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. 

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.

The Campaign for “Bandwork”: It’s Now Personal

Last year, I wrote that the word “bandwork” should be recognized as an “official” word and thus included in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The purpose behind my proposal relates to the issue of music advocacy as it applies to school funding of music programs. It’s important that we recognize and use bandwork as an “official” word because words and terms are vitally important in effective advocacy.
While effective music advocacy is critical, due to a recent occurrence, this issue has now become personal.

Why should we care whether bandwork becomes an “official” word?

For too long, it has been the athletic community, particularly the football community, that has driven and shaped the dialogue regarding which activities are most effective in instilling in participants, the ability to collaborate and work together as a group. The fact is, football in particular, and sports in general, are no more effective at instilling such characteristics as is participation in music activities.

I have been on five person basketball teams working together to achieve a common goal of winning a game. I have also been in a five person band working together to achieve an agreed upon sound. And in both cases, the lessons learned – discipline, communication, personal and shared responsibility, persistence and sacrifice – are identical. Yet, the music community has remained silent regarding the notion that sports are unique in its’ ability to teach such skills. By remaining silent, the music community has ceded that narrative to the sports “lobby”.  Thus, it’s not surprising that when discussions regarding an activity’s potential to teach valuable communication and collaboration skills occur, all of the attention is focused on team sports’ potential to do so, while music’s potential to do the very same things is largely ignored.

It’s time to tell the other side of the story. And that starts with terminology. Words and terms matter. It is time that music advocates begin to recognize, and, for lack of a better term, “brand” music in a way that more effectively describes its value as an educational tool. A good starting point would be to recognize, promote and actually begin using the term bandwork, which should be defined as “the cooperative effort by musicians to achieve an agreed upon sound.”

In short, at a time when competition for educational funding is becoming more intense, it is imperative for music education advocates to be more focused and strategic in promoting music’s ability to teach the types of skills necessary to succeed in the more collaborative workplace and culture of the future.

To date, my motivation to recognize and include “bandwork” in the dictionary has been exclusively about music advocacy.

That has changed. It’s now personal.  

I was recently engaged in a heated game of Scrabble. The score was close and the game was nearing its end with only a handful of letters in the common pile remaining. I needed a good word. Looking at the letters in my hand and then at the board, it appeared, plain as day. I had the letters to spell it – Bandwork. And, it was worth 18 points! Add ‘em up: B for 3, A for 1, N for 1, D for 2, W for 4, O for 1, R for 1 and K for 5. Not only that, but it would have qualified for a triple word value. That’s a whopping 54 points! I would have easily won that game.
But as anyone who has played Scrabble knows, if your word does not appear in the dictionary, you cannot use it. Go ahead and look it up. It’s not there. This, despite the fact that millions of people intrinsically understand what it means and have benefitted from exposure to it.

So now the “Campaign for Bandwork” is no longer simply about music advocacy.

It’s also about Scrabble. And now it’s personal.

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. 

Football vs. music: Which is better for students?


PUBLISHED IN PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER POSTED: Wednesday, February 4, 2015  View Online Article Here By John Gerdy


Given that education reform was the biggest issue in the recent campaign, Gov. Wolf has a mandate. The question is, will he have the vision and courage to use it?

School district fiscal realities often force program cuts. Thus, the new governor must call for an honest examination of the role football plays in our schools, and how that team sport compares with other extracurricular activities, especially music, in providing the most effective educational return on investment.

In an environment of declining resources, schools face growing pressure to meet increased standards and expectations. Thus, when program cuts are necessary, tough choices must be made. Traditionally, the choice is often between athletics and arts, with the latter often being the first to go.

But we can no longer sponsor activities based only on anecdotal evidence or tradition. Decisions of such magnitude must be driven by data and a thoughtful, thorough, and clear-eyed analysis.

America's economy has changed from one based on industrial might to one driven by technology, creativity, collaboration, and innovation. Every issue we face, whether related to health care, the environment, or geopolitics, is becoming more complex in this fast-paced and interconnected world. To succeed, we must push a corresponding increase in creativity among our students.

Fortunately, there is a growing amount of research on the impact of football and music on brain function, learning, and health.

In several areas, such as student engagement and teaching character, football and music provide similarly positive impacts. There is little difference between the sacrifices made, lessons learned, and effort required for a team to score a touchdown and what goes into working together to achieve a particular sound.

But the similarities end there.

When considering the broadest, most effective impact over the longest period of time, from an educational standpoint, music programs are far superior to football.

Music has the capacity to be a lifelong participatory activity (for most players, football ends after high school). Music is the universal language (football is uniquely American). Boys and girls can participate in music equally, and such programs have a far lower cost per student compared with football. Music offers great potential as a platform for international and interdisciplinary studies (essential for a modern-day education), and is effective in strengthening brain function (vs. the possibility of brain trauma). Finally, football's effectiveness as a learning tool is compromised as it becomes about winning rather than the process of education.

In short, music produces educational results that are much more in line than football with the challenges presented by a creative, information-based, global economy. Or, stated another way, should the role of our education system be to develop brains or to scramble them?

Does football have a place in our society? Yes. The question, however, is whether that place should continue to be within our educational system or in a private, club sport system.

Let's hope Wolf will take advantage of his education-reform mandate to raise this difficult but important issue. We should welcome the discussion and analysis that would ensue, even if some of the answers might be uncomfortable or inconvenient. If we approach the question honestly, the end result will be better schools serving our children and communities more effectively. Isn't that what we all want and what our nation needs?

John Gerdy (, of Conestoga, Pa., is the founder of Music For Everyone and the author of "Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment."


To Blog or Not To Blog


Getting Started: My first “Blog”

To “blog” or not to “blog”, that is the question.

Of course, that begs the question, “What exactly is blogging?” There are others who are better equipped to answer that, but from what I can tell, it’s just writing about various topics on a semi-regular basis. By that definition, I’ve been “blogging” since before the term “blogging” was coined. And before me, Benjamin Franklin was a blogger. As was Plato, Steinbeck, Hemingway and Dr. Suess.

In short, despite all of the attempts to cast blogging as something new, people have been doing it for centuries.

I’ve never really understood why we need another term or name for the act of someone writing things and publishing them in whatever medium is available and appropriate. Blogging? Writing? What’s the difference?

Regardless, thanks for joining me. I’ll write and post notes and articles on whatever moves me: education, athletics, music and maybe even reports on the exploits of that mysterious bluesman, Willie Marble.

I hope you enjoy them.

One subject that will receive a lot of attention on this site is community priorities relating to education, particularly in the area of athletics and the arts. This is the subject of my new book, “Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment.”

What follows is a brief description of why this issue is so important. Consider it a “teaser” for what will follow.

Educational Investment 101: Smart Decision Making

Recent research revelations regarding brain trauma associated with football have served as a clarion call for serious discussions regarding the role of football in our culture and our educational institutions. For those who have had ongoing concerns about football’s growing impact on academic values and educational mission, this increased attention is welcome. Regardless, a serious and honest discussion about the role of football in schools and communities is long overdue.

That said, it is imperative that we frame that discussion in a way that goes beyond the tired anecdotal arguments and justifications for these activities. At the core of the discussion is a very intentional and direct comparison between football and music as educational tools. The fact is, we can no longer shy away from such direct comparison. Every financial forecast suggests that funding for extracurricular activities is on a downward spiral. And history tells us that when difficult funding decisions must be made about which extracurricular activities should survive or be de-emphasized or eliminated, more often than not it is athletics and the arts that are placed on the budget-cutting table for discussion. When program cuts are necessary, priorities must be set and difficult choices made. Traditionally, the choice has been between elite athletics programs and programs in the arts, with the arts often being the first to be cut. And because these challenges and funding gaps will only increase, these decisions are only going to become more difficult.

If we want to maximize the ability of our schools to provide the best education for our children, we must make smart, informed decisions regarding educational priorities and spending. As difficult and gut-wrenching as those decisions will be, they will have to be made. Making smart decisions will require that we compare and contrast the effectiveness of our current investments in these extracurricular activities. To simply continue to make decisions as we have in the past is a disservice to our children. Evaluations of educational return on investment must be conducted, discussed and utilized in the decision-making process. We owe our children nothing less.

So my purpose in writing “Ball or Bands” was simple and clear: to present a thoughtful, thorough and clear-eyed analysis of the educational value of football versus music programs in providing our children an education worthy of the twenty-first century.

So there you have it. My first “blog”.  Or maybe it’s my first piece of “writing” on my personal website.


Carry on.