Piano teachers have great jobs, and I think most of us are thankful that we get to spend our days sharing something we love with our students. It is immensely gratifying to see our students grow as musicians and watch music become an important part of their lives. At times, however, it seems like the rest of the world doesn't see music study in the same light. Music study, along with other arts, has always taken a back seat to "more important" subjects. In most schools it is viewed as outside the main track of learning: it is an elective, an extra, a special that doesn't have a place in the serious business of teaching the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math).
This problem is not just found in the U.S.—on a recent trip to Kenya (more about that in another column), I learned that many of the schools there have cut music altogether, and the schools that continue to offer music have to fight to justify its worth.
Most piano teachers operate outside a formal school setting, but we often deal with similar attitudes. Parents are often hesitant to give music study priority over other schoolwork and subjects. If grades or performance in math or science are suffering, quitting piano is usually
one of the first considerations.
Our problem lies in the perceived value of music study. Most people agree that music study is fun, but there's also a common perception that it isn't very practical. My child won't have a future in music. There's not a realistic job market. You can't make a living at it. Why spend [so much, as much, too much] time and energy on it?
And so we find ourselves constantly having to justify, advocate, and defend the value of music study. This battle is nothing new; it has been going on for generations. To defend our profession, we have turned to a variety of justifications from the old adage, "a kid who blows a horn won't blow a safe" to the newer "Mozart effect" arguments that music makes you smarter.
Citing a litany of benefits such as improved math scores, increased brain activity, better spatial reasoning, etc., is tempting, but does that steer our collective thought away from the true value of music? In our zeal to be accepted do we unwittingly deny the value of music based on its own benefits? Do we forget to remind people that music is valuable simply because it is music?
Music has always been a part of human life. To my knowledge there is not a civilization from any location or point in history that has not demonstrated evidence of music making. Making music is a part of who we are, a form of communication and expression that is present
in all cultures.
Ask anyone you know if he or she would like to be able to play a musical instrument (or sing) with skill, and the answer is almost always "yes." Is that alone not a powerful demonstration of the value of music? In general, people are envious of musicians and typically report wishing that they had more skill and ability. Adult music students report that studying music is something they "always wanted to do."
Why? I believe it is because music makes people happy, and playing music makes people even happier. It is satisfying, fulfilling, and rewarding on a variety of personal levels. It puts us in touch with ourselves, opens up avenues of expression, and fuels creative thinking. Playing music is wonderful, and it is hard to properly express this in words (luckily we can just express it by playing music).
It may be true that jobs in music are challenging, and that musicians aren't the wealthiest group of wage earners. But does every activity that a child pursues have to result in a career path? For those who do want to pursue music as a career, opportunities will present themselves.For everyone else, music study can prove to be an invaluable enhancement to any career choice. Einstein famously discussed how much his musical practice helped his thinking process and inspired his ideas.
I believe that playing music makes us better people. It makes us happier, more communicative, more selfaware, more thoughtful. It is something we as humans naturally need and want to do.
Not all of this world's value is measured in salary (nor is it all measured in grades, test scores, and other rankings). Once our basic needs are met, we desire money because we believe it will help us be happier. If playing music can make us happy, why not do more of it and cut
out the middle man? I'd argue that the world could use more non-monetary sources of value, and playing music provides just that sort of value.
I wish we didn't have to constantly defend the value of music study to the world. But when we do, let's take care not to lose sight of what real value means.