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If We Build It, They Will Come

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March is “Music in the Schools Month”.

While it is wonderful to promote the importance of music in our schools in this way, it is merely a first step in the effort to focus the public’s attention on how critical music is to our schools’ curriculums and in the lives of students.

Despite nice declarations like this, the question remains: Why do we continue to underfund or cut music programs when the research is so clear regarding their positive educational, community building and economic impact?

The broad-brush answer is,

“Because we haven’t chosen to build it.”

To fully leverage music’s power and potential to educate and change lives, schools and communities, it is not enough to simply talk about it. We must follow our words and platitudes with deeds and funding.

The fact is, if education and community leaders identified music and arts programs as being critically important to schools and communities and funded them accordingly, the public would follow. 

In short, if we build it, they will come.

The research regarding music and the arts’ positive educational and community building impact is clear. Yet, despite that research, too often education and community leaders have yet to fully embrace it. If you don’t accept, embrace and apply the “tools” (research, data and narratives) regarding music and the arts’ positive impacts, you can’t build anything.

That said, the arts community must become more organized and aggressive in holding education and community leaders accountable for their priorities and funding decisions. Building music and arts interest groups is tedious organizational work. And once developed, these groups must no longer shy away from challenging the status quo to drive real change.

The good news, however, is that that work has been made easier through the power of social media with its’ capacity to forge connections and bring people together for a common cause. That,, coupled with the fact that the data, research and narratives supporting the value of the music as an educational, community building and economic tool offers potent fodder for powerful advocacy efforts.

The first step is to move beyond the traditional “arts for art’s sake” narrative. Yes, the arts are uplifting. Yes, the arts are a window into a society’s soul. But in an environment of increasing educational expectations and declining resources, the “arts for art’s sake” argument is no longer good enough.

Further, arts advocacy is no longer simply about education and community building benefits. There is also a very significant economic impact associated with investment in music and the arts. While the common perception of “artsy types” is that they are not comfortable talking about the economics of school and community funding, the fact is, decision makers must be held accountable for not only considering the educational and community building research, but also the emerging data pointing to music and the arts’ economic impact. As arts advocates, we must all become “Creative Capitalists”, unafraid to engage in the down and dirty justifications of economic impact.

Such a shift in approach is necessary because in many cases, those who are in decision making positions do not fully understand and appreciate the importance of “arts for art’s” sake but understand very well matters relating to business, economics and the concept of return on investment.

The educational return on investment in music and arts programs is significant and growing. This is particularly relevant given that the currency of the future in this rapidly changing, global community and world economy will be creativity. The issues and challenges we face as a society are becoming more complex. To effectively address those increasingly complex issues and challenges, we must develop on our populace, a corresponding increase in creativity. Further, many of the jobs of the future don’t even exist yet. That is why the number one skill business leaders are looking for in their employees is out of the box, creative thinking and problem solving. The research confirms that the most effective tool in our educational and community arsenal to nurture creativity is music and the arts. The arts instill that characteristic as they not only allow but encourage students to “color outside the lines” without penalty.

The priorities education and community leaders establish and the funding decisions they make have great influence. If those leaders clearly articulate and then follow through with funding decisions that support those priorities, the public will follow. If music and the arts are viewed as critical and funded accordingly, the public will begin to consider them important as well and, as a result, will support their funding. We expect our leaders to lead. But they must have the courage, vision and conviction to go where the data and research regarding music and the arts’ educational, community building and economic impact takes them.

At the end of the day, if we decide to build it, they will come. 

Giving Youth Sports Back to the Kids

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It’s no secret there are significant problems in organized youth sports programs. Incidences of parents screaming at nine-year-old children over a missed basket or misplayed fly ball are commonplace. Youth league umpires and referees are regularly abused and even physically attacked. Brawls have erupted after youth league soccer matches. Obviously, something is wrong.

It’s the adults.

Youth sports programs are no longer about meeting the educational, developmental, health and recreational needs of children. They have become more about satisfying ego needs of adults. Adults have imposed their values and priorities regarding sports upon children’s games, from the organization of player drafts to the imposition of structure, organization and rules to a disproportionate emphasis on winning. Meanwhile children, more than anything, want to play sports, not to win, but to simply have fun and spend time with their friends. It is the adults who are destroying youth sports and it is time to give youth sports back to the kids.

But how will our children manage without adults supervising every aspect of their sports activities and experience?

Quite well, thank you.

Studies contrasting spontaneous youth play versus youth sport organized and run by adults indicate that children, if left to their own devices, will successfully organize, administer and manage their own games. They will choose sides and mediate disputes. They will set their own rules. In some cases, those rules may change from game to game. But they will be rules that work for them. Children will handicap their games to ensure that they are evenly matched, which makes them interesting and fun. Such organizational, mediation and interpersonal skills are valuable characteristics that children don’t truly get the opportunity to develop when adults dictate the rules and that they play the “adult”, supposedly “right” way.

A perfect example of the stark difference between “pick-up” kids’ games and adult run youth games is the common situation where there is one very superior athlete in a baseball game. In the adult organized game, the coach will have that child pitch.  The child proceeds to dominate the game, striking out most of the batters he or she faces, while the children playing in the field stand like statues, or, just as likely, pick dandelions in the outfield, waiting to field a ball that most likely won’t ever be hit, let alone hit to them.

By the end of the game, many players have never touched the ball. If left to their own devices, the children in the “pick-up” game will agree amongst themselves that the dominant player either not pitch or pitch with his or her opposite arm. In basketball, the dominant player may be allowed only a limited number of shots or may be required to shoot with his or her “off” hand.  

Children make adjustments in their games to ensure that the game will be interesting and fun, and thus, continue. Their purpose in getting together to play is to have fun. If the game is not fun, children will quit playing. And if enough quit, the game will end. That being the case, they must work to make the game interesting and fun so everyone will want to continue to play. Without adult enforced structure, dictates, rules and expectations, there is nothing holding the game together other than the kids wanting to play it.  In short, the game would cease to exist if it were not fun. You can’t blame them as “play” is supposed to be fun. In youth leagues organized by adults, the adult imposed goal of winning and dictating that the game be played the “right” way (as defined by adults) overshadows the goal of maximizing fun and participation.

Another significant difference between these two types of games is the way in which the outcome is treated. In adult organized games, the result of the contest is recorded as a win or a loss, regardless of the closeness of the game or the performances of the individuals involved. Further, standing are kept and trophies are awarded. In the pick-up game, while the result may be discussed on the walk home, it is usually considered insignificant and quickly forgotten as children focus more on the most exciting plays and the fun they had. Clearly, children have their priorities straight regarding sports as it is the process (participation, learning and having fun) rather than the end result (winning) that is most important.

How do we restructure youth sports programs to give the games back to the kids?

“De-organize” them.

In such a system, only a relatively small portion of the activities (say 25 – 30 percent) would be devoted to fundamental skill instruction. The remaining time should be turned over to the kids for them to play pick-up games…with no parental or adult involvement! Other than a safety official, adults should not be permitted to coach or instruct. And, if you want to take this concept to the next level, adults and parents wouldn’t even be allowed to watch. Get them out of the gym, field or facility. Let the kids play on their terms for themselves. The real joy of youth sports comes from playing with friends, far from the critiquing of adults.  The adults should just leave the kids alone. Let them pick their own teams, make their own rules and mediate their own disputes. The only rule they should abide by is that everyone plays.

