July 30, 2014

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Music education: is it worth the money?

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(Observer courtesy photo by Alan Kirkpatrick)

Elana Valastro, 18, of South Burlington, in concert.
(Observer courtesy photo by Alan Kirkpatrick)

By Ethan de Seife

Observer correspondent

Being the parent of a child who turns out to be a musical prodigy sounds pretty great. Who wouldn’t burst with pride at being the parent of the next Beethoven, Billie Holiday or Paul McCartney? But when it comes to placing an actual monetary value on music education, the notion quickly becomes more daunting: musical instruments are expensive, as are private lessons, and such expenses can quickly mount over the years it takes to become musically proficient. How are parents supposed to encourage their children’s musical creativity without breaking the bank?

There’s no getting around the fact that — depending on the instrument your child elects to play — musical instruction can be costly. But before you refuse your child’s request to play the bassoon, a little perspective is in order. Investing in musical education now can bring great richness and value to your child’s life – and to the lives of others – in the future.

Getting started

Even with the perennial cutbacks in education spending — arts education, in particular, seems always to be on the chopping block — most local elementary, middle, and high schools still offer classes in music instruction. The first step for any prospective Paganini is to acquire an instrument. To do so, there are three standard options. Some schools own the instruments that students play, and will often rent them for a modest sum which varies by type and popularity of the instrument. Musical instruments may also be rented from third-party businesses, with, again, prices that vary significantly depending on the instrument.

Should the school’s musical training inspire your child to take up musical performance, you may need to find an instrument to purchase. New student-grade instruments can be relatively inexpensive. A violin “starter kit” can be found online for under $50; a saxophone will cost at least a couple of hundred dollars; if you and your child are really prepared to commit to a musical future, you’ll spend a minimum of about $2,000 on a used upright piano. Websites such as eBay and craigslist, as well as various sites dedicated to this very purpose, can be a good place to find an instrument without shelling out a fortune. Check the “free” section on craiglist, which fairly regularly has listings for “if you can haul it, you can have it” pianos.

Besides necessary incidentals such as cases and replacement parts, the biggest expense, if your child is serious about music, is that of private lessons. The cost per session will vary depending on the instructor and the instrument. Consider also the time and money required to travel to the instructor’s studio. It is not unreasonable to budget for about $50 per session, with the understanding that such costs can escalate if your child proceeds to higher levels of proficiency.

Ultimately, the cost of the instrument and the cost of instruction are the chief expenses for anyone’s musical education, and they can rise in accordance with the student’s growing interest, or vanish entirely in accordance with the fickleness of youth. As the check-signer for such expenses, it is entirely fair for parents to ask what they are getting in return. And this is where the intangible value of music education must be calculated – no easy feat.

According to the nonprofit Music Empowers Foundation, a music education can produce valuable benefits both short- and long-term, both measurable and intangible. Some of the more measurable benefits include improved test scores and grades, particularly in math classes. The close relationship between music and math has been recognized for thousands of years, so it should come as no surprise that musical proficiency can produce a deeper mathematical understanding.

But it is not just math classes in which music students are more likely to excel. A 2006 study concluded that musically inclined students also showed demonstrably higher test scores in both math and English, and a study conducted in 2000 showed that a musical education corresponds fairly strongly with greater proficiency in vocabulary and reading. Higher grades can themselves be the ticket to a promising educational and/or professional future.

An education in music has other less tangible benefits, as well. Burlington musician and music educator Brian Perkins is passionate on the subject of the benefits of a musical education. “Culture and human effectiveness is based upon the ability to creatively interact with those around us,” he said. “We do this through politics, through literature and through musical culture. People who can express themselves musically and have the intellectual and physical skills to engage with others musically have one more way in which to understand and affect the world.”

For Perkins, who has been teaching music for more than 20 years, the chief benefit of a musical education is that of community and communication. Citing the folkloric tradition of protest songs in the U.S., Perkins said, “The skills of cooperation and collective action are amazing skills that we develop through music. The subtleties of supporting one another and giving space to one another, musically … are wonderful skills for people to develop.”

Shawn McElwain, associate director of admissions at Champlain College, reports that since Champlain does not offer a major in music, he does not see evidence of musical information on many applicants’ transcripts. McElwain, however, is himself a musician, and believes his own personal musical education has played a major role in making him who he is today. “Music gave me a sense of satisfaction, but it also made me very disciplined,” McElwain said. “Balancing music lessons and sports and outside work with school—it makes you have to learn time-management skills and discipline that you won’t necessarily get if you don’t have all those responsibilities.”

McElwain also participated in informal music-exchange programs, in which he and his band mates would host traveling musicians, and would in turn be hosted by them. “It was a cool way to meet students from all over the place,” he said.

The Voice

South Burlington resident Bill Reed, 68, has offered courses in voice instruction for more than 45 years. In New York City, he had — and has — long-standing affiliations with Lincoln Center and with the prestigious Circle in the Square Theatre School. At Bill Reed Voice Studio in South Burlington, he continues to educate young people in voice and musical theater.

His elite pedigree notwithstanding, Reed credits such popular media as the “High School Musical” films and the television show “Glee” with sparking a “huge wave of interest in musical theater.” This renewed interest, Reed said, is significant because it has created and/or strengthened a peer group for students interested in this form of musical expression. “It’s a big deal for these kids in terms of forming their personalities, their self-esteem, their friendships,” Reed said. “Thank God Chittenden County schools have been able to hang onto their music programs. They’re usually the first thing to go when you have budget problems.”

As far as the value of an education in music, Reed remarked, “You get what you pay for.”

Musical instruction is an unregulated business, he noted, observing that there are more licensing hurdles to surmount in becoming a manicurist than in becoming a music educator. Reed made the case that the attainment of an elite level of musicianship requires private coaching, just as elite athletes require one-on-one training outside of gym class and varsity teams. The costs, he feels, are worth it.

Elana Valastro, 18, of South Burlington, is currently studying theater, music and dance at Cornell University. She is one of Reed’s former pupils, having taken voice lessons with him for eight years, and praises his vocal expertise and knowledge of the entertainment business. For Valastro, “Music has been an important learning vehicle for concentration, listening and memorization, but it’s also an incredible outlet for creativity and a wonderful mode of expression. Music helps us learn how to open ourselves up to creative ideas and self-expression.”

Ultimately, the benefits of a musical education are difficult to measure — and, even if they are measurable, it is difficult to place a monetary value on them. Deciding whether a musical education is “worth the cost” is, like so many other choices, difficult to determine precisely, because it involves balancing long-term gains with short-term costs. But remember that part of the reason to encourage your child to play music has nothing to do with money, and that the sheer joy of making music has a value all its own. As Valastro put it, “Music brings people together and strengthens a community.”

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