Jake Old: Don't leave arts out of education debate

Mar. 15, 2014 @ 11:23 PM

A major debate, in all corners of our country, is how to “fix” education, with people proposing ideas on what the public education system needs and how resources should be spent.

Here’s something I hope does not get left out of the discussion: the arts.

Music has brought an unquantifiable amount of joy into my life, and I cannot imagine living a life in which I could not play an instrument or sing. I’m sure those well versed in visual and performance arts would say the same of their passions.

So when we are mapping out the best course of education for our country’s next generation, it would be unfortunate to not give the arts an equal footing with “core” subjects like math, science or reading.

Playing music has piqued my curiosity, and as a result I have listened to musical styles I might not otherwise have given a chance. This is also one of the driving forces behind music appreciation classes. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with only listening to what comes on the radio, but the full story and context of the music are missing.

In learning to play an instrument, I was taught how to really learn something. That is, in school, I had a tendency to do what a lot of standardized testing forces on young people: memorize the answers to test questions, then immediately forget most of them in preparation for the next test. But with music, I learned to build on a foundation and to study the theories behind what made good notes sound good and bad notes sound bad.

Music provided me with the best possible way to immediately use what I was taught. As soon as I picked up a new musical skill, I put it into practice and got real results back. I didn’t learn chords just to reproduce them on a test. I learned them to play songs.

This also made the transition to university education slightly easier for me. Obviously, in a university setting, what the answers are is not as important as why those are the answers — something that rings true for music. If you know that playing a certain set of notes together sounds good, that’s fine, but it isn’t all that useful unless you know why they sound good together — even abstractly.

In ancient Greece, musicians were exclusively of the lowest class. Only slaves could play instruments, and any person of high class who had an interest in playing a musical instrument needed to hide, occasionally wearing a mask when performing in public to not attract the wrong kind of attention.

This seems absurd by today’s standards. Strangely, the opposite might be true if music is pulled out of public schools — only those with parents who can afford an instrument and regular lessons would play.

My father bought me a third-hand guitar at a flea market when I was a child. I never had lessons, but I did have a music teacher in elementary school who helped to get the ball rolling. I probably would have stuck with the instrument even without that early push, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

Making music has always been something I genuinely have fun doing, something I put hours of work into, purely for the enjoyment. I’ve made lifelong connections with like-minded individuals who like playing music just as much as I do, including two of my closest friends, who were in a band with me.

Even now, any time I get to feeling stressed, angry or sad, I can grab my guitar and put myself in a better mood almost instantly. If I’m in a good mood, music will bring it up a notch.

The idea that focusing time on arts, whether music or another kind, will somehow compromise learning about other topics is mind-boggling to me. What’s wrong with having well-rounded children? Why can’t we take lessons learned in the arts and apply them to other subject areas?

Jake Old is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 214, or email jold@themountainpress.com.