On May 3, The Rolling Stones, whose average age is 68, kicked off the band’s “50 and Counting” tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A few days earlier, I had attended an end-of-the-year recital hosted by a friend. It featured his piano students, whose collective age is much younger (the youngest performer was 5).
Both events showcased the enduring power of all kinds of music and music education at all ages. There is an ever-growing body of scientific research finding intriguing connections between music and how it can enhance brain health, reduce blood pressure and provide a challenging way to make one’s older years inspiring and fulfilling.
Despite the benefits, music programs in schools have suffered from budget constraints and been drastically cut. Church music programs have suffered, too, and budget-conscious families have had to make hard choices about “extras,” such as music lessons.
Is music that disposable?
Leaving the Stones aside for now, I turn back to the recital I attended.
The piano teacher, Marvin Evans, was the pianist at St. Eugene Catholic Church in Los Angeles, where I was the choir conductor for 13 years. Marvin is one of the best pianists, arrangers and composers I’ve ever worked with. But his work with the students showed an even more profound gift: that of weaving in so many lessons beyond the notes on a page.
Each student played two compositions, first announcing his or her selection of music to the audience and then performing. Most played from memory. Some got lost but managed to finish. All received warm applause and recognition from Marvin for a year of good, hard work. At the end of the recital, each was awarded a trophy, but took away more than that. Listening skills, public speaking, focused attention and a broader knowledge of the world of music were but a few of the added benefits these young people gained.
Another important benefit of music education is that it not only stays with each person for life, it can be practiced, enjoyed and deepened. Long after the high school quarterback hangs up his cleats or the track phenom retires from the circuit, music endures. Students of music have no risk of concussion or other sports-related injury, and the skills, such as proper breathing techniques, can enhance physical health for years.
Some rationalize cutting music programs by saying students won’t make a living in music. Most students won’t make a living in football or basketball, either, nor will all English majors become writers or biology students become doctors.
The church has a long, beautiful tradition of music, and the Mass and other services are richly uplifted by it. If no one is trained to play, sing or compose, who will then lead the song for us in worship?
Whether children are at their first recital or become raging rockers or accomplished cantors, those who enter the world of music reap great rewards. Not everyone can become a professional, but the lessons music students are taught become great gifts to them and to those with whom their work is shared.