Speaking at the Capitol about Music in Schools

Speaking at the capitol today about Music in Schools and thought we would share our message and the latest songwriting workshop song.

(Keith) Try to imagine a society without art or music. It’s almost impossible. Now I am not a Trekkie. I do not generally define things in my life in terms of how they relate to Star Trek. But, I was snowed in at my house the other day and watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I was also thinking about what I was going to say to you today. So I started imagining the Starship Enterprise coming upon our planet. If they found no art or music, what would they think of us? They’d probably consider us primitive at best and maybe not even bother with us at all. But what if they discovered that we once had art and music and let it go, let it die, because we considered it unimportant? I think they would be horrified. They might even consider us dangerous.

My parents are not musical. My Dad is a historian. He was Chief Historian at NASA and put together the NASA Library. He and my mom always stressed education, but also thought that as a part of that education, everyone needed at least 1 year of piano lessons to be a well-rounded human being. They believed studying music would help develop abilities and life skills and enrich the quality of life. They never expected me to become a musician and were very surprised, to say the least, when I did. But they always encouraged me to do what I loved. I was a good student and loved school, but I especially loved music. I had interested teachers who cared and I owe all of them a great debt of gratitude. They opened a rich and wonderful world to me.

(Ezra) Keith and I were different kinds of students in school. I was the kid always getting in trouble. I talked out of turn in class, I was late and I didn’t do my homework. When I was in 9th grade (for the first time) my final report card had 5 Fs and one A. The A was in band. I didn’t and still don’t read music. I managed to learn my musical parts and become an integral member of the school band. I wasn’t a total failure. Some children excel at receiving lists of facts as well as science and mathematical concepts. They’re able to then prove their knowledge on tests. Not everybody works well with that system. I sure didn’t. I think it’s interesting to point out that Keith, the A student and I, the bad student, currently have the same job.

Why is music important? I don’t even know why you would ask. It seems obvious to me that music develops your brain to work in ways it wouldn’t work otherwise. Music is logic, and beauty, and form, and structure, and freedom, and emotions, and inspiration. Studying music develops skills like problem solving, self-expression, working together, creative thinking, learning how to follow rules and, yes, even learning how to break them.

We give songwriting workshops. They began back in the mid 90’s. Educators wanted to bring our music into the schools, but needed to prove that it was somehow educational. We don’t write overtly educational songs. You can learn things from them, but we’re not writing about how to tie your shoe. We decided to talk about songwriting. But why just talk about it? Why not do it? Learning by doing is a great way to learn! I feel like we’re delivering fire. We present the novel idea that kids can think creatively and work together to build something beautiful. We de-mystify the creative process and tell them they can do it! While its going on, the kids sometimes feel like they’re getting away with something. They sort of look around as if to ask, is this really OK? It’s work, but it’s fun. Is that allowed? You can ask our friend, Delynn West. We’ve written several songs with her classes and she’s developed them to use in her school programs.

Last week we gave a songwriting workshop in Joplin MO. There was nothing uncommon about it. We sang two of our songs and examined the ideas that created the song as well as the form. There were about 20 children from 3rd to 6th grade participating. It was a Saturday afternoon. Some of the children wanted to be there and others clearly didn’t. We sang one of our songs, “There’s an Alien in My Nose”, as an example of songwriting. One of the kids refused to smile or be involved in any way. Even when the only way to defeat the alien was to eat the alien. After we perform our songs and dissect them, we ask the students to contribute their ideas for songs. It’s usually pretty easy to get them to respond. The young man who refused to smile was asked for his idea. “I don’t know” he said. Keith said, “Great idea!’ and wrote it down. “Not Nothing!” was the next thing out of our reluctant participant’s mouth. “Even better!” said Keith. I Don’t Know Not Nothing. We put three of their ideas up to vote on and the idea that most of our workshop voted for was, I Don’t Know Not Nothing.

Soon we were all involved in coming up with lyrics for the tune. Our reluctant child was up to his elbows in helping out. Whatever divisions of age or attitude that had been very present at the beginning of the workshop disappeared. We were all involved in creating something. By the end of the workshop, we recorded the song. Every voice singing together, smiles and fun being passed around the room like electricity. What was passed to the workshop went beyond just songwriting. They learned about teamwork, creative thinking, learning melody and rhythm, understanding dynamics. This learning was done actively with genuine enthusiasm. It involved all of us and we now have a wonderful song to listen to as a result. “I don’t know about nuthing”

This song may not be a number one hit, but as a device for bringing people together, it works. Music is an art form, much like architecture, that can bring us all together. It can potently deliver ideas and it can lift spirits. We’ve seen it elevate our audiences for almost 40 years. It’s important to expose our children to music and to allow them to participate in it. If we don’t, where do we expect our next generations of creative minds to come from? Visiting a society without music seems absurd and sad. Thanks for your time. And thanks to all of the music teachers who open our children’s minds to the architecture of the spirit.