After a five-year hiatus, I have returned to work, once a week, as a musicianship instructor for an established children's choir.
Though the students I teach are lucky to have passed the auditions for this challenging choral program, I consider myself lucky to be working among the musician-educators who have devoted their lives to children's music. I am a hobbyist among professionals, a lifelong singer who became a student of music when I found myself, 26 years ago, unexpectedly directing a children's choir.
After years of workshops and summer courses, on-the-job training, and close observation of these and other professionals, I have skills adequate for my limited role.
Most importantly, I've learned what music makes possible for children, what it can offer for all, not just for those with special talent. Our school district is fortunate to have credentialed music teachers who travel among our elementary schools to teach instrumental music — but only to those relatively few students who, with parent support, choose to sign up for it.
Unfortunately, most of our elementary students don't receive regular musical instruction. What they miss out on is not just the music. They miss the ways music education can support other areas of learning.
Music teaches listening skills. Often, in and out of school settings, where non-musicians lead group singing, they begin songs just by plunging in, or with the spoken cue — "ready, begin" — as if beginning the Pledge of Allegiance.
In many classrooms, if students sing, they sing with recordings, without attention to whether they're singing with the recorded pitches. Often they are not. You don't see or hear this in choirs where singers are taught to listen for the starting pitch, then match it. The aim isn't being louder than the rest or out-singing the others. The goal is to sing in unison or achieve harmony. What better way to learn about discipline, listening and patience, teamwork and participation?
Believe it or not, music teaches math. When students clap whole notes and half notes, quarters and eighths and dotted rhythms, they're learning division and fractions. When they complete a measure of music to match the meter of a song, they're experiencing algebra.
I'm happy to recall the time a second-grade student — at one of the few schools in our district that has music for all primary students — interrupted my beat-counting exercise with her realization, "Mrs. Wagner, this is math!"
Music can teach history, poetry and cultural literacy. Two music education methodologies I've experienced, developed by composer-educators Zoltan Kodaly and Carl Orff, build instruction around folk music.
The songs are memorable, enjoyable, and easily sung — otherwise they wouldn't have survived as folklore — and they come from across the world, as do our students. As children learn the songs and perform the authentic dances and games that developed with them, they come to appreciate their own heritage as well as their classmates' traditions, and they have fun doing it.
As our son's fourth-grade teacher once said, watching her students sing and dance historic songs of California, "How can they not be happy when they're doing that?"
The values of music exceed the joy of musical performance. Music, like writing, is propelled by rhythm. Like math, it has structure and pattern. Through performance, children learn to listen for, and respect, other voices. They learn to gain comfort onstage, to dance with partners they might not choose, to work together. They learn some of the "soft skills" employers tell us many of our graduates lack.
We all know songs we learned in childhood, imprinted in our memories by melody, rhyme and meter. These memories have power. I am forever grateful for our daughter's first choir director, who taught her a simple and lovely song, with words I wish all children had the chance to learn by heart: "Beautiful, wonderful sights to see, and wonderful sounds to hear. The world is a place for a seeing eye, and a place for a listening ear."
JOYLENE WAGNER is a former member of the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org