Building Lifelong Communities Both Large and Small Through Music

One of the most important and powerful benefits of music is its capacity to build communities, both large and small, that can last a lifetime. I was recently reminded of that capacity by a television commercial. The opening scene shows four middle-aged men, instrument cases in hand, greeting each other. After a cutaway to a black-and-white photo of what is obviously the same four men playing music together as young adults, the final scene shows them playing together again, forty years later.

Music’s potential to build community, not only through attendance at a music event, but, more important, by providing opportunities for actual participation, is something that cannot be undervalued or overestimated. Music’s powerful influence in this regard is largely due to the fact that you can participate in music for your entire life. That is why it is so important that we offer broad access to music education in our schools from an early age throughout high school.

The most common way to reap the benefits of music’s community building potential is through continued participation in bands or jam sessions. There are all types of bands with all kinds of sponsoring agencies. Whether a community band, a group of friends forming a rock or jazz band, or simply a loosely coordinated, regular drum circle, there are plenty of opportunities to become an active, participatory member of a music community, regardless of your age or ability. In fact, it is widely accepted that being connected to others and part of a community becomes more important as we age.

And it is not simply small bands or groups of friends that can define a “music inspired community. There can be all types and sizes of music communities.

I have had the great fortune to witness music’s continuing capacity to build community through my work with Music For Everyone. One of MFE’s key mission components is to cultivate the power of music as a community-building tool.  Two of MFE’s programs provide great examples of music’s ongoing community-building potential.

The MFE Community Chorus is a choral group that gets together one night a week to sing. The group is open to anyone, regardless of age or ability. Average attendance at the weekly gatherings is between fifty and seventy, with over a hundred members in total. The chorus is a vibrant community in and of itself. It brings together a very diverse group of people who have bonded in ways that go beyond music. Friendships have blossomed. Members emphasize how much they enjoy the group and how much it means to be a part of it. And the group has developed its skill to the point where it has public gigs that draw crowds in the hundreds.

MFE’s Keys for the City program, in which between ten and twenty artistically designed and painted pianos are placed throughout the city of Lancaster each summer, is another powerful example of music’s ongoing ability to build community. Whether you are a virtuoso or a beginner, whether you play Chopin or “chopsticks,” you have access to these pianos. Everyone who has played one of these pianos or heard one being played while walking through downtown Lancaster is connected. Literally tens of thousands of magical musical moments occur around those pianos each summer with people of all ages, races, and beliefs coming together to share the community building power of music. They all share this common civic and very public experience.

A major part of that shared public experience is the extraordinary way the citizens of Lancaster have embraced the program and care for these pianos.  The first season, there were serious doubts the pianos would last a week on the streets before being vandalized and destroyed. But Lancastrians proved the naysayers wrong. That first year, after 20 pianos were on the streets available 24/7 for four months, there was one incident of vandalism. This very public display of caring and responsibility has resonated throughout the community. It has instilled a sense of civic pride in the decency and integrity of the citizens of the Lancaster community. Keys for the City has had a profound impact on Lancaster’s vibrant arts scene by providing a random gift of music, uncountable times throughout the city all summer long. This is a real-life testament to music’s tremendous ability to contribute to a sense of community in profound and ongoing ways.

Further, because music is the universal language, its potential community-building impact is not only local but global.  There are all types of musical groups that bring together young adults for tours of foreign countries, which enables them to learn about and appreciate different cultures as a way of demonstrating that we are all part of a world community.  In an age that demands the crossing of cultural and national divides, a universal language has great value.  

Meanwhile, the number of ways in which music can be utilized to build community through such venues as concerts, benefit shows, tours, street events and exhibits, is essentially limitless.

But what do these and other community music programs have to do with educational funding priorities of our high schools?

A primary purpose of our educational system is to encourage and inspire a commitment to and love of life long learning. But that is simply the beginning. We must also provide students with the experiences on which to base this commitment, as well as the resources necessary to build a foundation to be an active life-long learner. Education continues after your school years are over. An investment in quality, broad-based and accessible music opportunities and programs can foster an interest in, and life-long love of, music and, as a result, a lifelong continuation of the benefits and lessons learned through such participation. 

Youth Sport Specialization: A Terrible Idea

University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh raised some eyebrows recently when he recommended that football players not concentrate on football year-round but rather to play soccer for a portion of the year.

Every parent of every athlete in America should think about his suggestion.

One of the more troubling and counter-productive developments in youth sport over the past 20 years is the increasing pressure being placed on young athletes to specialize in a sport. The logic behind this notion is that the younger an athlete specializes in a sport the greater the chance of that athlete achieving success in that sport at the high school or college level.

