Power of Music

Building Walls vs. Building Bridges: Music’s Role


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

Whether it relates to the economy, the environment, religion or culture, the fact is, the world community is becoming increasingly interrelated and interdependent. Travel is faster, safer, more affordable and more accessible to the masses. A distance that once took a day to traverse is now only hours away. You can be in New York today and Tokyo the next.

Global communication is now instantaneous and accessible to almost everyone on the planet. From Memphis to Mumbai, Sheboygen to Shanghai, all it takes to access the global communications network is a modem and electricity. From the challenges associated with the spread of disease to the spread of terrorist ideology to the fact that our children are now competing against the children of India, China and Russia for the world’s best jobs. International and cultural boundaries are diminishing.

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.

In short, there is a big world out there and 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 these 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 multi-ethnic, multi-national, 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, including 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 understanding.   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 music programs involving countries from all over the globe are too many to mention. And, there is a long history of radio networks such as Voice of America broadcasting American jazz, blues and rock-n-roll to a worldwide audience.


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 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 café 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 music 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.

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. 

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. 

At the end of an arduous journey, a refugee family rejoices with music

LNP recently featured an article by Dr. John Gerdy, highlighting the power of music (and the role of music) in the journey of a refugee in Lancaster, PA.


Another refugee family arrives in Lancaster, a family of six: Asukulu, his wife, Nyassa, and their four children: Temsi , 11, Vumilia, 9, Ivon, 5, and Maria, 2. 

They fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and spent the last eight years in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Like other refugee families, they arrive here with few possessions. But after surviving a civil war and a long stretch in a camp, Asukulu came with his greatest possession of all: his family, fully intact....

 Read the entire article here.

Music as a Tool for Activism

Music as a Tool for Activism

Music is the universal language. 

That being the case it has long been used as a tool to expose social injustice and to spur community activism. From Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, the power of music and song as tool to protest injustice and spur change is enormous. Music provides a framework and platform through which to package and present an idea or point of view. As a result, music can serve to open up conversations and spur reflection and action relating to the issues of the day.