We all know that music has the power to change our emotions and to enhance almost any event. Across every culture and throughout history, people have found ways to make music. It might have been a simple prehistoric drum or using the stomping of feet to keep the rhythm, but it is hard-wired into our humanity. The pleasure of music alone is enough of a reason to love it. Learning to play music, however, also has a profound, positive effect on a child’s academic career.
At the New York City Mission Society, we offer free classes in instrumental music to students aged 7 to 17 through our GRIOT program. Although once such a program would have seemed outside of our core mission, it illustrates how our nonprofit has evolved to strengthen our educational opportunities. And the intellectual benefit of music is rooted in scientific research.
A 2015 study done by neurobiologist Nina Kraus at Northwestern University confirmed what most of us knew intuitively. Children who are taught to play an instrument, whether they are naturally talented or not, are far better readers than those who don’t play an instrument. Playing music helps the brain learn to process language. Music affects literacy and vocabulary, which, in turn, benefits a child’s whole academic future. The study further found that although listening to music is wonderful on many levels, the actual playing of the instrument brought the biggest benefit.
The GRIOT program, which is a collaboration with the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance and its Grammy-winning founder Arturo O’Farrill, is more than music. We use it as an opportunity to teach computer skills, geography and world studies. The students in the program choose the music they want to study and play, with an emphasis on Afro-Latin music. When they choose to study a song from a country in Latin America, they learn about the area as well. For many, they are reconnecting to their family heritage. For others, it has increased appreciation for someone else’s background.
For more than 200 years, the New York City Mission Society has worked to help people lift themselves out of poverty. The best way to secure a solid economic future is to get a solid education. We know that children from low-income backgrounds come to school with challenges that make it harder for them to reach their potential. We believe in being creative in helping children succeed, graduate and go on to productive careers. Learning music is a great tool to help them get there.
There are more benefits: Playing music encourages self-esteem and confidence. It encourages students to work cooperatively. It develops critical thinking. It helps children improve in other academic subjects, including math. And it’s just plain fun.
For children from underserved communities who need every bit of assistance to succeed, instrumental music lessons might seem extravagant. Quite the contrary; these children are precisely the young people who will benefit the most. There are huge cultural benefits as well.
I recently attended a program at Carnegie Hall. I was struck by the fact that of the thousands of people in the audience, there were barely a handful of people of color. There are many, many middle-class and upper-income people of color in New York who can afford to go to concerts, opera and Broadway. But there is still a long way to go to achieve real equality. There are real racial barriers in law, medicine, academia, politics and so many other areas. Minorities still don’t feel at home in many of New York’s most esteemed cultural venues. That is simply wrong. Seeing themselves onstage in concert halls engages minority audiences and invites them in.
We owe it to our children to teach them that the whole world is open to them. Whatever families they were born into, they have the right and the ability to succeed in school. They have the right go as far as their talents will take them. They have the right and the ability to participate in every great thing that our society has to offer. The violin or the keyboard might be the instrument that will help get them there.