I was asked by Grant Station to write about the community building power of music for their website newsletter. Grant Station connects non-profits to potential grant opportunities.
One of the fundamental responsibilities of an executive director of a music related non-profit (MusicForEveryone.net) is advocacy regarding the value and impact of music in our schools and communities. As I was a novice in this regard when Music For Everyone was founded in 2006, my learning curve has been steep. And the learning continues to this day.
As a lifelong musician, I certainly experienced and understand the impact of music had on my life. Playing music brings tremendous joy to my life and feds my soul. As Plato wrote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Music’s value in this regard is very powerful and it rests at the core of the justification of investment in the arts “for arts sake”.
Being that MFE was created to raise money to provide instruments and support to school music programs, it became clear fairly quickly that simply using this “arts for arts sake” as a central narrative to convince people to open their hearts, minds and wallets to MFE’s cause was simply not enough. While musicians “get it”, it is hard to explain to people who don’t. Thus, a wider and more thorough narrative was necessary. That being the case, I immersed myself in the research regarding music’s educational and character development benefits. That was low hanging fruit as there is an enormous amount of evidence of music’s positive impact in these areas. From improved academic skills, test scores and student “engagement” in school to teaching lessons in teamwork, discipline, communication skills and personal responsibility, it’s benefits are very clear. Music is math, music is reading, music is logic, music is language and music requires discipline. And driving all of that is its potential to teach and nurture creativity.
The more I researched and witnessed those impacts through MFE, it became apparent there were other benefits. The most obvious was music’s power and potential to create and build community. Music is the universal language and thus, it’s potential to serve as a bridge of understanding to build community and connections between cultures, races and generations is unparalleled. Music’s power in this regard was made clear to me when MFE created a program that places between 12 and 20 fully designed and painted pianos throughout the streets of Lancaster with 24/7 access for the public for four months in the summer. “Keys for the City”, which will celebrate its tenth year in Summer 2019, has provided a platform for literally tens of thousands of magical musical moments around those pianos where people of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs come together to share and experience the community building power of music. Keys is now an important part of the fabric of the Lancaster community and a source of great community pride.
But Keys also opened my eyes to another important benefit and impact of music – economic development. This aspect of music’s benefit as a community investment was not something I had given much, if any, consideration to until we witnessed the community impact of Keys. For the past two decades, Lancaster City has had as a major component of its economic development plan, a commitment to the arts. And the city has been wildly successful in leveraging the arts to build a vibrant, thriving and dynamic economy, making it a “hot” arts community and tourist destination. Keys for the City has contributed to this community-wide success.
But music is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to developing narratives about its positive impact. While I was beginning to feel comfortable and competent in my ability to articulate a broad, cogent narrative regarding the value and impact of music in our schools and communities, I was missing what is fast becoming the next frontier in music’s ability to positively impact our populace and society.
Specifically, it is becoming increasingly clear that the next big frontier in advocating effectively for societal investment in music is in the area of music for healing. There is an increasing amount of research, writing, experimentation and application of music as a broad healing tool. In one sense, music’s potential and power to uplift and inspire as well as to calm and sooth has existed for as long as it has been played. But in another sense, it’s full power as a healing tool seems to finally be beginning to be fully embraced by a wide array of medical and health practitioners. It is being used for everything from managing pain and addiction, to treating dementia, depression, anxiety to improving motor coordination in people suffering from cerebral palsy. And scientists, researchers and medical practitioners are discovering and developing additional ways to utilize music for healing virtually every day.
Following are several quotes relating to music’s power and potential to heal.
“Music might provide an alternative entry point to the brain, because it can unlock so many different doors into an injured or ill brain. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion — all components of music — engage different regions of the brain. And many of those same regions are also important in speech, movement and social interaction. If a disease or trauma has disabled a brain region needed for such functions, music can sometimes get in through a back door and coax them out by another route.” Harvard University neurologist, Dr. Gottfired Schlaug.