That is ludicrous. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

All evidence points to the fact there is little correlation between early specialization and later athletic success.  Yet, all too often, young athletes are being pressured, mostly from coaches, to pick a sport (usually, the sport that particular coach coaches) to concentrate on, the earlier the better.

“If you want to start next year or if you want to have a chance at a college scholarship,” urges the coach, “you need to spend all of your time, effort and energy on one sport. If you are not dedicated to and practicing that sport, someone else is. And when the two of you meet, he or she will prevail.”

Parents, many of whom may not have a lot of experience with athletics or have visions of future athletic scholarships and stardom for their child, all too often defer to the wishes of the coach. But parents and their young athletes would be well served to consider several factors before committing to specializing at an early age.

First, is the physical toll. According to Dr. James Andrews, one of the nation’s most respected orthopedic doctors specializing in sports related injuries, the number of “repetitive/overuse injuries” sustained by single sport athletes is rising at an alarming rate. The fact is, our body parts wear out with overuse. When you choose to specialize in one sport, the wear and tear of the specific muscle, ligament and skeletal groups is intense and unending. Different sports require the concentrated use of different sets of body parts. Participating in several sports develops a well-balanced body and well-rounded athlete. When the time finally comes to specialize in a sport, a well-balanced and developed body provides more potential for long-term development and improvement.

And then there is the “burn-out” factor. While specialization may lead to some immediate improvement, over the long haul, it increases the likelihood of the athlete experiencing “burn out”. Simply put, when you pour all of your time, effort and emotion into any activity 365 days a year, year after year, it’s only natural that the chance of becoming tired, bored or simply “used up” increases dramatically. Specializing in a sport at a young age in the hopes that athletic success will be achieved years down the road may actually decrease the likelihood of long term success because it increase the chance that repetitive/overuse injuries will take their toll or that the athlete will simply burn out on the sport and discontinue participating.

If the potential negative effects regarding injury and burn out are not enough for parents and young athletes to reconsider specialization, a compelling case can be made that playing another, secondary sport will actually improve the athlete’s skills, competitive instincts and mental capacity when the athlete re-engages in his or her primary sport. Playing sports are playing sports. Regardless of the sport, many of the same principles and attitudes apply. It doesn’t matter what team sport you play as long as you are playing a team sport you are learning teamwork skills that apply to all sports. As long as you are competing, regardless of which sport, you are developing competitive instincts and skills that apply to sports across the board. 

Further, it can improve understanding of team dynamics when the athlete experiences being a major contributor in one sport but is more of a support player in a second sport. For example, being a “star” of a team requires certain leadership responsibilities and skills. The star in one sport will be better able to understand, motivate and lead less talented teammates if that star participates in a different sport where he or she was not the star.

Finally, it is imperative to understand and consider the motivation of coaches who push athletes to specialize in their sport. As the son of a high school football coach, I fully respect the time and effort that goes into coaching. And, for the most part, coaches have the best interests of their athletes at heart. But far too often coaches pressure athletes to specialize in the sport they coach more for their own ego and to ultimately win games rather than considering the long-term best interest of the athlete. Having their athletes concentrate on their sport is clearly in the short-term best interest of the coach and his or her team but it is hardly in the long-term best interest of the athlete.

In short, Jim Harbaugh is exactly right on the issue of sport specialization at an early age. We’d all be well served to heed his advice. 

Brain on Football vs. Brain on Music

Picture this. A magnified image of a cross section of the human brain. The image shows hundreds of tiny brownish bits. These bits are toxic proteins, called tau, that form after brain trauma.  Tau can inhibit cellular functions in the brain, leading to depression, dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

Now, picture this. Another magnified image. This one shows activities associated with vibrant cellular connections. The brain is seemingly swarming with activity, actually brightening the image.

The first image is of the brain of a former football player. The formation of the tau is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of repeated hits to the head. These violent hits, in effect, shake or “scramble” the brain, flooding it with chemicals that deaden cellular receptors and tear neural connections linked to learning and memory. In short, the connections necessary for optimal brain function and development are being shaken loose. 

The second image is of the brain while a person is playing music. Brain function is about connections between cells and neurons. Healthy brains have strong, clear and vibrant connections. Research tells us that playing music triggers activity in cells and neurons in the brain that are linked to concentration, memory and creativity, thus refining the development of the brain and the entire neurological system.  Further, playing music not only strengthens these connections but creates new connections, thus widening the brain’s neural network. That activity virtually bursts through the second image.

