Last year we assembled a compilation and zine to raise money for Garfield Middle School’s rock ensemble. One year later, their teacher Eric Bolton is in the midst of raising funds for a class set of ukuleles. We had some discs left, so we released a cheap, light-weight version of the compilation to help his cause.
The following essay was originally published in the zine. Here it is in cyberspace.
I played trombone from fourth grade through high school, in the concert, marching and jazz bands. But my participation was somewhat perfunctory. I rarely practiced at home, but kept signing up because it made music part of my school day and it was where my friends were. My thoughts and passion were more fully occupied with my basement bands. Such music, blunt and sloppy, was born directly of my experience and created from my friends’ and my personalities. This is the short answer for why I wanted [last] year’s compilation to benefit the rock ensemble at Garfield Middle School.
As for the long answer…
I went to college to be an English teacher, and had the chance to learn a lot about how children learn to read. Three principles from my education stick with me. The first comes from the vocabulary lessons of Sylvia Ashton Warner, a teacher in New Zealand from the first half of the last century. She taught the Maori children in her care to read based on a simple and radical principle: rely on their own experiences. Her kids learned to read one word at a time, and they picked their own words. Warner wrote out each word her students requested on a card, building up their individual key vocabularies. Kids picked words like “Daddy,” “kiss,” Mummy,” “jet,” “bomb”––no word was wrong. In 1963, after years of listening to her pupils’ choice of vocabulary, she drew the following conclusions in her treatise Teacher:
Backward readers have a private Key Vocabulary which once found, launches them into reading.
The Key Vocabulary centers round the two main instincts, fear and sex.
I also learned the achievement gap between different levels of economic privilege is largely attributable to unequal summer vacations. Relatively cheap book truck programs can nearly close the gap. It’s an ugly waste not to invest in such things. The rock ensemble’s funding exists only when there’s some surplus in the school’s budget. This hasn’t been the case for the past couple years, and so the kids play largely old equipment their teacher brings in from his own collection. Outfitting a rock ensemble is cheap in the scheme of kids’ musical equipment, so we have a chance to make a difference.
My third takeaway from studying literacy is that any reading is good reading. Our education system asks kids to read and dissect books most adults would never want to read. Most of our own daily reading consists of magazines, newspapers, and internet articles. Yet we ask kids to devote huge portions of their reading efforts to the likes of Shakespeare, minor British poets, Geoffrey Chaucer. Why? Because that stuff is old, and already canonized. It’s already received the seal of approval and gone through the motions of government to be in state curriculums and national standards. It’s safe. This is really an easy way out for the adults and a tough break for the kids.
Now as I substitute teach in my childhood school district, I am pleased to see graphic novel sections growing bigger and more emphasis placed on student choice in reading classes. In Garfield Middle School’s rock ensemble, the kids pick which songs they learn—[last] year they performed their own renditions of Chance the Rapper, Beyonce, and 21 Pilots. Respecting kids’ own learning goals in music means respecting the value of all songwriting as literature, the hard-earned result of creative problem solving within a given language.
In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on a Stanford research study that found learning music improves the brain’s processing of spoken language. This applies “Especially for children… who aren’t good at rapid auditory processing and are high-risk for becoming poor readers, they may especially benefit from musical training.” Get a kid interested enough in guitar to get their hands on one, and they can spend their summer making sense of the oft-error-ridden, but vast library of internet amateur guitar tablature. They can post their own corrected tab after working out an error. That’s reading and writing. In my eyes, butchering Green Day covers in the privacy of one’s home could be a modern analogue to Warner’s noted “private Key Vocabulary… once found, launches [a student] into reading.”
Mathematical understanding, too, benefits from musical training. In 2002 the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students involved in public school music programs scored 107 points higher on the SAT’s than students with no participation.
But why not teach them John Phillip Souza marches? First rock and then rap has been tarred with scandalous associations with sex, drugs, and recklessness. There is a sickness in our entertainment industry, but what gets to the kids? How does it filter down to them? Popular music in our country has historically pushed buttons, resonating with young people at the expense of their parents’ sense of decency. Zoom out and the picture is much less exciting. Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna, and Biggie Smalls have now all gone from edgy provocateurs to boring old fogies. Now dad-rock radio stations across our country are re-formatting to play 90s hip hop for their middle-aged demographic. Shakespeare’s work has experience the same cycle of reception. It’s inevitable––but slow.
