Credit: LA Johnson and Alyson Hurt/NPR
Q&A: Why Teaching Music Matters
by Cory Turner, National Public Radio : NPR Ed : NPR http://n.pr/1tXEHPi
September 14, 201411:09 PM ET :: I went to Los Angeles to report a story on brain science. A new study had just been released, exploring how music instruction helps kids process language. The children the researchers studied were all participants in a community music program run by the nonprofit Harmony Project.
But after an hour talking with passionate staffers at the group's office in Hollywood — and then recording an hour of music lessons there — I knew I had a compelling second story, that of Harmony Project and the woman who created it.
“ You teach music because the lessons that you learn serve you in your life and make you live a better, more functional life the same way the lessons you learn in math help you live a better, more functional life.
The group provides instruments (trombones, trumpets, oboes, flutes, strings, drums, you name it) and free lessons to kids in many of LA's toughest neighborhoods. It also sends teachers into the schools for onsite after-school lessons twice a week. Throw in a rehearsal each Saturday, and you have a program that gives much and asks much in return — which is one reason its students keep signing up.
And then there's Margaret Martin, who founded Harmony Project in 2001 after a tumultuous early life. At 17, she gave birth to her first child; she later spent a year homeless on the streets of Los Angeles while parenting two kids. A survivor of domestic violence, Martin eventually earned a doctorate in public health from UCLA.
Here are selected excerpts from our conversation, on the beginnings of Harmony Project and why it matters.
Why did you found Harmony Project?
I was inspired. A group of hardcore Los Angeles gang members walked through a farmers market on a Sunday morning: teardrop tattoos, oversized clothing, attitude. They stopped to listen to a little kid playing Brahms on a tiny violin. After five or six minutes without saying a word to one another, I watched those gang members pull out their own money and lay it gently in the child's case. [Turns out that "little kid" was Martin's son Max.]
I was at UCLA at the time finishing a doctorate in public health focused on what it takes to make a healthy community, and those gang members taught me that they would rather be doing what that child was doing than what they were doing. But they never had the chance. So I dove into the research literature and discovered that music learning was linked to improvements in language, cognition, music, brain development and behavior.
How would you describe the neighborhoods where Harmony Project is working?
They are the highest crime neighborhoods in Los Angeles. [The city] designate[s] gang-reduction zones for rates of violent gang crime that are at least 400 percent greater than anywhere else in the city. Something you don't always hear about: These are also the neighborhoods with the highest fertility rates, so they have also got the highest number of little kids and really nothing much for the kids to do after school hours. ...
So I founded Harmony Project to help keep disadvantaged kids safe, in school and out of trouble. It was basically a public health approach. If they were in music classes or rehearsals or practicing their instruments at home, it would reduce their exposure to negative influences in their environment and it would increase their exposure to the positive influences of music teachers and conductors.
One thing we know for sure, and that is that if we want to get serious about closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged kids, we should provide five days a week of music instruction in every Title 1 inner-city school in the country, from K through grade five. If you do that, you could save a whole lot of money on remediation, and you'd save a whole lot more money on juvenile incarceration because ... we don't have behavior problems with our students. They learn how to work together from an early age, and those are lessons that they never lose.
And yet you and I both know that music programs are the first thing on the chopping block in district after district these days.
It's been going on for decades like that. You know, we talk about, "Oh, music programs are getting chopped," but it's been a death by a thousand cuts, because you used to have five-day-a-week programs. Kids could really thrive that way. And then you said, "Well, you know, why don't we just give them one lesson a week?" So then you had the music specialist go around to three or four schools.
When my son was in public elementary school there was a music teacher trying to teach six instruments to 40 kids one hour a week. And kids think that they couldn't learn; what they don't realize is that they were in a program where nobody could learn. It was sort of designed to fail, so it's just not fair.
“ We need these things. We need to learn how to be precise, how to listen carefully, how to collaborate closely, how to express ourselves whether we're in the depths of despair or whether we feel joyful.
I was speaking to one curriculum specialist at a school district. She said, "Oh, all of our kids get music. The second-graders get music for eight weeks. The third-graders get music for eight weeks. The fourth-graders get music for eight weeks. The fifth-graders and so forth."
I mean, that would be like saying, "Oh, everyone gets math. The second-graders get math for eight weeks. The third-graders get math for eight weeks. The fourth-graders get math for eight weeks." And, like math, you don't teach music in order to make musicians, and you don't teach math in order to make mathematicians.
You teach music because the lessons that you learn serve you in your life and make you live a better, more functional life the same way the lessons you learn in math help you live a better, more functional life.
I mean, we need these things. We need to learn how to be precise, how to listen carefully, how to collaborate closely, how to express ourselves whether we're in the depths of despair or whether we feel joyful. ...
It's ... music, it's an authentic good. So, for all of those policy wonks out there who think music is just some enrichment tool, I'm sorry. Music is now permanently off the shelf with the warm fuzzies, and it's on the shelf with the rigorous, scientifically proven, evidence-based interventions that close the achievement gap for poor kids.
