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July/August 2016

Music education resounds in today’s educational realities
by Darcy Nendza

Darcy Nendza is a school board member for Community Consolidated School District 146 and executive director of the Illinois Music Education Association.

Music has been a part of human culture since the beginning. The oldest known instrument is a 40,000-year-old flute made of bone that was found in 2008 in a Stone Age cave in southern France. From that ancient instrument to today’s wealth of music saturation, the pull to listen and create music unites all cultures. This intrinsic value of music shows up in a classroom full of singing and dancing kindergartners, the thrill of a student’s first concert, or the word play of a song written by students.

With all of the issues facing today’s education reality, there is a growing call to define the purpose of public education. The call for students prepared for college, career, and life is loud and insistent. School boards make these defining decisions for their districts every day. Music’s connection to humanity brings with it a wealth of learning opportunities in today’s global economy. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning names creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication (the four Cs) as the learning and innovation skills necessary for success.

Everyday across Illinois, students in music education classes are growing and flexing their creative muscles. Middle school students are creating remixes on computers to submit to the Illinois Music Education Association’s (ILMEA) composition contest; teachers are working across disciplines to develop STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) projects; and jazz musicians are improvising solos during rehearsals and performances.

The federal government believes so strongly in integrating the arts into STEM that money has been set aside in the Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA) specifically for such projects.

Critical thinking is taught every day in music education. Student performers must constantly process how their instrument or voice is working in the context of the larger ensemble. Taught from the very beginning stages, decisions (such as how loud or soft to play; what each note should sound like; what vowel sounds to make; how to end a note, etc.) are made more and more rapidly as the musician matures. Even outside of the performance aspect of music education, recent studies in Neuroscience show, “Music engages the brain over a period of time … the process of listening to music could be a way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention.” This pinpoints the need for well-rounded music education programs that engage all students.

Working together toward a common goal is a requirement for today’s life and work. Collaboration comes naturally to music educators and students due to the social nature of the work – large and small ensembles practice to make their musical performance seamless; many students are cast in an annual musical theater production and depend on one another to get the production to opening night; new songs are created in groups. These and many other parts of music education continuously weave the narrative of collaboration.

The final “C” in the 21st Century Learning discussion is communication. Music education teaches communication at its most primal level. The 40,000-year-old flute mentioned earlier suggests that our oldest of human ancestors knew the power of musical communication. This continues throughout today’s music education curricula.

Each November, more than 12,000 of the best elementary, junior, and senior high school students in Illinois gather at festivals all over the state to celebrate their love of music. The ILMEA’s District Festivals take place in 27 different locations, bringing together a wealth of knowledge, hard work, and inspiration. From performing in ensembles to composing electronic music, these events showcase the talent of the young people of Illinois in amazing ways. Without strong music education programs, these students would be missing vital ways to help grow their creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills.

Today’s school boards should be encouraged to continue their investment in music education, to bring more students this necessary learning.

Editor’s note: For more information about arts education in Illinois and the proposed Illinois Arts Learning Standards, read the May/June issue of the Journal here: To learn more about The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, visit

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