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March 20, 2017

Saleel Menon

The Truth About Fine Arts Programs: Benefits Beyond Academics

Topics: Music Education, Kids And Creativity, Creativity, STEAM

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Want to score better on your SAT’s or standardized tests? – Join fine arts! This is an argument widely used by fine arts teachers to recruit for their programs, or sell their craft to young students and parents. Research studies by the hundreds substantiate claims that fine arts – particularly music education – help develop skills needed to think critically, problem solve, and analyze data which all lead to an on average elevated standardized testing experience. While some can view this as an amazing advocacy of music education, I think it perpetuates an ideology that is fundamentally wrong with the way we approach the arts, specifically in education. These statistics serve to quantify the importance of arts in an objective way, which is important in its own right, but art is subjective and has unique importance aside from its auxiliary interdisciplinary benefits.

I am a high school choir teacher in one of the nation’s most diverse school districts. The makeup of the choir program represents several nationalities, ethnicities, languages, cultures, and socio-economic demographics. This was a prevailing quality that drew me to teach here. I asked my students – a program of about 175 – to discuss why they felt music education was important in public schools and the answers were remarkably similar across the board. Surprisingly, if academic success was mentioned at all, it was not a regarded as an important byproduct. This got me thinking, what do students – in their own words – get from music education? After a class wide discussion, my students had the opportunity to write down personal comments about why they felt music education is important in the public school system as we experience in a suburb of Houston, Texas.

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All of the feedback was meaningful, but some was more superficial while other comments were more elaborate and insightful. The foremost comment from nearly every student stated that they felt a sense of community by being part of an ensemble. They overwhelmingly referred to choir as a family where they felt wholly supported and able to be themselves. “I can just be myself without being judged," writes one of my senior students. As a teacher, I make a point to always strive to create a positive and safe environment for my students to feel comfortable to express themselves. Particularly in choir, there is something so personal about singing. Personally, I had to learn to overcome a sense of vulnerability when I was singing, even in a group setting like a choir. This unique environment opens the doors to very collaborative experiences which allow students to – as another student claims – “truly embrace their differences.” Many students pointed out that this emphasis on working together toward a mutually beneficial goal inspires an intrinsic motivation to perform better.

A particularly insightful comment from a sophomore student claims, “for me, music education allows me to think differently. There is no right answer in singing, nor is their only one answer.” This statement is evocative to the nature of expression in the arts and concisely explains the potential for student creativity and acceptance of ideas in music education. In our group discussions, students repeatedly talked about how there is such a pressure for competition and accuracy of fact in their other classes. They greatly appreciate a place where the goal is not perfection, but creation, cohesion, nuance, and expression. Students feel empowered to think more critically and outside the box because there isn’t the pressure of being wrong.  This idea that there can be multiple viable responses to any given musical stimulus allows for a dialogue and conversation which can open the minds of young students. This is particularly important in our society plagued by political and ideological divisiveness. One student wrote extensively about how students, “can have their own opinions and express themselves.”

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My students articulated the humanistic and therapeutic benefits from music education overwhelmingly with little mention to how these skills relate to other academic content areas. Instead, when asked about what they learn aside from fundamental skills of music, students cited life skills and character traits. “I just feel like I’m more dependable, and organized, and can be part of something bigger than myself,” said one of my senior boys on the football team. Others talked about their work ethic, time management, decisiveness, ambition, and self-confidence as a product of their music education.  These skills are important to a student’s career regardless of their intended field, or if they even choose to go to college or not. It just so happens that all these skills (plus more that I haven’t mentioned) also help with other content areas in school, interviews, relationships, and standardized tests.

In a world where the arts in education seem to be a polarizing discussion of importance, we defend art as a differentiated supplement for core classes. According to coexisting students from a wide background music education provides so much more. There is no reason teachers should need to pour over scientific journals and statistics to justify why arts should be in school. These statistics are byproducts of more important consequences. At least a quarter of my students claimed that choir was the reason they came to school at all. This sounds extreme, but it proves a point. At the end of the day, I think there is a reason that over 85% of the students in my survey chose choir as an elective for their single “required fine arts credit” and have stayed in choir for more than one additional year. About 40% of our returning choir students are also involved in some other extra-curricular classes or activities.

To the teacher using standardized test scores to recruit for their fine arts program I say this - our classes are more important to our students’ education, our communities, and our society as a whole regardless of auxiliary interdisciplinary consequences. Our programs enrich lives of our students and those they choose to use their gifts to touch. We are creating well rounded humans, and that is why regularly scheduled fine arts classes are important in our education system.

 About the Author

Saleel Menon is a high school choir director at Ridge Point High School in Missouri City, TX.  He routinely participates in research on trends in music education with Dr. Julie Kastner of the University of Houston. His latest project includes teaching advanced musical concepts through informal learning and vernacular music. As a choir director, his choirs have received superior ratings at the UIL Concert and Sight Reading Contest. He is active as a clinician and consultant and can be reached at [email protected].

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