Why mass access to music education is critical in helping young people build neural pathways for mental health and resilience
By Kacie Brown
We call it the universal language, a puzzle of frequencies pieced together through time and space that communicates so viscerally to an audience of strangers it forges a shared experience. But music’s practicalities – a history dominated by the perspectives of white men, a need for expensive instruments and highly trained instructors, plus a precarious place in an education system with values that often lie elsewhere – challenge equitable access to meaningful education in the art defined as much by the community as it is by technical skill.
Even through these challenges, music education programs are innovating to enrich students’ entire lives in measurable, enduring ways. Organizations like Guitars Over Guns, Miami Music Project, and South Florida Center for Percussive Arts use music to equip students with pivotal skills like teamwork, critical thinking, and resilience. They’re creating social change, starting with our youngest generations.
Musician, Chicago-native, and founder of Guitars Over Guns, Chad Bernstein, says music’s power as a comprehensive educational tool comes from its science and history.
“It’s primal. Music has been a part of every society, every organized group of people, since the beginning of time. As a form of communication and a way of connecting with people, music accesses the entire brain,” he says. “But really, at the end of the day, it’s the emotional connection that we feel through music that allows us to either express ourselves or find ourselves expressed through something that's been created.”
He says studying music is critical in helping young people build those neural pathways and find means for expression.
Meeting Students Where They Are
Programs like these don’t have to be expensive. Miami Music Project offers after-school programs and summer camps; 96% of their students come from low-income families and more than 95% are non-white. If a student qualifies for their public school’s free- or reduced-lunch benefits, Miami Music Project waives the registration fee, and they also provide students with most instruments.
Like other youth orchestra programs, Miami Music Project immerses students in classical music with a rigorous rehearsal schedule, but their goal isn’t to send kids to conservatories. Speaking from Michigan’s renowned Interlochen Arts Camp, where she was chaperoning a group of Miami Music Project students attending on scholarship, President Anna Klimala says the program’s biggest role is to use intensive musical study to build skills that uplift students in communities with what she calls “untapped potential.”
“It’s very important that these kinds of programs give the kids a chance to have a chance,” she says.
The Miami Music Project serves students from 62 zip codes, but efforts like theirs are happening on a smaller scale too. Yale-bound Fadhina Petit-Clair just graduated from Miami’s School for Advanced Studies. She won a Miami Herald Silver Knight Award for teaching violin to students with autism. Primed with a background in music and years of experience working with kids with special needs, Fadhina taught students from her aunt’s special education class.
Then the pandemic hit. Fadhina couldn’t meet with students in-person anymore and didn’t have access to enough violins to send one home with everyone, but she didn’t give up. “I thought to myself, 'violin teaching is not a priority anymore, it’s figuring out how we’re going to give these students some support so they’re able to succeed in the next school year,” Fadhina says. She adapted to offer her students virtual academic tutoring every weekday. She says she was sure to include some element of music in each of her lessons, like basic music theory, or songs to help students memorize their multiplication facts.
Fadhina found that traditional classical music lessons weren’t the only form of music she could use to support her students. Guitars Over Guns founder, Chad, who’s performed with artists like John Legend and Shakira, came to the same conclusion. He takes this idea even further.
Guitars Over Guns mentors meet with students at the many Miami-Dade County schools they partner with. They create safe, accepting relationships and communities with their students while training them in contemporary disciplines like drum set, hip-hop vocals and music production. The students hold performances and even produce a music video of their own to finish off each year. This year, Guitars Over Guns released their first album, The Rain May Be Pouring. It features students, mentors and alumni and delves into the myriad of trials the past year carried.
Last year, 100% of Miami Music Project’s graduating students went to college. Guitars Over Guns has reached more than 5,000 students, and 94% improved their GPA and school attendance records. But these programs’ leaders suggest that the most important skills their students gain are the ones that statistics can’t measure.
“We've watched kids teach each other how to read,” Chad says. “We've watched kids unpack trauma and deal with it and support each other through it. We’ve watched kids break social strata.”
Fadhina focused on instilling resilience in a marginalized community. “Society often regards them as incapable,” she says. Because of this, her choice to teach an instrument regarded as one of the most difficult to learn was intentional. “I thought this would help them to make their presence known,” she says.
Beyond the sounds -- the voice -- they’re helping students discover, the emotional intelligence these programs cultivate start students on a path out of invisibility. Guitars Over Guns trains their mentors to facilitate tough conversations. They’ve identified literacy challenges, and other struggles, that otherwise would’ve likely gone unnoticed. Their mentors are all mandated reporters and work closely with social workers embedded in the programs to support students holistically.
Chad says he first discovered the compelling connections music cultivates while helping lead a music program at a juvenile detention center. At first, the kids weren’t interested. The big names he’d collaborated with didn’t impress them. “We’re about to pack up and leave, but we're like, let's play a song before we get out of here. And as soon as we started playing, they were like, ‘oh, this is dope,’ and they were in … We realized that music was this way in, to start these conversations that kids weren't otherwise willing to have and build these relationships.”
From Extracurricular to a Birthright
The South Florida Center for Percussive Arts runs music programs for children ages 18 months to 18 years. Through drums and percussion, young students begin with listening and imitation games and develop into confident readers and performers. They learn the fundamental techniques of the entire percussion family, their origin, and cultural history.
“We have programs for the kids, youth, adults, for the children with special needs like autism. Their parents tell me, 'wow, they never come out of their shell like they did when they came from a drum jam class.' I've worked with veteran senior citizens. We launched our summer camp. We have a jam session for all instruments on Wednesday nights. And on top of that, we get invited to do community events at other camps, schools, libraries, parks. Thanks to our donors, all these community programs are absolutely free or have a meager cost,” says Brandon Cruz, Founder & Director of the South Florida Center for Percussive Arts.
Funding for arts education is still rarely secure. The threat of decreased allotments for the arts during the pandemic prompted the National Association for Music Education to collaborate with other arts organizations on an initiative called Arts ARE Education. It provides resources for individuals, school boards, and school districts to prioritize arts education funding and promotes research linking arts education to better outcomes for students.
The decline in arts funding isn’t just a pandemic problem, though. A 2011 President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities report found stark declines in arts education decades in the making, suggesting that both budget cuts and a narrowing curriculum are to blame. The fact that these programs, educating often-forgotten students in a regularly neglected subject, survived through a pandemic is a big deal.
“Every time I hear that music education is extracurricular or it’s used as a reward...I just cannot help but become very passionate,” Anna says. “Music education should be a birthright.”
And, for Chad, the ability to guide students in that birthright-worthy discipline is gratifying in itself.
“The energy that comes back from the audience and the crowd -- that is a magical, special, spiritual place in my life, the place that I feel closest to whatever higher power you believe in. That’s the altar for me. To experience that and chase that as a lifetime pursuit is an incredibly wonderful thing. But to be able to give that to somebody else? It’s maybe the most powerfully transformative gift in the world.”