“Half an hour of music produces the same effect as ten milligrams of valium.” -- Dr. Raymond Bahr
And leave it to musician Bob Marley to bring it all together with one of his simple, straightforward universal truths, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
Music for healing. It’s the next big frontier. And music advocates would be well served to begin to include this benefit, along with music’s educational, character development, community building and economic impact benefits in their advocacy efforts.
The number of schools offering music education in Pennsylvania and the nation, is in a steady decline and has been for more than a decade. Reduced budgets and shifting priorities are often to blame. Music For Everyone is a Lancaster based nonprofit working to raise awareness and resources to strengthen the role that music plays in schools and the community in the face of declining music programs.
Music For Everyone has provided over 6,000 instruments to Lancaster country schools since 2006, and there's a lot more going on there. Joining us is Dr. John Gerdy, who is the founder and executive director of Music For Everyone. Dr. Gerdy, welcome to the program.
Great to be here.
Dr. John Gerdy, before we get into the current situation across the country, and across Pennsylvania, and in Lancaster County of music programs in schools, I think that your background and how Music For Everyone was founded and developed says a whole lot. You were an athlete. I don't know if you still are or not.
Not so much.
You were an All American basketball player at Davidson College. You were the schools leading scorer until someone by the name of Steph Curry came along. Played pro basketball for three years. You would seem to be someone that would advocate strongly for athletics in schools, but yet, music is your passion and helping schools to ... I don't want to say maintain, but maintain in some areas, but further expand their music programs in others. How did it all come to be?
Well, I mean, you talk about my passion really is education. Education reform. It's preparing our children to compete in the global integrated world economy, and world community of the future. Education is my passion. After playing basketball, I ended up working in college athletics at the NCAA, and as the associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. I always did that because I viewed athletics as a tool to supplement the educational process if it's kept in the proper perspective.
With the birth of our first child, I left the SCC and was a stay at home parent for two children. As the kids got older, they didn't need dad around as much anymore. I had this wonderful opportunity to reinvent myself. I could've gone back into college athletics, but you know, been there done that. As a lifelong musician, I started doing the research on school music programs are being but, and underfunding, defunded. At the same time, all the research about how effective it is an educational and community building tool, and it just didn't' make sense to me.
You know, trying to think on acting, you know, on the notion of think globally, act locally, I got some friends together, did a small fundraiser. We raised about $11,000 and bought some instruments for the school district of Lancaster. It just kind of ... be careful what you ask you. It just kind of mushroomed. To me, it's not much of a jump because similar to athletics, which is a tool to supplement the educational process, if it's conducted in the right way, music is the same. It's a tool to contribute to the educational process.
I've come to the realization or belief, after being involved very heavily in both, as an athlete, or a musician, or as an administrator in both ends, that music, if you do a thorough honest clear eye data-driven return on educational investment, in dollars spent on, for example, football, tackle football, versus music programs, it's not very close. If you were keeping score, like a football game, you know, the score would be 55 for music and 20 for football. It's just that effective, right on down the line. Everything from the currency of the future's creativity. A lot of the jobs our children are going to have in the future, haven't even been invented yet. Music is the most effective tool in our educational arsenal to teach creativity.
How do you measure that?
Music, at its core, music is about creativity. It's about thinking out of the box. Arts are about being able to color outside the lines without penalty. If you look at a number of other things as well, you look at lifelong learning. One of the most important functions of our schools is to develop and nurture in our children a love of lifelong learning. If you compare football, for example, versus music, 99% of the kid's last football game they play is the last time they'll ever play football.
But music, you can play it until, you know, your last days. In terms of lifelong learning, it's so much more effective. Just a mere fact that half of the student population, I mean in girls, can't play football, for example. Everyone can play music. Music is math. Music is reading. Music is logic. Music is a language. The data backs all that up. Every single day it seems there's a new study coming out about how music programs, involved in music programs, enhances these academic skills and interpersonal skills. The other thing is, you know, you talk about one of the major justifications for sports in our schools is that it teaches this concept of building character, teamwork, discipline, communication skills, personal responsibility. Well, you know, and it's true.