There has been an increasing amount of discussion regarding how football programs, from the NFL to Pop Warner football, are attempting to manage “concussion risk.”  Without question, the revelations of the serious consequences to brain health and function that result from the repeated hits to the head sustained in football have taken the debate regarding the role of football in our culture to a new level. While most of the debate has centered on the NFL’s efforts to mitigate those negative effects, the significance of the issue as it applies to our nation’s educational system, particularly our high schools and junior high schools, is far more consequential. Specifically, we now have to give serious consideration to the question of whether the potential human costs to children’s and young adults’ health have become too great for an educational institution to assume.

Certainly, there have always been physical costs to participants. Football is a violent game. But we are not talking about sprained ankles and broken bones. Sprained ankles and broken bones eventually heal. We are talking about young people’s brains. Brains don’t always heal.
Football, at its core, is a tremendously violent game. Even if it is made “safer” with increased monitoring and improved tackling technique (an outcome that is not assured as, to date, there is little empirical evidence that such change in techniques will actually reduce the rate or severity of concussions), the risk remains extremely high. Say football starts out at 9 on a risk scale of 1 to 10 and, over a long period of time and with great effort, safety is improved such that the risk factor is lowered to 7. Is that nearly enough?

This is a dialogue that is long overdue, the brain trauma issue notwithstanding. Concern regarding football’s impact on academic values and the ability of schools to meet their educational mission has been growing steadily over the past several decades.

With a growing body of research confirming that participating in music actually energizes and strengthens the brain and brain function, while involvement in football can damage brain function, what are education and community leaders to do?

In the end, this is about community values as reflected through our educational institutions. Should we be investing so much time, energy, emotion and money in a violent sport that destroys brain cells? Or, does it make more sense, not only from an educational but a public health standpoint, to invest in music, which strengthens and develops brain cells and enhances brain function? Is our collective, community goal to develop brains or “scramble” them?

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, a good place to start that conversation would be to observe scans of the brain on football versus the brain on music.

Participation Trophies for All and the Ruination of Our Youth? Chill Out!

We’ve all witnessed those youth sport ceremonies where every participant receives a trophy. While most consider them to be a fairly harmless way to offer a child some encouragement and provide a sense of accomplishment, there are a considerable number of critics who deride the practice. They argue that recognizing children for mere participation encourages mediocrity and does little to promote excellence. According to the most fervent of those critics, such practices are leading to the creation of a generation of entitled, lazy children.

We all like to consider ourselves “competitors” and “winners”. As adults, we have a propensity to look down our noses at how “easy” younger generations have it. “These kids are so spoiled”, we claim while reminiscing about our hardscrabble lives and sports experiences.  That “I’m a winner” narrative parallels the narrative of American “exceptionalism”. And the notion that sports is a vehicle to instill the drive for excellence in participants by emphasizing and rewarding winning above all else is an extension of that narrative.

But the issue of recognizing young athletes for participation is far more nuanced.

As a lifelong participant and intense observer of the role and influence of sport in our culture, it has become clear to me that the relative value and emphasis on the importance of winning does, and should, vary depending upon the level of play. Yes, winning is important but it is a fluid concept, one that ebbs and flows throughout an athlete’s life. The purpose and value of participation in sports is influenced by the push and pull of two seemingly incongruent forces and concepts. This tension is best described as the process (education and personal development) versus the end result (winning).

Youth sports, particularly at the pee-wee level, should be about participation and having fun. Winning at that level is meaningless. The purpose of youth sport is to create a child-centered focus and environment where the kids get exercise, acquire some skills and above all, have fun. The goal should be to make it as enjoyable and accessible as possible so that when the season ends, the child will have had a positive and nurturing enough experience to want to play the sport again in the future. And if receiving a participation trophy or certificate at the end of the season helps contribute to that goal, then provide one. The fact is, receiving such recognition at age 5, 6, 7, or 8 is not going to warp their personalities for a lifetime.

If we truly believe in sports’ value as an educational and character building activity – one that teaches lessons in discipline, teamwork and, yes, the importance of striving for excellence and winning – we must acknowledge that the only way an athlete will be able to eventually learn these skills and character traits will be by continuing to play the sport on an ongoing basis. That being the case, why make pee-wee league sports about winning rather than participation and having fun? The idea at the pee-wee league is to engage them with the sport and begin to nurture in them a love of that sport in a way that lasts a lifetime. And if providing a kid with a participation trophy contributes to that child wanting to continue to play the sport in the future, so be it.