Warner, writing on the chosen vocabulary words of her five and six year olds, states: “The Key Vocabulary centers round the two main instincts, fear and sex.” Insane Clown Posse, one of the most-objectionable acts to ever make music (now middle-of-the-road Christian dads) have a precious interview on Bill O’Reilly. It’s an entertaining moment of gotcha journalism falling flat. The posse is utterly un-embarrased by camera footage of them telling 12 and 13 year old fans “to go home and smoke something” and “commit a crime while your a minor.” Violent J’s justification ranges from “I don’t care about the world” to “it’s a relief” for kids to hear adults say out loud what the kids’ know understand and aren’t allowed to talk about. They’re at ease because their sales are not at risk. As Ice T explained to Oprah in 1990:
The enemy of the music is what fuels the fire. As soon as a kid comes home from school and his mother says, “Have you listened to your Ice T album today?” I’m through. Rock and roll has always gotta have an enemy. That’s what keeps it rock and roll!
Courtney Miranda is a music therapist working at Express Yourself, which provide multi-disciplinary arts programs in Massachusetts. Every child with whom Courtney works has behavioral issues. Every May, their work culminates in Express Yourself’s annual concert at the Wang Theater in Boston. Courtney gave me a qualitative picture of the value of music education both academically and emotionally:
What they learn can be transferable to school, improving memory, fine motor skills, discipline… but there needs to be consistency. The same teenager who in a clinical environment is on the verge of hitting people can sit patiently with a drum at Express Yourself. Smiling, learning, remembering pieces from a month ago, and he’s not using the drum as a weapon––which is always on my mind.
She explained that a young person dealing with anger doesn’t feel in control of their body. Playing a drum teaches control. Thirty years of performances at the Wang Theatre have presented no real behavioral issues, with the exception of one student hiding in a broom closet with a case of stage-fright. The kids are proud to share what they’ve learned and consistently rise to the occasion. Courtney’s explanation is simple: “When you’re in a good space you can do better.”
Speaking in her role as a music therapist, Courtney Miranda went on to say, “Music is the only thing that gets young adolescents interested in talking to me. One kid comes in and plays viola before she’s ready to talk. We share playlists to have conversations.” Her kids like the Suicide Squad soundtrack, Justin Bieber, whatever’s on the radio—“that’s their language.” On the subject of the “parental advisory” stickers and the explicit content of some of the music her teens and pre-teens bring to these conversations, Courtney is unconcerned. “Many of my kids’ parents abandoned them, are in drug rehab, prostitution…. I could tell them no, but then I’d be another 20-something white female who walks into their lives and tell them to censor their music when they’ve lived their lives unprotected.”
Its cultural associations, its penchant for profanity aside, another obstacle to rock and rap’s legitimacy in the curriculum is its simplicity. There’s truth to the statement that rock and popular music is structurally and melodically simpler than classical music. Many of its seminal figures were self-taught, short-lived slackers. And it’s true, in some ways, that a concert band can cover more musical ground than a rock ensemble.
The flip side, is that each member of the rock ensemble plays a bigger part in the musical whole. A guitarist or keyboard player is responsible for chords, not notes in a chord. And students who learn music in rock ensemble will have an easier time transferring that knowledge to write their own music. Because the rules are simpler, the level of mastery required to compose your own music is a much closer goal when you start.
And in many ways the music is not simpler––it just presents different challenges. A concert band doesn’t have to groove. The level of syncopation in hip-hop and rock riffage, owing to its lineage back to jazz and Bo Diddley’s re-interpretation of West African drumming, is outside the scope of what most middle and high school concert bands attempt. But aesthetic politics and prejudices run deep.
All this is to say that the rock ensembles makes me happy. It puts instruments and the power to choose their own curriculum in kids’ hands. It is a cost-effective means to give kids the musical training that makes them smarter, better disciplined, and proud of themselves.