More Than Just a Pretty Song

Arts education and music could be the unsung hero in boosting our schools

When students pick up a piece of sheet music or an instrument, they can perceive a wall of difficulty. Can I really play this song? Through coaching and practice, often, the answer becomes a yes. Music in schools gets a nod for increasing intelligence and test scores, for giving students a reason to come to school, says Leanne DeVane, Santa Fe Public Schools music education coordinator, but “music might be the portal to everything else for them. There they find their self-confidence, their identity, their expression, and they find challenges, and they find that they can succeed in those challenges.”

When the realization suddenly hits that they can play that difficult passage or sing a song that pushed their limits, DeVane says, "then they learn that they are smart, that they are capable."

That's an effort that's reaching more and more students in Santa Fe's schools. In the last eight years, the number of students enrolled in Santa Fe Public Schools music programs at least doubled. Between the 2008-09 and 2015-16 school years, enrollment increased in band programs from 1,064 to 1,932, in chorus from 441 to 1,077 and in orchestra/strings from 84 to 776. There basically was no orchestra program when DeVane started, she says, but they were able to use funds from a mill levy to purchase instruments and put them in the hands of kids. Now some 43 percent of students in grades 4-12 participate in music programs. In addition to band, chorus and strings, some schools also offer guitar and piano classes. No student gets turned away for being without an instrument; the school district will provide them as needed.

If there's work still to be done in the music program, though, it lies in retention. Students start programs with a good deal of enthusiasm in elementary and middle school, but that participation wanes by high school. The district is tweaking its approach to music education this year by recommending against starting students with instruments in fourth grade, when they can only take two music classes each week—and even that can be cut into by taking standardized tests or going on field trips.

"It's not because we don't have good teachers. It's not because we don't have support. It's not because we don't have interest," DeVane says. "It's because they don't have enough time with the teacher."

Instead, students can start in fifth grade, again with two days a week of instruction for the first year, and then daily instruction in middle school and high school. The hope is that by starting a year closer to when they can have daily instruction, students will see increased success with their instruments and therefore stick with it longer. Starting in kindergarten (and even at times in pre-K), all students get music education for one hour each week, designed to lay the foundation for music skills and music literacy, with activities for developing a sense of melody and tone.

By high school, the opportunities for students to use music to access other community organizations blossoms, and the list of options is massive. Santa Fe Youth Symphony, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Performance Santa Fe, Santa Fe Symphony, Santa Fe Pro Musica, Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Sangre de Cristo Chorale, Santa Fe Community Orchestra, Concordia Santa Fe, Santa Fe Opera and The Candyman Strings & Things all have enrichment programs that involve students, connect them with mentors and put instruments in their hands.

While Santa Fe Public Schools has been recognized three years in a row as a "Best Community for Music Education" by the National Association of Music Merchants, an award that acknowledges the district's support for music programs and access for students, the climate in the rest of the state hasn't been so friendly.

"I was deeply saddened to see articles in which our governor rejected $5,000 for band instruments at a Las Vegas high school, calling the purchase 'pork,'" The Candyman's Cindy Cook pointed out in a press release about a recent trip she took to Washington DC to join 91 music industry leaders and artists in advocating for music education. Along with other items, Gov. Susana Martinez stated that instruments didn't create jobs or develop the state. "My plea to our governor is to understand that we must make it a priority to improve education for our kids," Cook said.

Nationally, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities has rolled out the Turnaround Arts Initiative, which uses arts programs to try to close achievement gaps and increase engagement at low-performing schools. An independent evaluation in 2015 of the eight local schools that participated in the pilot program, launched in 2012, found that scores in math and reading had improved in every school. On average, those gains were 22 percent for math and 12 percent for reading, and all of them surpassed increases seen in test scores throughout their school districts. Half saw significant increases in attendance rates, and more than half saw reduced suspensions.

Even non-arts classroom teachers incorporate arts into core content instruction. Eighty-five percent of teachers at Turnaround Arts schools reported doing so, saying that it seemed to help keep students on task and reduce classroom disruptions.

Integrating arts and core curriculum comes home in Santa Fe's classrooms with the Santa Fe Opera's Active Learning Through Opera program, a two-pronged approach to increasing the use of the arts in classrooms by working with students on writing songs or working on visual arts and poetry or adapting a folktale into an opera, and by teaching arts integration workshops with teachers as a way of making meaningful connections between an art form and an academic topic.

"All the research is there that arts integration makes learning sticky in a way that is just remarkable to see," says Charles Gamble, ALTO program manager with the Santa Fe Opera.

They hear about that, anecdotally, from teachers, Gamble says, and see it quantitatively in pre- and post-assessments of the residencies. Those reports focus on specific academic standards, like students' abilities to sequence stories and change their modality—to take in, synthesize and recreate a story as an opera, for example. Students also put their high-end listening skills to the test, as shown in their ability to collaborate and listen to one another through an improvised scene.

There's also a shift in their meta-cognitive ability to reflect on what they're learning, why it's important and what it makes them question, Gamble says, and that in particular appeared in their songwriting workshop, Songs of Freedom, in which students write original songs. The first year focused on the Civil Rights movement, the next on the refugee crisis.

"A number of students in their post-assessments and their reflections talked about how their process of both studying the refugee crisis and writing a song about it helped them recognize, one, that there was a real world problem, and two, that there was something they were able to do about it," Gamble says. "A number of students felt like they could do something to help, even if it was just about raising awareness. They felt some agency and some ownership in the process."

He also saw them looking to other areas of concern, like climate change, and making the connection that this, too, was something that needed more attention, and that they could write a song about. Their teachers led by example—they took creative risks, he says, finding that edge of what they know and playing past it.

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