In other words, to make the games “about the kids”, activities should resemble pick-up games. Provide a safe playing environment but let them manage their own games. As a result, they will have the space and opportunity to actually develop the personal skills – organizational, conflict resolution, leadership, personal responsibility, mediation and management – that we claim that sports participation teaches. While adults may cringe at denying their children their “expert” coaching talents, the fact is, children’s interpersonal, leadership and decision-making skills will develop more if they are left to manage their own games. Without adult supervision, the games will be closer, more interesting and most important, more fun for the kids. And don’t we adults always claim that youth sports are “about the kids”? Maybe it’s time to stop paying lip service to that concept and get the adults out of youth sports. Maybe it’s time to let the kids have their games back.

A Stage Name? Why Not Dance A Bit More?

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I gently kicked the vintage, boxy suitcase that was on the floor between me and a group of 15 second graders. The suitcase literally vibrated with all types of rattling, clanging and ringing sounds.

“You want to see what’s in there?”, I asked.

They erupted, “Yes!”

I opened the suitcase to reveal more than 20 percussion instruments of various sizes, makes, functions and models. In a frenzy, they began to reach for them.

“Woah! Wait a second”, I instructed. “If you want to play one of those, you have to do something first.”

“What?”, they asked in unison.

“You need to think up a stage name. This is a music class and one of the best things about playing music is that you can make up a new name for yourself. You can have your regular name and you can have your music name. I have one”, I revealed. “My real name is John. But when I play music, I’m Willie Marble. It’s cool to have a stage name. It’s lots of fun.”

One of the best things about teaching second graders is that they believe just about anything you tell them. And they are game to try just about anything.

Some may consider it a bit silly or foolish for a 60 year-old man to have a make believe name and persona. But there is a long history of musicians with stage names. Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. Howlin’ Wolf’s was Chester Burnett. And that’s simply a start. Jay Z’s real name is Shawn Carter, Stephanie Germanotta is Lady Gaga and Dana Owens’s stage name is Queen Latifah.

Not to be outdone, the names these kids came up with were priceless: Lion Slayer, Crazy Bone, Lightning Bolt, Jeffrey McMoe, Funky Nose, Princess Cotton Candy, Howlin’ Hound Dog and Ruby Jewels to name only a few. And stage names are for adults as well. The three background singers in my current band each has a stage name, Queen Victoria, Honey Bee and Jackie Thunder. Together they comprise the “World Famous Marblettes”.

Having a second name and identity allows a certain amount of freedom to step outside yourself. For performers, that can be an advantage. One of the most important characteristics of music and art is that it allows for the individual to “color outside the lines” without being unduly penalized or chastised. It allows you the extra space to stretch your imagination, vision and sense of self. A stage name and alternative persona allows you to be a bit silly, act a bit foolish and stretch and test the boundaries of creativity. That’s one of the reasons why music is the most effective tool in our educational arsenal to teach out-of-the-box, creative thinking.

And while that is all great and valuable, the fact is, it’s also just plain fun. And if you can’t have fun playing music, what’s the point? As Margaret Renkl recently wrote in the NY Times, “A person who is not afraid of looking like a fool gets to do a lot more dancing.”

Having a stage name and alternative identity can be lots of fun. Although, as a general rule, if you begin to assume four or five alter egos or identities, you might want to seek some professional help.

But one or two? Why not take the opportunity to dance a bit more?


Rethinking the Coach on That Pedestal

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Why do we so readily and cavalierly place sports coaches on pedestals?

Despite the seemingly non-stop accounts of coaches behaving badly, from the University of Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, who’s toxic culture surrounding the program contributed to the death of Jordan McNair, a 19-year old lineman, to the revelations that several college basketball coaches were involved with cash payments for recruits, to Urban Myer of Ohio State, apparently turning a blind eye to rumors of abusive behavior of his assistant coach, we continue to blindly place coaches on pedestals as models of virtue. The iconic image of coaches as leaders who become coaches because of their unyielding commitment to education and to molding young people into responsible adults, is as much a part of the American psyche as motherhood and apple pie.

