In our age of increasing attempts to standardize education we may notice the quiet disappearance of fine arts programs from public school systems all across the country. Many school systems now view music as an after school activity rather than essential to day-to-day student learning. All too often a high score on a multiple choice test determines a student’s intellectual ability, rather than the accuracy with which that student sight reads a sheet of music or plays a riff on the guitar. The reduction of fine arts programs in public schools sends students a message of neglect, a message that nurturing creativity and mastering the abstract aren’t imperative for their proper growth and development.
There are voices calling for the reversal of this trend, however. In 2006, Education Through Music-Los Angeles began partnering with inner-city Los Angeles elementary and middle schools to bring quality music education to over 800 students who were without it. ETM-LA now serves more than 5,500 students in pursuit of its mission to secure music’s place in education by providing disadvantaged students with qualified, well-trained music teachers.
ETM-LA teacher Jamey Arent teaches a general music class with an emphasis on guitar at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary School in Los Angeles. Because ETM-LA provides guitars for the whole class, students get real practice in the classroom. Arent’s class of sixth graders played an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” in the 3/4 time signature. Arent explains, “On the board, students may understand that this time signature indicates three beats per measure instead of 4 beats per measure they have become used to, but once we play the song, students can feel how 3/4 time gives the music a different quality.” Blending theory, application, knowledge, and understanding allows students to learn holistically and sense for themselves that definitions alone are not enough to learn a concept fully.
Students learn from their teachers, many of whom have had success as professional musicians, about the years of practice it takes to master an instrument and are encouraged by their examples. “Whether [it’s] music for them or sports or anything in the academic field,” Arent explains, “this sort of application and concentration on something could open up those doors.” Arent is a blues and rock guitarist who recently wrapped up co-writing and recording with R&B and soul singer Raquel Rodriguez on her album “Miss Me.” He holds two degrees in music and has shared the stage with musical greats including jazz keyboardist Chick Corea. “We as musicians get the opportunity to travel and perform and experience great things because we took the time to practice.” Arent emphasizes to his students, “music goes beyond…the classroom.”
ETM-LA is successful not just because of its incredible teachers, but also because the focus of the program goes beyond the performance of music. For example, Arent introduces topics like the Baroque era or indigenous music through rhythmic warm-ups. Arent explains how students are “able to feel and hear how [the day’s topic] shapes the music.” They may learn how to relate time signatures to fractions, how microphones convert sound waves into electrical energy to produce an audio signal, and why blues music connects to the history of the South. These exercises allow students to be moved by timeless emotions, and to learn to connect with the music and the world as a whole, which naturally leads to increased compassion and understanding. ETM-LA collaborates with school faculty to integrate music into all subjects, working to make it an invaluable part of the core curriculum.
ETM-LA unites students and music, filling them with the dreams their teachers get to live out. Musicians like Jamey Arent expose youth to the heart of musical culture in their communities while cultivating a boundless creativity essential to their development as individuals. ETM-LA allows students unique opportunities to experience culture and ideas through music, granting them new ways of understanding the world around them.