Without question organized sport can be a valuable tool to teach the importance of striving for excellence through hard work and dedication. But clearly, when around 70 % of kids quit sports by age thirteen (National Alliance for Youth Sports), with a major reason being that they are no longer having fun, serious consideration must be given to the relationship between emphasis on winning and making pee-wee sports about participation and fun. If we want to instill in kids the importance of developing a drive and desire to win it should be emphasized at an age appropriate time.

In short, what’s the hurry to replace, at such an early age, the joy and innocence of a child participating for the mere fun of participating with the adult driven concept of winning being the central purpose of sport? As an athlete rises through the system to the junior high and high school levels, there will be plenty of time to increase the emphasis on, and rewarding of, winning. But if we destroy their love of sport by over emphasizing the importance of winning versus participating and having fun to a point where they quit by age 13, there is no chance of ever instilling in them the lessons related to striving to win because they will no longer be on the fields and courts to learn them.

That said however, winning, even at the high school level, should never overshadow the purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution. Even with an increased emphasis on winning the fundamental purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution remains, education. It is the “educational value” of participation in sports that is the primary justification for it being sponsored by an educational institution. So yes, increased emphasis on winning is more appropriate at the high school level provided the importance of the end result (winning) does not overshadow the value of the process (education).

As the athlete moves to the college level, the pressure to win becomes greater. Again, while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, at it’s core, the athletic experience, even at the college level, must be first and foremost about education. Even at this next level of competition, the fact that it continues to be justified based on its educational benefits for participants requires that the balance between the emphasis being placed on winning versus using athletics as a tool to educate and instill positive character traits in participants remains balanced and in the proper perspective.

Once the athlete reaches the professional level, all bets are off. As a professional athlete, everyone knows the score. Pro sports are a business. And the business is winning and generating money.

I spent two years as the youth program director at a YMCA where I was responsible for running several youth sports leagues. One of the more amusing experiences relating to those leagues was regularly being asked by youngsters immediately after a game ended, “Who won?” 
Generally, I’d reply, “I don’t know.” Invariably, they’d consider that for a moment, shrug their shoulders and respond “Okay”. More often than not, they’d then turn to their parents to ask where they were going for ice cream. At such a young age, kids really don’t care about winning as long as they are having fun playing the game. And that is just fine because pee-wee sports are not about us adults and our values. They are about the kids and their wants and needs. 

While it might sound trite to some, the fact is, there is a lot of truth and wisdom in the age-old sports saying, “It is not whether you win or lose, but how (and whether) you play the game.” So for those who think the world is coming to an end because we are awarding pee-wee league athletes participation trophies, it’s time to chill out and appreciate the fact that when it comes to pee-wee sports, the kids just want to play and have fun. While providing some sort of recognition of their participation is certainly not necessary, it clearly won’t result in the end of Western civilization as we know it.

In Search of the Shared Music or Athletic Experience

Our band recently performed a gig during which I sweated as much as in any basketball game.  It was the end of one of those early spring days when an unseasonable warm front moves through and the temperature explodes to summer-like levels. It was still too early in the season for restaurants and bars to turn on their air conditioning as the forecast for the following days was expected to return to cooler, more seasonable temperatures. But hot is hot, particularly under the added intensity of stage lights.

Perhaps it was because my rehydration concoction of choice for a gig is bourbon rather than Gatorade. To my knowledge, there are no peer-reviewed studies documenting that the intake of bourbon results in a greater perspiration output than does Gatorade.  Regardless of the science, I was drenched.

It was clear to the band, through our exchanged looks, nods, laughs and congratulatory bonding, that we had played a memorable gig. Everyone played hard and played well. It was one of those nights where it all clicked. The music was tight, the sound clear and rich, the audience connected.

There are not many experiences as powerful, inspiring and just plain fun than being a part of a band and a musical performance that is really cookin’. When all cylinders are hitting in unison the result is in an intense connective, shared experience with not only your fellow musicians but also the audience. That is why more than a few musicians have been known to debate whether such musical moments are better than sex. The point of this essay however, is not to compare making music to sex. That would likely require a book length analysis. That noted, its purpose is to explore the similarities of the shared experience of playing music with that of playing basketball.

There are so many parallels between athletics and music. Both involve performance, require rhythm, develop similar teambuilding and character skills as well as physical activity. Yes, the physicality of music performance may not be as intense as basketball at age 25 or 40, but for an old blues musician, a performance on a sweltering stage can be plenty physical.

I have had a life long love affair with basketball. Even after my competitive playing days were long past, I continued to play a regular game of pick-up basketball in places such as Athens, Ohio, New York City, Kansas City, Birmingham Alabama and Lancaster, PA, among others. In the top five on every “Moving to a New City – To Do List”, was “Find a Noon Hoop Game ASAP”, usually the second action item on that list following “Find a Place to Live.”

