The benefits of playing music: Kids who play in a band do better in math and reading, research shows

Eric Peterson

Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a letter asking school and education community leaders to embrace “the importance of the arts as a core academic subject and part of a complete education for all students.”

That was music to the ears of Eric Peterson, director of bands at Redmond’s Evergreen Junior High School (EJH) and its feeder elementary schools in the Lake Washington School District (LWSD). As he and co-teacher Michael Chapin recruit young musicians, he wants parents to know about research indicating that kids who study music do better in math, reading and language arts than those who don’t.

In tough economic times, when school districts and parents talk about cutting costs, arts are sometimes dismissed as an unnecessary frill.

“But if the Secretary of Education qualifies arts as core education, I think that means it’s not a frill,” said Peterson.

Lake Washington School District’s Student Profile includes arts training as an aspect of its mission to ensure “each student will graduate prepared to lead a rewarding, responsible life as a contributing member of our community and greater society” and its vision to make “every student future ready — prepared for college, prepared for the global workplace, prepared for personal success.”

Along those lines, Duncan’s letter said “the arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers, who are confident and able to think creatively. These qualities can be especially important in improving learning among students from economically disadvantaged circumstances.”

Peterson reasoned, “Arts education reaches out to them, gives them a reason to come to school.”

And he said there are always ways to put musical instruments into the hands of kids who want to play, even when money is scarce.

Local stores such as Mills Music and Kennelly Keys have affordable rental programs. Peterson has an inventory of used “loaner” instruments. An anonymous donor has sponsored a few music students at EJH. School PTSAs and Music Boosters groups provide grants and scholarships.

“Just like students who want to participate in athletics, we will make it work some way,” Peterson emphasized.

He cited a Long Island University study which said “little kids who take piano lessons have better vocabulary and verbal sequencing skills — and for school age kids, musicians have better oral discrimination or language accent skills.”

A Stanford University study showed that “struggling readers can process more auditory clues through oral and visual reading of music,” Peterson continued. “A Northwestern University study said they’re also better at picking up subtle emotional cues.”

In the Marysville School District, after all sixth graders were required to take band, there was a significant jump in WASL scores, he pointed out.

According to The College Entrance Examination Board, “students in music appreciation scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math than students with no arts participation.”

Some bastions of higher learning, including the University of Washington, have switched to a “holistic” admissions approach, rather than just looking at a student’s SAT scores. Again, involvement in school music is seen as a valuable asset to the student’s portfolio, said Peterson.

“They see kids involved in something that it is a long-term commitment, making steady progress. They see discipline, hard work, problem-solving, better students in general,” he explained.

Peterson also mentioned the book “Brain Rules” by UW scientist John Medina, in which MRI studies of performing musicians showed “no difference between right brain and left brain thinking — all the neurons are firing at once.”

To help kids learn, “we must involve as many senses as possible,” Peterson contended.

“While playing music, they are physically involved, which is kinesthetic. They are decoding, which is linguistic. They are using mathematics for counting and balances.”

And in an age when students are increasingly stressed by academic expectations and global concerns, “we teach music as an art form and as being ‘intrapersonal’ — looking inside yourself, producing emotion and bringing that out,” he concluded.

To learn more about music programs at Evergreen Junior High and its elementary feeders (Alcott, Dickinson, Einstein, Rosa Parks and Wilder), contact Eric Peterson at epeterson@lwsd.org.

For information about other music programs in the Lake Washington School District, inquire at your child’s school or visit their individual Web page. Links are available at www.lwsd.org.

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