(Music) Lessons Learned

Jean D. Lachowicz

Nope, I didn’t wake up one fine morning with a deep and heartfelt understanding of the moral imperative of music education. For me, the case has been made slowly and concretely, through a lifetime of lessons and observations.

Here is my personal journey leading to the very logical conclusion that music is SO GOOD for kids, it is immoral for society to ever deny them that opportunity for any reason. I’ll leave the scientific studies for other writers and for minds far greater than my own, but here are my views purely from a place of personal observation and emotion.

Lesson One: Music gives a child something positive to do

My grammar school did not have a music program, and my parents didn’t have the resources to send me to music lessons. However, they bought me a little plastic battery operated keyboard when I was seven and I adored that thing, along with my FM radio and my records! I wanted to play my keyboard every waking moment, which quite justifiably drove my family to prohibit me from playing it in the living room while everyone else was trying to watch TV. Therefore, from an early age, I chose music over TV and didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time glued to the tube.

Lesson Two: Music is social lubricant

Yes, I was a nerd in school. But by the time I reached middle school, my musical taste had become surprisingly sophisticated, and caused some “cool” kids to think I was maybe a wee bit cool too. While many of my peers were watching the Sonny and Cher show and the Banana Splits, I was grooving to the Classical Impressionists, as well as Bob Dylan, King Crimson, Yes, Cream, and of course, Todd Rundgren.

The kids who liked music gravitated toward each other, and I began forming lifelong friendships because of music. I learned to be open to new ideas, new sounds, and new artistic expressions. I learned how to express myself using a different vocabulary: music. While I still had no formal instrument-based music education, I had developed a great love for a wide range of musical genres.

Lesson Three: Music is worth expending effort

Fortunately, my high school did have a music program (choral only), and offered an opportunity to take piano lessons from a retired nun in a tiny music room deep in the bowels of the school. As a freshman, I jumped at the chance to take lessons, which I paid for myself. I loved it! Once a week, I’d head off during study period and learn my scales and chords on a baby grand.

The good Sister had a full schedule, so the room was in use all day, and I quickly found that I had a big problem finding a way to practice. My little battery operated keyboard had long since bit the dust, so I got a job as a coffee shop waitress and the first thing I bought was a very rickety used upright, with about 15 coats of paint slathered onto it. I squeezed it into my bedroom (had to evict my dresser just so it would fit!).

While my life circumstances were not exactly conducive to pursuing my PLAYING of music, I did my very best keeping up with the lessons for about year, until the poor nun’s health issues ended the lessons. So I embraced the school choral groups, and of course I continued to love listening to and enjoying music. Every penny I had went to support my interest in records and concerts—definitely my priority!

High School and college were followed by getting married and living through the ‘80s, when I focused on building my career by day and going to graduate school by night. Shortly thereafter, the world of social services won my heart!

Lesson Four: Something is desperately needed to level the playing field

My first job in human services was running an agency for women on the streets of Chicago. Nearly all of the 7000 women we served annually had addiction problems and nearly all of the women had been abused as children. Homelessness and serious health issues were extremely common. Most had been estranged from their families and any positive support structures long ago. Life for these women was unimaginably harsh.

While a handful of the women were from families of economic means, the lifestyle of prostitution dwells primarily within the realm of poverty, deep poverty that seems to get more hopeless and severe with each generation. The women were stuck in a cycle of addiction, crime, and incarceration, with very little chance of escape. (Realistically, how many employers would actually consider hiring someone whose rap sheet was the size of a phone book, even if she was now clean and sober and off the streets?)

This was a profoundly eye-opening experience for me. I realized that absolutely everything was stacked against the women we served! I had always believed that hard work and sheer force of will could conquer any challenges, but through these women I learned that sometimes it was not possible to pick up one’s self by the bootstraps with so many serious issues working against basic survival. What could possibly break the cycle and level the playing field?

Lesson Five: Focus on building up strong and resilient kids

Six years in an environment like that agency was just about all that this soft-hearted girl could handle, so I left that job to head up the local council of a well-known youth development organization. Oh, the joys of blunt-nosed scissors, crayons, and construction paper after years spent in the depths of human drama. Candy sale fundraisers and camping excursions in city parks, here I come!

Most of our programs were after-school activities in the lowest-income Chicago Public Schools, although we also had programs in schools throughout the three-county Metro Chicago area, some in affluent suburban schools. I was quickly flabbergasted by two things:

  1. Everything about the school experience (from the building itself, to the food in the cafeteria, to the learning supplies, to the attitude of many of the teachers/staff, to the comfort of the restrooms) was starkly and tangibly different in schools from different neighborhoods.
  2. Some kids in extremely under-served schools somehow managed to rise to the top and excel. How and why does that happen? What ignites the spark?

