“Teaching music in not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” – Shinichi Suzuki
I grew up in The Junction, a now trendy west-end neighborhood north of High Park in Toronto. But in my day (or as my daughter would say, in the olden days), it wasn’t so trendy. A working-class neighborhood close to train tracks, stockyards, and an abattoir, the Junction was gritty and (depending upon the direction of the wind from the abattoir) malodorous. But for me, it was an urban playground filled with intriguing sights and sounds and fascinating characters. I remember One-Eyed Jack who teetered down the street every day accompanied by a three-legged dog named Dog (so named, I assume, to keep things simple, for Jack was not a deep thinker). Then there was Strange Sadie, a mysterious recluse and hoarder whose dilapidated house was to be avoided at all costs (especially during Halloween). And who could forget the Maltese Marching Band that perennially ushered in spring by shutting down Dundas Street West with a glorious pandemonium of pomp, circumstance, and overly elaborate uniforms. And finally, there was the food – oh, I definitely remember the food. While many of my generation grew up in meat-and-potato households where plastic cheese squeezed out of a tube was a delicacy, the Junction surrounded me with an exotic banquet of ethnic delights. Perogies from Poland, cherry dumplings from Czechoslovakia, cabbage rolls from the Ukraine, halvah from Greece, pastizzi from Malta, and spicy meat patties from Jamaica – unfamiliar yet tasty delights that found their way onto our kitchen table.
Despite the working-class nature of the neighborhood, I benefitted from the richness of our local school’s arts program, particularly music. I had an opportunity to begin violin in grade 4 with expert instruction by Mrs. Cusack, an itinerant music teacher who travelled from school to school. Every afternoon, my homeroom teacher Miss Procunier carefully took out her pitch pipe and taught us a selection of hits from the 20s and 30s (I still remember sitting mesmerized as her warbling but captivating voice performed Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade or Harry Wood’s Side by Side a capella). In grade 5 and 6, Mr. Gleeson accompanied us on the banjo as we channeled artists such as Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. And then in grade 7, instrumental band opportunities opened up and I turned my enthusiasm to the flute. I carried my instrument proudly between home and school, and practiced every day, blossoming under the tutelage of a caring and talented music teacher, and growing through the camaraderie of school choir rehearsals and ensemble performances.
This week, People for Education released its Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools, and music was one area of focus. The report shows access to music education declining and severely unequal in schools across the province. Only 33% of urban and suburban schools have a full-time music teacher, and the situation for small town and rural schools is even worse (11%). The trend for music in schools is downward, and declining enrolments combined with tightening budgets suggest things won’t change in the near future. Knowing what we know about the relationship between music and academic outcomes, the lessening commitment to music does not bode well for the future of many public school students in Ontario.
The importance of music education is now indisputable. Longitudinal research and the use of technology such as functional MRIs demonstrate a positive relationship between musical training, cognitive development, and academic performance. Children who study music tend to develop stronger working memory, are more fluent readers, have better focus, and possess a larger vocabulary than children who receive no musical training. In addition to the cognitive and academic benefits of music instruction, however, I believe there are many other skills that develop and grow when children have the opportunity to learn an instrument.
When my daughter was four-years-old, I wanted to share my love of music with her and suggested she take up an instrument. She chose the violin and began weekly lessons with a young, gentle and exceptionally patient teacher named Dini. Olivia would be the first to tell you that focus, attention and standing in one place for more than 10 seconds did not come easily to her as a child, so the violin posed certain challenges. Watching her simultaneously rejoice in making sounds on her wee instrument while struggling mightily to follow Dini’s technical instruction, I quickly realized that I had not given birth to a budding Itzhak Perlman. But I knew that perfection in performance was not the reason for encouraging her to play. She was developing a host of life skills that would be increasingly important as she got older. I saw her become a better listener. I watched her slowly but surely internalize the self-control that standing still required. When she was young, daily practice had to be initiated by me and supervised mightily, but over the years, I was able to step back as I saw her develop greater self-discipline, self-awareness and perseverance. She learned to listen, to assess, to self-correct, and to try again. I saw these same skills transfer to her academic studies in university.
There was something else that music gave my daughter. It gave her joy. It made her happy. She experienced what it feels like to play as part of an ensemble – that magical moment when each part blends together to create a whole that sounds magnificent, and you realize that you are suddenly better than you could ever be alone. Violin lessons didn’t last beyond the age of twelve, and despite a brief and painful flirtation with the alto saxophone, she didn’t pursue an instrument. But years of lessons, alongside band classes and weekly choir practice at school took root, and she remains keenly interested in music of all genres.
When I think of the many students across Ontario who may never have these same experiences, I am saddened and angry. The students at our school are blessed. Each one of them can access music inside the classroom and out. They have opportunities to follow their passion, and support from teachers who have the skill to take them as far as they want to go. So as a Head of School, I feel immensely proud in what we offer to our girls. But as a citizen of Ontario and a proponent of equal access to public education, I am discouraged. I hope things will improve for children across the province, because I know there are many beautiful young hearts out there, yearning to make music together.