What do you see among the kids who either seek you out or that Harmony Project finds: Are these overachievers, or are they truly a cross-section of every neighborhood in which you work?
Let me tell you this. So, a dad walks up to me after a recital. And he says, "I didn't know what to do. I was losing my son. He was going with the wrong crowd. And then Harmony Project showed up. For the last three years he's been playing with a Harmony Project orchestra. He's a smiling, responsible kid." Tears filled that dad's eyes, and he said, "Thank you for my son."
Over and over, I'll have a student say, "You know, Harmony Project has really helped me. I have friends that are into a lot of bad stuff, and they say, 'Come with us.' And I say, 'I have to go to rehearsal.' " And then they say, "So it really helps me."
It gives them something else to do, something else that they're about. Something that's about achievement. They set different goals. They actually say, "I'm thinking about possibilities I never would have imagined."
This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music
by Cory Turner, National Public Radio: NPR Ed : NPR http://n.pr/XWT0Xv
September 10, 2014 4:28 PM ET :: Musical training doesn't just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That's the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn't just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids' brains process language.
And here's something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn't a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It's a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.
Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony's Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.
Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.
"Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU," Martin says, "despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs."
A Harmonic Haven For L.A. Kids
There are plenty of possible explanations for that success. Some of the kids and parents the program attracts are clearly driven. Then there's access to instruments the kids couldn't otherwise afford, and the lessons, of course. Perhaps more importantly, Harmony Project gives kids a place to go after the bell rings, and access to adults who will challenge and nurture them. Keep in mind, many of these students come from families or neighborhoods that have been ravaged by substance abuse or violence — or both.
Still, Martin suspected there was something else, too — something about actually playing music — that was helping these kids.
Enter neurobiologist Nina Kraus, who runs the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. When a mutual acquaintance at the National Institutes of Health introduced her to Martin, Kraus jumped at the chance to explore Martin's hunch and to study the Harmony Project kids and their brains.
Breaking Down Brainwaves
Before we get to what, exactly, Kraus' team did or how they did it, here's a quick primer on how the brain works:
The brain depends on neurons. Whenever we take in new information — through our ears, eyes or skin — those neurons talk to each other by firing off electrical pulses. We call these brainwaves. With scalp electrodes, Kraus and her team can both see and hear these brainwaves.
Using some relatively new, expensive and complicated technology, Kraus can also break these brainwaves down into their component parts — to better understand how kids process not only music but speech, too. That's because the two aren't that different. They have three common denominators — pitch, timing and timbre — and the brain uses the same circuitry to make sense of them all.
In other research, Kraus had noticed something about the brains of kids who come from poverty, like many in the Harmony Project. These children often hear fewer words by age 5 than other kids do.
And that's a problem, Kraus says, because "in the absence of stimulation, the nervous system ... hungry for stimulation ... will make things up. So, in the absence of sound, what we saw is that there was just more random background activity, which you might think of as static."
In addition to that "neural noise," as Kraus calls it, ability to process sound — like telling the difference between someone saying "ba" and "ga" — requires microsecond precision in the brain. And many kids raised in poverty, Kraus says, simply have a harder time doing it; individual sounds can seem "blurry" to the brain. (To hear an analogy of this, using an iconic Mister Rogers monologue — giving you some sense of what the brain of a child raised in poverty might hear — be sure to listen to the audio version of this story.)
Improving Your Ear For Music, And Speech
Learning to play an instrument appears to strengthen the brain's ability to capture the depth and richness of speech sounds. These heat maps of brainwaves show how much music lessons improved kids' neurophysiological distinction of consonants.
Working with Harmony Project, Kraus randomly assigned several dozen kids from the program's waitlist into two groups: those who would be studied after one year of music lessons and those who would be studied after two years.
And what she found was that in the two-year kids, the static didn't go away. But their brains got better — more precise — at processing sound. In short: less blur.
Why The Improvement?
It goes back to pitch, timing and timbre. Kraus argues that learning music improves the brain's ability to process all three, which helps kids pick up language, too. Consonants and vowels become clearer, and the brain can make sense of them more quickly.
That's also likely to make life easier at school, not just in music class but in math class, too — and everywhere else.
To be clear, the study has its limits. It was small — roughly 50 kids, ranging in age from 6 to 9. It wasn't conducted in a lab. And it's hard to know if kids doing some other activity could have experienced similar benefits.
But 10th-grader Monica Miranda doesn't need proof that playing violin has helped her. She's one of the first students in the door at a recent Harmony Project re-enrollment event in the auditorium of a nearby elementary school.
"I feel like music really connects with education," she says. "It helps you concentrate more."
Miranda is in her third year with Harmony Project.
"When I do my homework or I'm studying for something and I feel overwhelmed, I usually go to my violin, to start playing it," Miranda says. "I feel like it relaxes my mind. And coming here to play with an orchestra, it's just amazing. I love it."
And, the science says, her brain loves it, too.