For the first question, I came to see first-hand that the school itself can be a distinct disadvantage for children from low-income families, a liability rather than an asset. For example, wealthy schools had computers (this was 1996-2007), while poor schools absolutely did not. Wealthy schools had athletics, art programs, music, and carpeted floors and fresh paint on the walls, while poor schools most emphatically did not. Wealthy schools had playgrounds and green campuses, while kids from many poor schools had to go through metal detectors to get into the building, and certainly could not use an outdoor playground because of the inherent dangers in their communities. I was once leaning on a windowsill in a classroom when a little boy matter-of-factly told me to not stand so close to the glass because of all the shootings in the area. Wow!

My snarky joke at the time was that the kids and parents from poor schools needed to go on a field trip to the wealthy schools and see what amenities they SHOULD be getting and SHOULD expect in a public school!

For the second question, there were some kids who emerged from these oppressive and dreary schools to excel. How and why did that happen? Where did these kids get their resilience? What made some kids grab onto opportunities in a way their classmates did not? What ingredients are needed for the magic to happen?

Lesson Six: Give them love, give them bread

Whether I was working with women on the streets of Chicago, or little kids literally dodging bullets to get to school, I came to the stark realization that it’s not possible to fix all the problems people face in their lives. However, it is possible to give lots of love and make extra efforts to provide “nice things” to brighten up people’s lives and give them something positive to grasp onto. It is always possible to bring something happy and helpful into any situation, whether it was a party or some fresh fruit or bags of donated clothing…..

…Or MUSIC! Getting people to sing and dance made everything better, all the time. Never failed. And singing and dancing is free, and abundant music is always available to share!

Wonderful things happen when a person feels comfort and love, especially when they don’t expect to find it. Suddenly, there is something the human spirit can grab onto. Suddenly there is hope.

These children brought their traditional Ugandan music to the United States in 2008. Their love of music and their joy transformed their own lives, and the lives of those who attended their performances.

After 11 years at the youth development organization, I decided to do charitable and consulting work independently. My first major project was volunteering to coordinate a national tour for a music group of orphans from Uganda, mostly kids who lost their parents to AIDS or violence. The kids played traditional instruments and sang traditional songs…mindblowingly adorable.

People all around the United States showed such great kindness to them, the experience changed all of us forever. The kids were in the States in 2008, and I am still in touch with many of them on Facebook. These young people are doing exceptionally well—now studying in universities and pursuing professional careers. Without the love and without the music, I believe many of them would very likely have not survived to adulthood, let alone thrived.

Lesson Seven: None of this is a coincidence

The stories of my life have a repeating theme (like the dependable grooves of a favorite LP): music is a uniquely positive gift. Music brings miraculous change to people’s lives. Music is love and hope and joy.

I purposely have not been using the term “at risk” because I sincerely believe that all kids are at risk. Youth from all socioeconomic levels and family arrangements can take a path to under-achievement, discipline problems, and failure. Of course! But in my personal experience with extremely impoverished situations, music can fill in the gaps in a way that nothing else can. Music education is vital to ALL kids, and needs to be accessible without regard to socioeconomic status, geographic location, or ability.

As I fast-forward to the present time and my work with the Spirit of Harmony Foundation, the puzzle pieces are falling into place. As I immerse myself in academic research and studies, the tremendous value of music education to every aspect of the human experience (physical, social, academic, economic, and emotional) has become crystal clear.

Music is an essential part of our human experience, and I am dedicated to doing everything I can possibly do to make sure children have access to a music education at the earliest possible age, and nurtured throughout their lifetime.

In the world of outcome measurements and scientific studies, we have learned that remarkable results come from instrument-based music education, beginning at as young an age as possible, for a minimum 4 hours per week, for a minimum of 2 years. This supports what we know in our heads, but our hearts also know that music education is beneficial, and when the ideal is impossible or impractical to meet, any music is far better than no music at all.

There will always be problems that can’t be solved and situations far too difficult to repair, but music is the only sure-fire way to offer hope, beauty, and love. And that is a moral imperative in our human existence.


Jean D. Lachowicz is Executive Director of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. For the past 30 years, she headed nonprofits specializing in youth development, social justice, and human services. She lives in Chicago, IL.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *