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Sometimes Learning Is Music to Your Ears


The jarring juxtaposition of the headlines the other day just struck, uh, a wrong chord.

California students are near the bottom of the pack nationally in math skills, said one story. On the next page, a local study supported the notion that kids taking piano lessons do better at reasoning, and adds that other studies have suggested similar findings about creativity, about ability to learn, about flexible thinking.

As a musician and as a parent, I find myself doing the simple math: Maybe we ought to be making more of a priority of teaching music and art in the schools.


I grew up with a musician dad, and we couldn't help but have music in the house all the time. It was not something just to listen to. Making music was like breathing.

And it paid off--not only in music. My dad, a self-taught jazz musician who ended up teaching music education and aesthetics at UCLA before he died, taught us how to survive the most demanding teacher I'll ever know.

He taught my brother and me how to write by explaining musical form, and he taught us how to listen.

It wasn't just some kind of kid thing. I play now, by myself and with others, perhaps four or five nights a week, music of all variety that invites a trombone. And my brother, Steven, who runs a congressional office in Washington, amused himself for a few years by attending embassy parties as part of a string quartet.

When we had kids, the question never really was asked. It seemed a most natural condition that music making would be part of our life. It made sense both to me and to a wife who had danced in the corps de ballet.

Even when the kids were small, we'd get together with my dad every weekend to play impromptu arrangements of tunes that he had arranged at their level. Odd instrumentation aside (a quartet of clarinet, trombone, violin and French horn), these were important living-room sessions in which small children could know their grandfather as an equal member of their musical group.

My daughter Julia, a visual arts student at UC San Diego, brings her violin home for occasional airing. My son, Louis, found a budding career in the horn, and the arrangement we have with paying his tuition at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston is that he'll consent to play duets with me when he's home. Hannah, a student at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, is a pianist now singing with the school's women's ensemble.

And now, Steven has started two of his three children on piano lessons.


Even if the scientists did not organize studies of how we learn, observation has its own value.

Watch and listen as kids wrestle with a piano or learn how to create sound, and the lessons of the studies should be obvious.

Young people learn focus and concentration. They learn to connect motor skills and agility with sight and recognition. They learn language. They learn to read not one note at a time, but in phrases. They learn the sports-like themes of blending, working cooperatively and teamwork. They learn that their part is important, no matter how many notes they get to play in the school orchestra.

It was clear to see my kids' developmental skills at reading and math grow as their ability to recognize musical phrasing grew.

This stuff is no secret, though I'm happy to see the scientists back it up with data.

Look further, to the numbers of successful young people's words that we reflect on the Voices pages of this paper, and check how many of them are involved in the arts or music.

How many stories have run in The Times about successful youths who have been turned from destructive lives by involvement in artistic pursuits? Check the energy level at the music programs at Hamilton or Locke high schools, at the county high school program at Cal State Los Angeles.

And yet, what academic programs are always most under attack? Those that are aimed at teaching music and art.

Studies that show poor performance are easy enough to come by. Support for the hard work of fixing it still sounds dissonant to my ears.

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