Guns for Teachers? How About More Violins for Students?

Originally published in Lancaster Online on May 25th, 2018



As I walked home from the March for our Lives rally for gun control and school safety in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Binns Park, being one of millions of participants in the estimated 800 events worldwide, I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe…possibly…this time will be different.”
The typical reaction to school shootings has been a burst of public outrage, prayers for the victims and their families, calls for change, pushback from the NRA and then soon forgotten as the next big news story emerges.

But this feels different.

It is being lead by young people with their boundless energy, pure ideals and the fact that they know how to effectively leverage social media. And not only have they not been bought off by the NRA, many of the young leaders of the March for Our Lives movement have stared the realities of school gun violence right in the face as they have witnessed first hand, their classmates being gunned down in cold blood by weapons of war. Theirs is a generation where, since the Columbine massacre in 1999, 187,000 students have experienced a shooting on their campus (Timothy Egan, New York Times, March 31, 2018).

That’s a very powerful combination.

If this time is truly different, it’s about time. Kids don’t feel safe in their schools and the rest of us don’t feel safe in our communities.

And if this time is truly different, lawmakers and community leaders will begin to allocate resources to address not only gun control generally, but also school safety, which is the focus of this essay.

If this time is truly different, school boards and community leaders will face some very important decisions regarding how to efficiently and effectively allocate those resources to make our schools safer. And the fundamental challenge is how to strategically “harden” the outside perimeter of our schools?

To date, the dialogue surrounding this challenge has fallen into three categories.
First, arm teachers. This however, is not a credible solution as the vast majority of teachers oppose it. My sister has been a second grade teacher for 35 years. While I love her dearly, if I was the parent of one of her students’, I’d be terrified of arming her. The fact is, more guns in the classroom will result in more accidental firings and deaths.

Second, hiring, arming and training additional security guards. And, finally, “hardening” the school perimeter with more checkpoints, barriers, metal detectors, video cameras and additional safety features.

While it can be argued that the second and third measures can make schools “safer”, the larger question is whether they will make them “better”. There is no denying that a consequential byproduct of hardening school perimeters will be that their look, feel and operations will become significantly more “militarized”.

While the point is not to downplay the need to harden school perimeters, there is another part of an intelligent, strategic and sensible approach to this problem that should also be considered. What will be the impact of children being forced to learn in a more militarized environment? And what can be done to mitigate those impacts?

Effective learning is greatly impacted by the environment and school atmosphere within which teaching and learning take place. That environment must be welcoming, nurturing and joyous. Those are not terms typically associated with armed guards, checkpoints, barriers and video cameras. If we are going to “harden” our school perimeters, we have a responsibility to our children to make sure we correspondingly invest in things that will “soften” the inside of schools. We must strategically consider appropriate measures to counterbalance that increased militarization by making the learning environment within schools more nurturing and joyous.
Fortunately, we know the types of educational activities and programs that make school learning environments more welcoming, nurturing, joyous and therapeutic: music and the arts. Not only do children learn better, but teachers enjoy teaching more when surrounded by beauty, creativity and joy. Research tells us that music and the arts create a more nurturing, joyous and therapeutic learning environment.

Stated more directly, rather than placing a gun in the hands of my sister, why not place more instruments in the hands of her students?

If our schools are going to become increasingly “hardened” and “militarized” on the outside, it is important that once within that militarized perimeter, the halls and classrooms within the school are joyous places where the thoughts of fear of violence or school shootings are relegated to the back of students’ minds. In such a “locked down” environment, the arts, more than any other educational tool at our disposal, can do that.

A result of these marches will likely be that lawmakers and school leaders will find money to add security personnel and safety measures that will result in a more “militaristic, locked down” school environment. At the same time, history tells us that they won’t hesitate, if money needs to be found in existing budgets to fund new programs or when programs need to be reduced or cut in a budget crunch, funding for activities such as music, theater and the arts often suffer.

Even without taking into account the need for additional security, it is educationally sound to invest in the arts as they are essential to providing an education worthy of the 21st Century.
Due to their universal nature and clear educational benefits, music and the arts are not simply an extra-curricular or co-curricular activity but can, if used strategically and effectively serve as the “glue” that holds together the entire core curriculum. For example, music is math. Music is reading. Music is language. And music is logic. As a result, music in some form can be incorporated into virtually any subject matter or academic curriculum to enhance learning and understanding thus leading to powerful learning opportunities across disciplines.

Additionally, we must instill in students the ability to navigate our increasingly multicultural, complex and integrated world. Music, as the universal language, clearly has the capacity to reach across cultural boundaries like no other activity. Another subject that must be considered a core aspect of a 21st century education is creativity. The ability to think outside the box to address increasingly complex issues and challenges and to make new and different connections that lead to exciting discoveries and knowledge will be one of, if not the most important characteristic that students must possess to be successful in a globalized world. Music is our most effective educational tool to encourage and develop creativity. Music and the arts are also therapeutic, providing young people who feel alienated, isolated and confused within the traditional educational setting opportunities to “find themselves”. The arts offer activities and a community that makes them feel they belong as opposed to feeling like an outcast. One of the most valuable characteristics of the arts is that they are inclusive, forgiving and nurturing. It’s a place of belonging. There is tremendous value in that. I‘m no social scientist, but my guess is that many of the school shooters feel they are ostracized and outcasts.