I've been on a five-person basketball team and being required to develop those types of skills, communication skills, discipline, teamwork, all those kinds of things, in pursuit of a common goal, which is winning, okay? But I've also been in a five-person band, trying to work together to achieve a common sound and it's the exact same things, discipline, teamwork, communication skills, personal responsibility. If you really take a close honest look at the data, the return on educational dollars invested in music is tremendous.
A lot of people talk about, is music a core course? Is it core? Is it co-curricular? Is it extracurricular? I kind of view it differently because of the universal nature of music, it's a universal language. I think music is more like the glue that can hold the entire core curriculum together. You can use music and apply it, and use it to teach science lessons, history lessons. Music is math. All of those things. The value of music as an educational tool is just astounding. The data coming out every single day reinforces that point.
Most educators, maybe I shouldn't say most. I won't make a judgment there, but I would say many educators would agree with you with what you just said. But yet, if they said, "All right, we're going to cut ... we have a tight budget here and we have to cut some extracurricular activities." If they said we were going to cut the football program, or in some way cut back on that, compared to the music program, and not cut any funding from the music program, they would have people up in arms.
Yes, they would. That's something that I think as a ...
By the way, I'm not saying that's right. I'm just saying, yeah, just an observation.
No, well, first of all, the football or athletics lobby, for a lack of a better term, is very well organized, very vocal. The music and arts community isn't quite as effective in its advocacy. I do think a lot of that is changing, particularly on the football side, driven by the, you know, revelations about head trauma. I think we're slowly changing. Again, we simply ... educational leaders and community leaders, we simply cannot continue to fund programs simply because we've always done it that way.
The world is changing too rapidly. We have to look at the data, look at the research, and ask an honest question, what is more effective, in terms of educational return on investment. We're operating ... the expectations of our schools and our teachers to instill in our children an education worthy of the 21st century, are rising dramatically. At the same time, in an environment of declining resources. That begs the question, we have to be more effective and efficient with every single educational dollar we spend. If you're honest about looking at it, take an honest look at it, the data is just irrefutable about how effective music is.
You know, let me get back. I mean, we were kind of talking the broad picture about music, and athletics, extracurricular activities, but we didn't talk specifically about what Music for Everyone does.
Right. Our mission is to cultivate the power of music as an educational community-building tool in Lancaster County. What we do, basically, is we go to schools, we ask them what the gaps are, what their needs are. And then, we turn around to the community and we say, "Hey, does any of this interest you? If so, invest in us." And then, we will turn around and strategically, effectively, and efficiently invest those resources in schools, and in community arts groups throughout the county.
To date, we've been around for 12 years and we've invested, or I think we're closing in on close to I guess $1.7-million in total investment. Everything from an annual instrument grant program. Last year, for example, we awarded over $112,000 in grants for instruments. We give to all 16 schools districts in the county. The thing about it is, the gaps still exist because we received about a quarter of a million dollars in requests. If you provide instruments, then you know, you can provide a class of 30 kids or an orchestra of 30 kids, everyone a brand new instrument, but there's only one instructor. What's the point?
Next, we're underwriting music mentors, professional musicians, music education majors. That was the instruction component. We've just announced about two weeks ago or so, three weeks ago a third component, the third leg of the stool is a program instrument repair program where we are going to catalog and repair every single instrument, of every single public school in Lancaster County on an ongoing basis.
That's our next big thing. We've secured some seed grant money from the Stimmen Foundation and Clark Industries to get that up and going. For example, we did a pilot program at Colombia last summer where we repair 50-some odd instruments, something like that. Yeah, you got to take care of them if you're going to give them away. There's no room in the budget for repairs for schools.
What about student participation? I mean, you're in a position to see okay, maybe there have been some schools that have cut back on their music programs, but are there fewer students, the same, more, that actually want to participate in music programs?
