Michelle Obama pushes for music, arts in schools at awards lunch

First Lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote speech at a Grammy Museum event to salute teachers who use music in innovative ways as part of their lessons at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

First Lady Michelle Obama took to an entertainment-industry pulpit in Los Angeles to stump for expanding the role of arts in education, saying that 6 million children in the U.S. have no exposure to any form of arts in school.

Speaking before an audience of several hundred including L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and California Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), Mrs. Obama stressed that music and other forms of art often connect with students and enhance their interest in core subjects such as math, science and history.

“For so many young people, arts education is the only reason they get up out of bed in the morning,” she said in her keynote address Wednesday at Club Nokia during a Grammy Museum-sponsored luncheon saluting musician Janelle Monae and Placentia school teacher Sunshine Cavalluzzi.

“Just like Janelle, they go to school each day because there’s an instrument they want to play, a musical they want to perform in, a painting they are dying to finish,” she said. “So then once they arrive in those classrooms, that’s when we can teach them something else, like math and writing and science. That is the power of the arts for so many of our young people.”

The event was held to raise money and awareness of the Grammy Museum’s education efforts, which aim to bridge the gap left by cuts that Garcetti said have “decimated” public school arts education in recent years.”


Monae and Cavalluzzi were presented with Jane Ortner Education Awards -- Monae as an artist, Cavalluzzi as an educator -- for their use of music to stimulate and inspire youths to pursue their educations.

The Grammy Museum has helped organize seven music-related events at the White House since President Obama took office in 2009. Museum executive director Robert Santelli told the crowd that the museum brought along more than 1,000 students from around the country to participate in those programs highlighting the role of music in the civil rights music, the history of the blues, women in music and other themes.

Mrs. Obama, who spoke for about 15 minutes, added that thousands more students and teachers have taken part in those programs through Internet streaming of the sessions to schools nationwide.

Monae discussed her background coming out of a lower-income household in Kansas City, Kans., saying it was music that allowed her to rise above “statistics that said I should never be standing here on this stage today.” She concluded the lunch with a performance, backed by a five instrumentalists and two singers, of three of her own songs -- “Sincerely Jane,” “Queen” and “Tightrope” -- and a rendition of the James Brown hit “I Got You (I Feel Good).

Cavalluzzi, a teacher at El Dorado High School in Placentia, was singled out from applicants around the country for her use of music to teach economics.

The goal of the annual award, established by philanthropist and Grammy Museum board of directors member Chuck Ortner in memory of his wife, Jane, who died in 2000, is to recognize teachers who use music in innovative ways to inspire their students in subjects other than music. Ortner was accompanied by his son, Eric, and daughter, Amy.

Cavalluzzi said the award -- a statuette in the form of a vintage microphone -- “celebrates the infusion of music into traditional curricula. Arts should not be separated,” a comment that drew applause from onlookers. “Music can enhance cultural understanding and create new vocabularies, teach them new languages” with which schoolchildren can learn to express themselves.

She pointed out that her own son “learned the days of the week by singing it to ‘The Addams Family’ theme song,” and that “when I have to remember the Constitutional Preamble, yes, I sing the ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ song. She quickly added, “But music is so much more than a memory tool. It serves as a force for creativity.”

In addition to corporate clients who bought places at 25 tables for the fundraiser at prices ranging from $10,000 to $100,000, the audience included about 150 guests invited by the Grammy Museum. Another 150 young people, including many of Cavalluzzi’s students and other schoolkids from around Southern California who have participated in previous museum education programs, were invited to the event.

Garcetti noted that he had studied piano as a youth and said he recently moved his upright piano into his office at City Hall so he could rejuvenate himself with music during any free moments in his mayoral duties.

“I should have done that the first day I took office,” he said. “We all know what music does for our souls, and to our hearts, and to our minds.”

In response to the call for greater arts presence in schools, he said he is exploring ways to implement an education program that he and his wife, Amy Wakeland, have observed in schools in Mexico, based on Venezuela’s El Sistema music education system, from which conductor Gustavo Dudamel emerged to take over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Wednesday’s event opened with testimonials from four youths, ranging in ages from 13 to 24, about benefits they received through Grammy Museum programs, and featured music played by a jazz trio of musicians who trained in Grammy Museum music camps.

Todd Goldstein, chief revenue officer for AEG, which built the L.A. Live sports and entertainment complex that houses the Grammy Museum, said the organization has fulfilled “our dream….to create a place where young people would feel welcome and where they could take their passion for music to the next level.”

Money raised at the luncheon will support the museum’s ongoing education programs, which Santelli said have reached more than 200,000 students since the museum opened in 2008. Santelli announced that a day earlier the museum had received a donation of $100,000 from Michael Strautmanis, Walt Disney Co. vice president of corporate citizenship and former deputy assistant to President Obama

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