts Education in America Today
By Marilyn Millstone
Even though “Music Man” Harold Hill is a con artist, audiences root for him – in part because of the way he uses music-making to galvanize the community of River City. Bonafide music educators do this every day in schools across America, as do their counterparts in art, theater and dance.
Arts education in America is not new; it is as ancient as the Native American cultures that flourished here long before European settlement. In these cultures, arts traditions are passed directly from one generation to the next and they remain a cherished part of Native life today.
Formal arts education, however, began in the 1700s when singing teachers travelled throughout the colonies, teaching psalm-singing to church congregations. By the end of the 18th century, formal singing schools had sprung up in cities like Savannah, Philadelphia and Boston.
In the 1830s, Boston became the first U.S. public school system to include music in its curriculum – thanks, in part, to the urging of famed singing teacher Lowell Mason. The Boston School Committee justified its decision by noting that music-making “contributes to memory, comparison, attention and intellectual faculties” and because it produces “happiness, contentment, cheerfulness and tranquility.”
Arts education advocates like Mason have been working tirelessly ever since. National arts advocacy organizations abound; chief among these are the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), Arts Education Partnership (AEP) and such arts-specific organizations as the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). Each organization seeks to demonstrate that arts education enriches the lives of young people and builds the foundation for lifelong participation in, and appreciation of, the arts.
“Arts education equips students to do better in school and in life after school and the evidence [for this] is unequivocal,” says Kelly Barsdate, NASAA’s chief program and planning officer.
In its 2006 report “Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement,” NASAA cites a University of California study of 25,000 middle- and high-school students that found students involved in the arts performed better on standardized tests, watched fewer hours of TV, participated in more community service and reported less boredom in school.
Despite their demonstrated value, arts education programs are perennially at risk of being cut, especially in these challenging economic times. “Arts education is under siege nationwide,” says Barsdate. “There are uneven experiences in how accessible arts education is to kids, and funding to support arts education has been severely squeezed.”
Because funding for public school programs is usually determined at the local level, support for arts education varies widely from school district to school district and state to state. In Iowa – where Music Man creator Meredith Willson grew up steeped in a tradition of marching bands, community bands and barbershop quartets – arts education is “hanging on,” says David Law, a member of the Marion, Iowa school board and past president of the Iowa Music Educators Conference. “Midwesterners understand the value of arts education, but in some other parts of the country, people just don’t seem to get it.”
In the D.C. area, progressive school districts and school principals continue to support arts education programs – and hire dedicated teachers like Marlo Castillo, who taught a third-grade “arts integration” curriculum at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School in Kensington, Maryland. The innovative program – funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education – involves weaving one or more art forms into the study of an academic subject; for example, to help students understand a science unit about the patterns and cycles found in nature, Castillo taught simple, rhythmic dances.
“This allows more of [students’] senses to be stimulated and allows multiple intelligences to be involved,” says Castillo. “Students who learn in different ways have greater opportunity to access the [academic] content.”
Castillo herself is an amateur musician who developed a lifelong love of choral singing through the music education she received in Montgomery County, Maryland public schools. For nine years, she sang with Coral Cantigas, a community choir that specializes in performing choral music of Latin America. “I joined the choir in part because my son’s father is Latino,” she explains. “I really wanted to expose my son to Latino music.”
Today, Castillo’s son Carlos is passionate about music-making; currently a freshman in a Maryland public high school, he plays bass in the school’s jazz band and has acted in two of the school’s musicals.
“I have no idea what I’d do without music in school,” he said in an e-mail. “I’m always happiest when I play music.”
For arts education advocates across America, Carlos Castillo’s words are, indeed, music to their ears.
Journalist and award-winning playwright Marilyn Millstone is also a flutist and choral singer. She is delighted to be assisting Arena Stage’s literary manager, Amrita Ramanan, with dramaturgy for The Music Man.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.