We believe that if you build it, they will come. One of the best things I've heard from a teacher just recently was talking about how their string program, it was in the school district at Lancaster, was expanding, and more kids being involved. When you pay attention to them, you give them instruments, you give them instruction, you make them feel important, it suddenly becomes cool. She said, you know, "The kids are starting to think, hey man, it's cool to be a part of the music program."
The other cool thing about now that we're around for 12 years, things are really starting to become full circle. For example, there's a young man in our program who's been a part of our MFE Strings, which is an after school program, and our summer camps since fourth grade. Just graduated McCaskey High School, and now he's coming back to serve as a mentor for the younger kids. A lot of it's starting to come full circle now. Again, if you build it, they will come. If as a community, or a school board, what you fund, what you prioritize, has an impact.
In other words, if you say it's important and then you fund it accordingly so that people see evidence, oh, this is important, then the community will follow. That's what we plan to continue to do with music education.
You know, Lisa Sepsy said something that struck me. She was talking about Colombia and she said, "We are an artsy town, that art is important." The city of Lancaster, let's face it, the city of Lancaster in the last ten to fifteen years, has become an art's destination.
That would seem to say that the message is passed on to young people is the arts, including music, is important in this city.
Absolutely. You know, you talked about why ... I talk about sometimes the art community is not as effective as it needs to be as an advocacy. One of the reasons is because we've too long, we've just used the argument when fighting for funding, when fighting for, you know, for priorities in the school budget, arts for art's sake. Yes, arts for art's sake is important, it feeds the soul, it does all of those great things. But, we've also got to talk about the practical impacts. Impact on test scores, impact on reading skills, impact on kids wanting to be engaged in school.
Also, the economic impact of music and the arts in our communities. The argument needs to be more, it's not just arts for art's sake. That's just, you know, a fluffy thing to do. It's important because it's driving our economy in a lot of ways. Lancaster is a tremendous example out that, about strategically investing in the arts to build a community for economic vitality. We've been very successful at doing that.
You've been successful in doing it. Again, I kind of go back to that, what we had discussed earlier, that getting society as a whole to understand how important this is. How do you do that?
You pound away. Day in and day out. Again, it's data. The data is out there for you. If you look at the data, in terms of music's educational impact on all of this wide area. For example, when we went to school, the idea of international learning opportunities, exchange programs, tours, and stuff like that, were nonexistent, right? In today's interconnected global economy and world community, our schools are expected to provide some sort of international flavor, international opportunities. Music is a tremendous platform to do that because it's the international language or the universal language.
We only have a minute or so to go, but I want to thank you very much for being with us. I do have a quick from a lister says, "Has several musical instruments from his father's estate." Do you know where he can donate them for this cause?
Well, we could contact us and we could help him, musicforeveryone.org.
Okay. What are you looking, I mean, in 30 seconds or less, what kind of message would you like to leave with your guests? What do you need?
Anything and everything. I mean, we are every day out there scrapping, and trying, and trying to generate resources, and then turn ... whether it's volunteers, whether it's cash, whether it's instruments, to then turn around and invest them strategically to enhance our music programs in our communities.
John Gerdy is found and executive of Music For Everyone in Lancaster County. You know, this is something that can spread beyond the Lancaster county borders, I'm sure. John, thank you very much for being with us today.
If you are over 50, you surely remember him. How could you not? Certainly you remember his signature song: “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”.
Yes, we’re talking about Tiny Tim, that tall, long, stringy haired, goofy looking dude playing the ukulele and singing in that quivering, falsetto voice. He was silly, campy and probably did more for ensuring that the ukulele would become one of the more derided instruments of the past half-century.
But what goes ‘round, comes ‘round because the ukulele is back! And it’s hot! Ukulele music festivals are popping up all over the country. Even Eddie Vedder recorded an entire album of ukulele songs and won a Grammy for it. Over 1.7 million ukes were sold in 2017, up from 500,000 in 2009.
Tiny Tim, as it turns out, was an American musical visionary.
The ukulele originated in Europe and was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez jumped off a boat and started singing and strumming his Branguinha. Legend has it that the Hawaiians were so impressed with his playing that they called the instrument “ukulele” which translates to “jumping flea.” The instrument quickly captured the imagination of the islands to where the reigning monarch Kalakaua learned how to play it. By the 1920’s Sears Roebuck catalogues offered ukes for a couple of dollars. Big name performers such as Bing Crosby, Betty Grable and Elvis Pressley incorporated the uke into their acts.
But by the 1950’s rock-n-roll was sweeping the country and the tinny, toy-like uke was swamped by kids who fell in love with the electric guitar.
Tiny Tim, however, kept playing it, appearing on television shows like Ed Sullivan. But the image of Tiny Tim and the toy-like ukulele was no match for the electric guitar driven act like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry.
Beginning in the 1980’s some rock stars such as Paul McCartney began to play it. McCartney was influenced by George Harrison who was a devotee of the instrument. And slowly, the ukulele began to make a comeback, despite the fact the most common image of the instrument was still associated with Tiny Tim. For a wonderful account of the uke’s history and evolution, (and the main source of the research for this paper), check out “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele” by Marion Jacobson in January 24, 2015 edition of The Atlantic.
Clearly, there is a major ukulele uprising taking place in the US, not only as evidenced by the exploding sales numbers, but I have been exposed to the rise (again) of the uke through my work with Music For Everyone. Other than my memories of Tiny Tim, I had no idea of the resurgence of the uke until a few years ago when we began receiving requests from schools to provide them with the instruments to start school based uke programs. MFE, through its annual instrument grant program, has been awarding grants to schools in Lancaster County, PA since 2007.
Over the first six years of the grant program, we did not receive one request from a school to provide them with a batch of ukes. But in 2012 we began to notice the beginning of a trend, where we would receive at least two and sometimes three requests from schools to provide them with 20 – 25 ukuleles to start a program. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical but in conversations with teachers it became quite clear that the ukulele may very well be the introductory instrument of the future for young children. The more I found out about it and began to experiment with one myself, it became very apparent.
First, it is small for small hands. Kids have trouble with larger instruments like a full sized guitar, saxophone or viola. Many instruments are simply too big and bulky for young children. Second is that you can begin playing songs on a uke almost immediately as there are only four strings and you can form and play many chords by playing (fingering) only one string. The faster you can get children to feel that they are producing real music not only by themselves, but to be able to play music with other players, the better. The more excited they will get about playing music. The uke is excellent for achieve that goal.
Don’t believe me? Think back to those recorders or the screeching sounds that a beginner saxophonist or violinist produce when learning the instrument. Immediate, positive gratification and connection to the instrument, the music and fellow players is key in sparking a child’s interest in continuing to play music. This is why teachers love them as an introductory instrument.
And they are inexpensive. While you can spend over $500 for a high-end model a decent uke for beginners costs around $100. Other than a choral group or a percussion ensemble, the cost of providing 20 – 25 instruments to start a full string program or brass ensemble is prohibitive, particularly in these days of tightening budgets for music and art programs.
And not only are we receiving requests from schools for ukes, we are also beginning to receive them from community recreation programs and senior centers to start groups for senior. To get a sense of their potential impact on seniors, check out this recently released Music For Everyone video:
The segment on our Ukulele Uprising begins at the 1.50 mark.
Finally, there is the sheer fun of it as Jake Shimabukuro explains, “There’s something about the ukulele that just makes you smile. It makes you let your guard down. It brings out the child in all of us.”
And in these times, we can all benefit from embracing our inner child.
So, long live the uke! The instrument of the future. And, as we all tip toe through the tulips, we should pay our respects to Tiny Tim, an American Musical Visionary.
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 a world of declining resources and increasing expectations for what constitutes an education worthy of the 21st century, every dollar counts. In such an environment, being able to effectively advocate for programs that yield the most effective educational ROI becomes critically important. As music’s power and potential as an effective educational tool becomes more apparent, music educators and advocates must become more aggressive and strategic in advancing music’s impact as a superior educational investment.