Music as a Platform for Integrated Learning

Integrated, interdisciplinary instruction is a teaching strategy that builds on the synergistic potential of combining knowledge of different disciplines as a catalyst for teaching across curriculums, yielding a clearer, broader, more thorough understanding of a discipline or disciplines. Through integrated study of various disciplines, students learn to apply information learned in one area to challenges in another area. Education leaders recognize that the ability to think broadly across disciplines is becoming an increasingly critical component of a quality 21st century education and are adjusting curriculums to reflect that reality.
Given these realities, rather than continuing to scale back or eliminate music educational  opportunities and offerings, educational and community leaders should seriously reconsider the role that music can play in meeting this critical educational need. Simply put, due to the fact that music is the universal language, it may well be the most powerful and effective educational tool to meet the challenge of providing students with quality integrated, interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

For example, according to a 2009 study by Chorus America, 81 percent of teachers believe choruses can help students make better connections between disciplines, as learning a new piece of music often involves an amalgamation of language, art, history, geography, math and more. (Chorus America, 2009, p. 15, 28)

Music can also deepen understanding of various subject matters. The study of the civil rights movement in the United States can be vividly enhanced by incorporating the songs used by demonstrators. Teaching students and having them actually perform a civil rights song such as “This Little Light of Mine” or “We Shall Overcome,” deepens students’ understanding of this era in American history. It brings the subject matter to life in a very vivid and participatory way.  

Another example is using songs and melodies to help teach reading. And yet another example is incorporating the music of a foreign culture into the study of that culture as a way to enhance understanding. Additionally, certain types of music instruction develop special reasoning and temporal reasoning skills, which are fundamental to understanding and using mathematical ideas and concepts. Finally, incorporating music into the broader curriculum through an integrated instructional approach can help create a school environment that is conducive to teacher and student success by fostering teacher innovation and a more positive and enjoyable professional culture.  

As explained on the website of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga’s Southeast Center for Education in the Arts, “Integrated arts lessons can be extremely rich and deeply layered learning experiences for students who experience them. Many teachers, parents, students and administrators believe that integrating the arts makes classrooms better learning environments. The arts provide a window to understanding the connections among all subject areas.” 

Or, as Charles Fowler explains in his 1996 book Strong Arts, Strong Schools: The Promising Potential and Shortsighted Disregard of the Arts in American Schooling. “When used well, the arts are the cement that joins all the disparate curricular areas together. The arts are valued for their interdisciplinary potential, and the result is a more cohesive curriculum in which students explore relationships among disciplines. Truth and understanding are recognized as a composite of perspectives, not just one partial and tentative view.” (p. 55)

As our schools face higher standards and expectations regarding the effectiveness with which they prepare children to succeed in the increasingly interrelated and complex global, knowledge-based economy and world community, the ability to think across disciplines, to incorporate sights, sounds, culture and information from various sources and disciplines into a cogent, broad-based body of knowledge is vitally important.   When it comes to integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum instruction, music’s potential to contribute in meaningful ways to the educational and academic mission of our schools is enormous and will continue to grow.  That being the case, educational and community leaders would be well served to consider music’s potential in this regard before scaling back music programs. 

Sergio Garcia, the Judgment of Others and Self-Actualization Golf

Sergio Garcia, the Judgment of Others and Self-Actualization Golf

The most fundamental rationale for participation in sports is that it teaches a wide array of character traits such as teamwork, persistence and personal responsibility. That it is the process of participation that results in benefits for the participant. But watching this year’s Masters and the narrative surrounding it brought home once again just how twisted the culture around sports has become when it is the end result (winning) that has become far more important than the process of education and learning life lessons through participation. 

Music brings people together in our shrinking world


Despite the current political climate where efforts to build walls, ban travel and separate different ethnic groups are increasing, an argument can be made that over time, the forces of globalization are simply too strong and, ultimately, will prevail.

The result is that the U.S. is no longer a virtual island, protected by two major oceans. We can no longer isolate ourselves from the problems, issues and opportunities of the rest of the world. We are part of a global economic and geopolitical system. In so many ways, we are becoming one world.

Rather than trying to build walls we must learn to effectively deal with that reality.

This begs the question: What must our educational institutions do to effectively educate and prepare our children to succeed in this changing global reality?

Increasingly, our schools are being asked to instill in our children not only an awareness and appreciation for changing global circumstances, but also to prepare them to successfully navigate the challenges presented by an increasingly multiethnic and multicultural global community. In other words, proficiency in reading, writing and math is no longer enough.

Today, a quality education must include an understanding of, appreciation for, and the ability to function in a multiethnic, multinational, interrelated world.

If we expect our children and our nation to thrive in the 21st century, our educational policies and programs must take into account these changing challenges and expectations. In particular, this includes priorities and policies relating to the role that music can play in the school curricula.

Music has always been viewed as a powerful tool in breaking barriers and promoting cross-cultural appreciation. That is why, for example, there is a long and strong history of the U.S. State Department using music as a vehicle to promote cultural understanding.

The number of cultural exchange programs that have music groups from countries all over the world travel to America and vice versa are too many to mention. Also consider the radio networks that broadcast American jazz, blues and rock ‘n’ roll to a worldwide audience. Teens are downloading music from around the world on their smartphones.

I was recently reminded of music’s potential in this regard by a fellow musician recounting a visit to Italy. He described two very unexpected highlights. As he and his family entered an open plaza in Rome, they heard, flowing out of a beautiful cathedral, the sound of a choral group in full-throated Latin. Upon further inquiry, they were surprised to discover the group consisted of high school students from all over the United States. They were rehearsing for a performance, one of several they were scheduled to give throughout Europe.

The second occurred at a cafe in Venice, where they noticed a play bill advertising an upcoming appearance by a choral group. Upon closer examination, they saw that the group was a high school chorus from a small town in rural Indiana. Imagine being a high school kid from a country town in middle-America singing in Florence, Italy. How cool is that!

Music is the universal language with an appeal that transcends language, cultural or religious boundaries. The notes played by a musician fall on the ears the same way whether you are American, Muslim, Jewish, African or Mexican. Engaging in musical activities with people of another culture or country can increase cultural understanding and tolerance. It is the ability to build bridges to other cultures and societies that makes music such a valuable educational and cultural tool.

In an increasingly integrated global economy and diverse world community, providing our children access to music education opportunities is critical. Rather than building walls, school and community leaders should be working to leverage the power of music as a universal language to break down barriers and build community.

In today’s world, harnessing music’s power in this regard is more important than ever.

Revisiting “Sports: The All-American Addiction”

In 2002, I published a book titled “Sports: The All-American Addition”. The basic premise was that organized sport in America had evolved to a point where it’s overall impact on our schools, universities and society has become more negative than positive. My analysis focused on five areas: sports’ impact on the values at the center of our civil society, on educational values and institutions, on individual and public health, on school budgets and the economic vitality of a city or region and the notion that sports is a powerful vehicle to promote upward mobility. 

I recently re-read the book and was struck by two things. 

First, my analysis, narratives and arguments have held up pretty well. For example, sports glorification of violence and win at all cost culture continues to coarsen fundamental tenets of our civil society and that the glorification of athletic accomplishment still too often comes at the expense of academic excellence and educational achievement. Further, organized sports’ impact on individual and public health is not as positive as many believe particularly when increasing amounts of money, energy and emotion is heaped upon the very few, elite athletes while everyone else is pushed to the sidelines to watch, in this one of the most obese nations on the planet. As for economics, it remains true that pro sports teams and municipally funded stadiums are not the “economic drivers” that they are often played up to be. Finally, while the on the field gains for minority athletes have certainly been significant, those same gains, for the most part, still have not materialized in the coaching staffs, front offices and board rooms of college and professional teams. 

While I was amused that “The All-American Addiction” has held up pretty well, it was somewhat disconcerting that many of the issues and concerns identified persist.  Could it be that we really haven’t made much progress in addressing these issues over the past 15 years? 

But then something quite stunning became apparent.  Throughout the entire book, the issue of the link between football and brain trauma was not mentioned. 

Not once!

I consider myself an astute observer of trends in athletics so I don’t think this was an omission. Rather, in 2002, the link between football and CTE, concussions and brain trauma was simply not on anyone’s radar screen.

It goes to show you just how much things can change in 15 years. 

The relatively recent findings regarding this link will be the most significant and influential development in the history of the game of football and its place in our educational system and society. And we’ve just scratched the surface regarding research efforts and dialogue regarding that impact. As a result, there seems to be a growing realization that the game, both from a physical and cultural sense, has got to change. And by many indications, we are beginning to do something about it from efforts to make the game safer to making it “okay” for a parent or a kid to be able to opt out of playing the game. These are all positive developments. 

So maybe we have made some progress. The question is whether we can continue on that path over the next fifteen years. 

While there is no telling what football’s impact and influence on American culture will be in 2030, if past is prologue, my guess is that it will be significantly different than it is today.


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March Madness for Anyone and Everyone

Each March, America is overcome by “madness”. Throughout the country, sports fans, both casual and hard-core, focus their attention on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In bars and bakeries, at the dinner table and over phone lines, people catch the madness. Office pools are organized and parties are thrown as television screens everywhere are tuned to "The Big Dance", as teams from Boise to Bloomington, Athens, Georgia to Athens, Ohio and New York to New Mexico compete for the national championship. Over three consecutive weekends, the original field of 68 teams is whittled down to one, crowned NCAA National Champion the Monday evening following Final Four Weekend.

Dubbed “March Madness” for the unpredictable nature of the contests as well as its’ catchy commercial ring, it is the perfect television event. Longer than the Super Bowl’s one day, one game extravaganza, shorter than the three month marathons that are the NBA and NHL playoffs, and more inclusive than the World Series, where only two cities are represented, it has captivated our nation’s televised sports consciousness as no other event.

Another reason it is so popular is because anyone and everyone, regardless of their interest in or knowledge of college basketball can participate in selecting tournament brackets as part of NCAA Tournament “pools” and contests. And the beauty of that is that it’s not always the “experts” who get it right. Here’s a perfect example. In the clip below, my niece, Joy Gerdy-Zogby reveals her method for being in the group of less than one percent who selected all four of the Final Four teams. This is funny stuff. Check it out!

Jazz as a Leadership Development Tool

What do Vince Lombardi, Tony Dungy, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis have in common? The answer is that to achieve the level of success they have all had to be great leaders.

Say what? Football coaches and jazz musicians are leaders of equal effectiveness and influence?

Absolutely. In fact, given that April is Jazz Appreciation Month, the following essay will make the case that jazz may be a more effective leadership development tool than football for the 21st Century.

A common cultural belief is that nothing instills in participants, character traits such as discipline, personal responsibility and leadership skills, than participation in team sports. The leadership skills that are taught and developed on the playing field, it is said, carry over to effective leadership off the field. The notion that team sports and, in particular, football builds leaders is a long-held and very powerful justification for our continued investment in them as an effective educational tool.

But the fact is, music also provides opportunities to exhibit and develop leadership skills. There is no difference between a team and a band in terms of the requirements for reaching the predetermined goals of winning (football) and achieving a particular sound (music). In short, any team (band) setting offers tremendous opportunities to develop leadership skills.

But the elements and characteristics required of good leaders are not static. Effective leadership requires recognition that worker attitudes, work environments and productivity expectations can change. That being the case, desirable and effective leadership skills and styles must also evolve. There was a time, for example, when the iron-fisted “my way or the highway” style of leadership was considered very effective. But times change, people change and entire industries can change. Employees now demand more respect and collaboration.  As a result, effective leaders can no longer simply demand performance; they must nurture a more collaborative work environment if they wish to maximize worker and company productivity. Employees today don’t want to feel like cogs in a machine. They want to be respected and have a part in the decision-making process. Smart and effective leaders understand that. Employees who are more invested in the decision-making process are more productive employees.

Frank Barrett, in his book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, elaborates:

We have grown up with a variety of models of organizations, most of which have relied to some degree on a mechanistic view of top-down approaches to change. Command-and-control models of leadership stress routines and rules. They demand rigorous and clear organizational structures reinforced by rules, plans, budgets PERT charts, schedules, clearly defined roles, and the use of coercion or intimidation to get worker compliance. These might have worked well in the first part of the twentieth century when organizations were designed like machines, tasks were broken down into small parts that could easily be replicated, and people could be replaced as easily as machine parts. But as we enter the knowledge-intensive demands of the twenty-first century, we need to rotate our images and increase our leadership repertoire beyond these hierarchical models, so that we can more fully appreciate the power of relationships.

This begs the question. Given this shift in desired leadership style to a more collaborative focus, how does the traditional leadership style of the football culture hold up versus the jazz influenced leadership style outlined by Barrett? Barrett continues:

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals, encouraging ongoing learning and innovation rather than compliance to preordained plans. Leaders don’t have the luxury of anticipating or predicting every situation, training and rehearsing for it, and getting learning out of the way before executing. Rather, leaders must master the art of learning while doing and spread this mastery throughout their systems. That’s why jazz bands are such provocative models for us to consider as we create teams and organizations in the twenty-first century.

How do organizations thrive in a drastically changing world predicated on uncertainty? By building a capacity to experiment , learn and innovate – in short, by engaging in strategic, engaged improvisation. The model of jazz musicians improvising collectively offers a clear and powerful example of how people and teams can coordinate, be productive, and create amazing innovations without so many of the control levers that managers relied on in the industrial age. An improvisation model of organizing created a kind of openness, an invitation to possibility, rather than leaning toward a narrowness of control. “  (Barrett, 2012, pp.xiv,xv.)

In short, both football and music teach leadership. But is it possible that while football’s style of teaching was better suited to the Industrial Age, the jazz-influenced model of leadership style may be more effective in the creative economy and workplace of the 21st Century?

Now that’s something to consider not only during Jazz Appreciation Month, but year-round.