In a recent essay in the Huffington Post, titled “Coaches are not Heroes,” Jessica Luther wrote,

“We must overcome our ingrained belief that being a coach is the same as being a good person.” It’s a simple but profound thought and something that we all should consider, particularly for coaches at the youth, high school and college levels.

To be fair, Luther offered other professions and positions that could also be placed in the same category such as doctors and Catholic priests. Clearly, the inclination to place people from certain professions on pedestals is not unique to coaches.

The point is not to attack coaches. The majority of coaches are good people who are committed to using sports as a tool to inspire, mold and educate young people. Rather, it is to examine ways in which we can better prepare our coaches to be more effective educators. This is a critical issue in our schools because the fundamental justification for coaches being apart of the academic community is that they are, first and foremost, educators. Further, despite the fact that coaches have such an enormous influence over and impact on young people, in far too many cases, the only requirement to becoming a coach is being able to place a whistle around your neck. That being the case, we need to take a closer look at ways to enhance the “coach and educator” model.

Consider this. There are no national standards regarding educational backgrounds or credentials for coaches. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national governing board of high school sports, less than half of high school coaches teach in a school.  Your child’s high school coach could just as likely be a used car salesman or a store manager than a teacher. This is disturbing as there is not much that is more critical than the preparation and credentials of those who teach our children.

That said, how do we strengthen the “coach as educator” model?

The first step is to discuss and clearly identify the expectations, responsibilities and desired behaviors of coaches. What is a coach? What credentials should a coach possess? How should a competent coach act? What are the responsibilities of coaches?

The first responsibility of a coach is to establish a healthy tone or environment within his or her program. Specifically, the relationship and emphasis on the proper balance and expectations between the academic, social and athletic components and responsibilities of the athlete must be paramount. They must be held more accountable for providing the necessary time, support and encouragement to allow their athletes to perform successfully in all matters personal and academic. Coaches have the leverage and power to influence athlete behavior both on and off the field as they control what every athlete wants most - playing time. As a result, coaches have the responsibility to set the tone of their programs to strike a balance between athletics and academics.  If coaches consider themselves, first and foremost, to be educators, we should expect nothing less.

Further, the issue of coaching credentials is critical. In the academic community, educational attainment is respected and carries great influence. Whether such an attitude is right or wrong is not the point. What is important is that athletic departments function within an educational entity. As such, there should be minimal academic degree standards, requirements and expectations of coaches. Coaches must be teachers who happen to coach rather than simply someone who places a whistle around their neck and expects to be called “coach”. The title of coach must be earned. In the education world, academic background and credentials matter, even for coaches.

Once coaches are hired, they must be provided meaningful opportunities to refine their teaching skills and to develop more fully as educators. Many professions, including the medical and legal fields require in-service training on a regular basis.

Finally, if we are to restore the “coach as educator” model, we must rethink the criteria upon which coaches are evaluated. Any effort to change the behavior of coaches will be fruitless unless the criteria upon which they are evaluated are altered. Coaches must be evaluated on things other than pure wins and losses. For example, on the college level, where a football coach has been expected to maintain a 10 – 1 record and receive a major post-season bowl bid every year, may have to adjust those expectations to accept a 9-2 or 8-1 record, particularly if the coach runs a clean program that produces quality, well-rounded young men who graduate, are positive role models, and contribute to society after their playing days are over. Coaches should not be forced to decide whether they can afford to take the time to build a program the right way. If pressured to win at all cost, coaches will take short cuts, whether relating to the academic culture of the program or the ethical responsibilities to play by the rules.  

If we expect coaches to be positive educational role models and conduct their programs with integrity and a focus on education, we must create an environment where such behavior is encouraged, valued and rewarded. Academic achievement, whether it be a coach’s academic credentials, his or her professional development, or improved graduation rates of athletes, must be rewarded. Only until we make a concerted, long-term effort to create an environment that nurtures a coach’s commitment to educational responsibility and integrity will the “coach as educator” model be restored.