What was the hunger that drove that obsession? Was it the need to continue to play the game after competing at a high level, including professionally? Clearly, it was not fame. Pick-up hoop results are never carried in the local newspaper or highlighted on ESPN. Certainly, a major driver was the fitness benefits and a certain amount was to feed the competitive instinct.

For many athletes, the loss of a highly competitive outlet is difficult to replace. This is not to say that you should just give up and not try to find outlets to feed your competitive fire. Competition can be good for the soul. The challenge is to wean yourself off of the relentless need to always win, even in a pick-up or recreation league game.

But it’s not simply about feeding the competitive instinct. Fortunately, the need to compete fiercely and always win begins to fade with not only the perspective, but also the physical decline resulting from aging. As I’ve aged, I’ve found that the relentless drive to win has become increasingly replaced by the quest for sports’ potential to offer an intense, shared, personal experience with others. There is a greater appreciation of those elusive, shared moments when it all “clicks” and the entire unit comes together as one in a shared experience, fulfilling to the highest degree possible your potential as a unit.

Yes, competing and winning is important. But at certain points in an athlete’s career, the mere process of playing the game and the power that results from an intense, shared experience with a group of players is more important.

During those moments when your unit is operating as one communication occurs on a different level. Suddenly, the end result becomes less important and satisfying than achieving what athletic or musical expression is, at its core, all about – human connection.  The beauty and satisfaction of playing the game is in the quest to fulfill your full potential as a unit. When that occurs, whether in a 20,000-seat arena, an empty gym or a tiny stage in a basement bar, the feeling is magical. It is pure bliss.  That is why you play. And when you achieve it, even if for only a moment or two, whether as a team or a band, you have “won”. The terms and rewards of “victory” are determined by no one other than the players or musicians who are on the stage or in the arena.

When it all “clicks”, there’s no need for verification, permanent record. Or trophy. It’s the intense, shared moment that carries on and is remembered, even if no one else but the players or musicians remember it. Yes, it’s a bit more special if the audience is locked in and fully engaged and along for the ride. But that’s a bonus. Even in an empty room or barn, the beauty of the activity rests in the intense, shared experience.

Whether as an athlete or a musician, you know it to be true for you have experienced it.

Bo Knows Head Trauma

In 1989, NIKE started an ad campaign for cross training footwear featuring Bo Jackson, a former Heisman Trophy winner and the only man to be an All-Star in baseball and All-Pro in football. The ad featured stars in various sports proclaiming that “Bo knows” whichever sport, whether baseball, football, hockey or golf, was featured in the ad.

Apparently, Bo also knows about the association between participation in tackle football and brain trauma. And given that football season is, once again, upon us, it might be prudent to consider what Bo knows.

Jackson created a stir recently when he admitted during a USA Today interview that if he had known what he does today back then, “I would have never played football. Never. I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. “

He also said, “there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play.”

While the football industrial complex’s public relations machine is running full throttle in its effort to convince parents that advancements in equipment, diagnosis, testing, protocol and tackling techniques have made the game safe, the cold, hard truth is that these claims are being made with little concrete, scientific evidence to back them up. Even on the most basic of issues, there is widespread disagreement, an example being how long a victim of a concussion should be held out of action. Is it a week? Two weeks? A month? A season? We simply do not know.

Further, all of the attention being placed on concussions is somewhat misguided. The larger issue is the brain damage sustained by repeated sub-concussive blows to the head. Sub-concussive blows clearly rattle the brain, thus causing cumulative trauma and damage, but not to the extent where the negative impact is immediately and outwardly noticed.

It’s brain death by a million cuts. In other words, your child could be slowly, methodically damaging his brain without showing any immediate signs of doing so.

Until it is too late.

While we have little idea of the effectiveness of various treatments and safety measures, what is absolutely not in doubt is that playing tackle football is damaging to the brain. That is indisputable. The only question is the extent of the damage. And, based on accumulating evidence, the extent of damage is becoming much clearer.

Simply consider the most recent revelation from a study published this week in which 110 of 111 former NFL football players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. , the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. (Note: C.T.E. can only be determined after death).

So here’s the question: Why are so many people fighting so hard to deny the science and promote suspect and unproven safety improvements to continue to justify allowing children to play what is clearly a brutal sport that has been proven to cause brain damage? And how many more young people will sustain brain damage while we wait for the proof of this link to become irrefutable?

Ask Bo. He knows.