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Who Needs Music (in Education)?

There is often a debate about the relevancy and utility of supporting music education. In one camp sits the folks who proclaim “the musical arts must be taught for their own sake,” meaning that artistic experience is important for all—and that without compulsory arts education, the meaningfulness and relevancy of the arts will be lost on future generations. Across the river, another camp says, “we are for the teaching of music, but only if its teaching shall benefit the development other other skills or cognition.”

I sit in neither camp. I am a bridge builder, who comes from an island directly between these coasts, and I am working my way towards yours.


Thus far in my career, I have had the opportunity not only to teach, but also to advise, consult, and observe programs and classrooms across the nation. From 2005-2011, I administrated the Music-in-Education National Consortium, a federally-funded (US DOE and NEA) project investigating the efficacy of music-integrated curricula and research in public education. I would frequently fly to our member schools and spend several days learning about their programs and consulting on various aspects.

While the following list may not be relevant to all arts/music programs,  I do know that of all the programs I’ve been a part of, the bullet points below are what the successful ones have all had in common!

    • Open-access music programs should help all students build fundamental music literacy skills (reading and sight-reading/singing, composing, and improvising).  There is too often a discrepancy over the quality of free- or non-audition-based music classes vs. what is offered to students already taking lessons or enrolled in a youth orchestra program. ALL students should learn to read and notate music, analogous to what language literacy programs strive for. In fact, music literacy often isn’t addressed until late adolescence or college age. What’s the point in that?
    • Rich documentation and portfolio assessment equally inform responsible teaching and learning—and vice versa.  Collecting artifacts from the classroom helps to make visible the artistry of teaching and the process of learning. But it’s not just about what to collect: it’s how we assemble those artifacts; how we share them; and how to look at them at meta-, macro-, and micro- levels.
    • Student work is inherently rich, meaningful, and intentional.  My default position for working with students (and assessing their work) is one of me trying to interpret their intentions and articulate their strengths. From there I search for the right questions to ask, to understand the student’s approach from philosophical and cognitive perspectives, and the pathways I need to find to help them achieve a balance in their actions.
    • Effective arts programs succeed when led by a team (3 or more) like-minded, entrepreneurial individuals.   Nobody likes to ‘go it alone’. With 2 people, you have a buddy, but with 3, you have a quorum. But it’s not just about the # of people. It’s about having a team that can really affect change throughout the school or community organization within which you are working. At a school, a power team would be the music teacher, a classroom teacher, and the principal. Or a music teacher, a curriculum specialist, and a classroom teacher. You get the idea. It’s about creating a Leadership Team and going from there.



With the encouragement and guidance of Leslie Wu Foley, MusicLaunch was founded in 2010 as an initiative of the Community Engagement program at New England Conservatory, in partnership with the Wang YMCA of Chinatown (Boston).  It was conceived as an innovative community-minded music education lab, where programs and curricula are driven by the dynamic, multi-faceted, and versatile faculty of NEC’s Continuing Ed Music-in-Education Certificate Program. It followed the YMCA’s commitment to “developing the potential of every child” with its open enrollment (no audition) policy and classes that encourage music literacy from the ground up, starting with parent/child music circles (ages 2-5). Small-group lessons in guitar, band instruments, and recorder are also offered.

In 2013, MusicLaunch found a new home at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC). MusicLaunch is committed to promoting social responsibility, critical thinking, and socio-emotional development.  While many arts organizations focus on free performances as their way of giving back, MusicLaunch instead puts experiential, hands-on learning and multi-level (sometimes, multi-generational) instruction at its core. Youth are guided, mentored, and instructed by experienced teaching artists from NEC’s Continuing Ed faculty, as well as by adult intern volunteers from the MIE Certificate Program.