Enhancing school safety in an age of easy access to deadly firearms in a pervasive gun culture is a complicated issue. Simply increasing investment in music and the arts in our schools will certainly not solve the problem. That said, neither will a collective knee-jerk reaction to simply further militarize schools.

If this time is truly different, significant resources to enhance school safety will very likely be coming down the pike. That being the case, it is critical that school and community leaders allocate those resources wisely. Rather than simply adding more armed guards, check points and metal detectors and then wiping our hands clean and stating our mission of making our schools “safer” accomplished, we must think outside the box to make our schools not simply safer, but better.

Do Pianos Have Souls? Revised & Updated 2.0

I’d never given any thought to whether pianos, like humans, are living, breathing beings with souls. That changed the morning I stopped by the Music For Everyone Keys for the City piano located in front of Lancaster’s Main Public Library early one May morning in 2010.

Since 2010 MFE has been placing anywhere from 12 to 20 pianos, all designed and painted by local artists, on the streets of Lancaster. These pianos are accessible to the public 24/7 from mid-May through the end of September, making Lancaster the “Street Piano Capital of the World”. The objective of Keys for the City is to provide access to musical opportunity, foster creativity and build a sense of community among the public and, in the process, raise awareness for local music education initiatives.

As Keys enters it’s eighth year, I can’t help but remember that morning in 2010 when I was taught that, yes, indeed, pianos are living, breathing beings with souls.

It had rained the previous night, which presented an early challenge in what we were hoping would be a highly visible, four month public arts project. When we announced that we were going to place 20 pianos throughout town, available for everyone to play 24/7 for four months, everyone told us we were crazy. They told us that those pianos wouldn’t last a week before they would be vandalized. But we believed in Lancaster’s “better angels” and that our citizens were responsible and caring with enough civic pride that they would take care of these works of musical art. Maybe we were crazy, but to us it was not only a public art project, but a social experiment to test the power of music as a tool to bring people together.

We were also told that being exposed to the weather would quickly render them out of tune. We were willing to accept that possibility as this was not about the stage at Carnegie Hall but rather the streets of Lancaster, PA. Further, when making music, it’s not how many notes you play, it’s how you play the notes you play.

Even if they would become unplayable, they’d stand on their own as works of art. Many cities had sponsored art installations such as painted cows, (Harrisburg, PA) or crabs (Baltimore). Keys for the City represented a step beyond. Did the cows of Harrisburg “Moo”? Could the crabs of Baltimore…what sound exactly does a crab make?

Keys for the City went a step further in making this exhibit fully interactive. This ability to “engage” people in a very direct way was a powerful of example of what “art” is supposed to do- get a reaction and illicit a response from people.

Approaching the piano, I was a bit apprehensive due to the rain the previous night. As the piano technicians we consulted had warned, a good rain will cause the keys to swell and stick together rendering the instrument unplayable. We had planned for this…sort of. Eleven of the 20 pianos were under permanent cover, either under an awning in front of a local business or in another case, under a parking deck. The remaining pianos were not. These were equipped with portable plastic covers – think a giant, outdoor grill cover – which we hoped that citizens, neighbors, passers-by would use to cover them in the event of rain. This is where the social experiment came into play. Would the city “adopt” these pianos as their own and take care of them?  

This piano, on one of the city’s busiest streets, was the first we installed during the two day, mad rush to place all twenty. A big, sturdy, upright, it was colorfully designed by the staff of the sponsoring business, a local amusement park.  In the first week, the Library piano got a lot of attention. It seemed as if there was always someone playing it, an elderly woman, kids with their mothers or folks waiting for a meal in front of the soup kitchen, which is housed in the church next door.

As I approached the piano to check on its’ playability, there was a black man, probably in his mid 40’s, well dressed with thick black framed glasses, briefcase perched next to the piano bench, singing and playing beautifully, with real feeling. A handful of people, most, I assumed, on their way to work in the various government buildings, law firms and cafes that line N. Duke Street, stopped to listen for a few minutes before moving on.

It was a beautiful scene. Exactly the type of scene we imagined when we contemplated Keys for the City. An example of the power of music to bring people – often complete strangers – together to share a moment, a song, a magical moment. Magical moments like these were occurring around the pianos all summer long at all hours of the day and night among all types of people.

But there was business to attend to. I needed to assess how much damage the previous night’s rain had done to the pianos and had at least eight more of them to check out. Waiting for a natural point to interrupt him, I asked, “How’s it playing?”
He replied, with a bit of a grimace, “She’s hurting a bit today. I play her every morning on my way to work.” Obviously, he knew “her” and it pained him that “she” wasn’t feeling well that morning.

He spoke as if the piano were alive. I moved on to check the other pianos but the way he described that piano as a living, breathing being stuck with me. That was the first moment I ever considered a piano to be alive and that they had souls.

I made it a point to play, albeit not particularly well, at least a few every day throughout the summer and found it to be true. Like people, pianos feel, sound and play differently every day. Of course, these day-to-day variations were, to a large degree, a result of changing weather. But regardless of why, the fact remains. They are not simply a collection of wood, keys and cables. They are, in fact alive.

Every piano is unique in its feel, sound and personality. And like people, they have good days and not so good days. They can be moody. Some days can be somber while on other days, they are absolutely radiant and lively.

And as I learned on the streets of Lancaster, PA that morning back in 2010, pianos do, indeed, have souls.

To view the 2018 MFE “Keys for the City” pianos, visit: