Jean D. LachowiczNope, 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 doMy 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 lubricantYes, 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 effortFortunately, 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 fieldMy 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 kidsSix 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:
- 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.
- 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?