Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia

Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia.

You could click above to get to Edutopia, but I just have to post Wynton Marsalis’ entire article below because I am so proud of my students who successfully put on a great winter show yesterday and today. Kudos to their music teachers too.

Anyway, here’s what Mr. Marsalis’ had to say:

School administrators facing budget cuts often look to eliminate what they consider “nonessential” programs. Invariably, their red pen lands on the same line item: music class.

It strikes me as strange that music is considered nonessential. More than simply being a source of cultural pride and listening pleasure, music represents a core ingredient in the education of our children.

Music, in its purest form, encompasses the very ideals that we want to impart to our children. Let us consider a few. Because music makes abstract thought concrete, it forces us to develop several important cognitive functions.

The first is memory. Musicians must memorize not only the melody of a piece but also the individual notes that make it up. Within that, music teaches us the language of expression. You and I and Martin Luther King Jr. could read the exact same speech and it wouldn’t sound the same. The words are the same, of course, but why is it that Dr. King’s voice and tone carried something beyond the words? It’s the expressiveness of the performance. Similarly, three people playing a trumpet don’t sound the same. They can play the same note or melody, but only some trumpet players have a feeling that touches our heart.

Music also teaches us how to get along with others. Consider the music I love: jazz. Each member of the group can improvise, but none of it works — for a soloist or an ensemble — if the musicians do not play in balance. If the drummer, who plays the loudest instrument, decides he wants to be much louder than the bassist, who has the softest instrument, you’re going to have discord. This group dynamic teaches the importance of choice, and many choices require some form of sacrifice. You must listen. You must have a conversation. The group must work together to achieve its goals.

Jazz, in many ways, embodies our core democratic principles. The motto of the United States is “E Pluribus Unum” — Out of Many, One. Likewise, in music we celebrate the skills of the individual, as well as the strength of the group. Playing music also allows us to interact with some of our greatest artistic minds. When you perform the music of Charlie Parker or Leonard Bernstein, you understand their world. With each song, we get a glimpse of the intellectual life contained within the artistic statement.

Today, I still get special joy from instructing children. I try to show them the many lessons of good musical craftsmanship, particularly because I feel that so little good music is available to them. The music our children hear on the radio may feel good, like a candy bar feels good, but it has no nutrition. We exploit their budding sexuality. We exploit their lack of sophistication. We equate decadence with hipness. We give them cleavage and the same beat on every song, almost as if we were going back to the plantation. We treat our children as a marketing segment, and it’s embarrassing. But it is not our children who are at fault. We are.

Music must remain a core part of the teaching curriculum. Every school should have an orchestra, and it should play the music of this country — Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, William Grant Still. We should have jazz ensembles in our middle schools and blues bands in our high schools. As adults, we need to say, “This is the America we know and love.” Education works on many levels. It must inform and excite the mind, as well as nourish the spirit. Music is a key part of that education.

I couldn’t agree with him more. We always talk of performance when it comes to standards and test taking, but sometimes we need to take that literally and watch them “perform”. The children memorized poems from Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice (a la Carole King) to Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night and even did a little nostalgic barbershop number called In the Good Old Summer Time.  Will it increase their test scores? Of course it will. There was extremely rich vocabulary in the poems and lyrics of the songs. Any musician knows that there is a strong relationship between math and music.

But what I love about school performances is that every child regardless of ability shines. They help each other reach what is possible. It reminds me of the lyrics from a favorite Stephen Sondheim song: Anyone Can Whistle


Anyone can whistle,

That’s what they say —



Anyone can whistle,

Any old day —



It’s all so simple

Relax, let go, let fly.

So someone tell me, why can’t I?


I can dance a tango,

I can read Greek —



I can slay a dragon

Any old week–



What’s hard is simple.

What’s natural come hard.

Maybe you could show me

How to let go,

Lower my guard,

Learn to be free.

Maybe if you whistle,

Whistle for me.


Those kids were definitely whistling for each other.

I can dance a tango, I can read Greek Easy. I can slay a dragon, any old week– Easy.
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural come hard.
Maybe you could show me
how to let go,
Lower my gaurd,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.


One thought on “Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia

  1. Pingback: Keeping Time: Music Is a Core Subject | Edutopia « Seconds | Feed-O-Matic

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