Last week, Eddie Van Halen, one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of the instrument, donated 75 guitars from his personal collection to the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, a program that provides musical instruments to students in low-income school districts.
"My whole life has been music," Van Halen told CNN. "I can’t imagine anything else. It's a must. It has to be taught."
He's right, of course.
Music education is not really all that much like sports, with which it does battle for school budget dollars all over this country. Sports can teach teamwork, discipline, the benefits of commitment, and the joys of being part of something bigger than you. Music teaches all of these, too. But it also teaches empathy.
When I read about Van Halen's guitar donation, I was in Boston, Mass., at the Berklee College of Music, where my son, Declan, was auditioning for admittance.
Berklee bustles. There are musicians everywhere. And they come from all over the world. While I waited for Declan to finish his audition and interview, I took in a performance by a student band, a diverse quartet led by a female singer/guitarist who sounded a lot like one imagines a combination of Astrud Gilberto and Joni Mitchell might sound – Bossa Nova stylings underpinning jazz-inflected folk.
The singer/band-leader was from Portugal. The drummer was a black female Berklee senior from the UK. The bassist was an African-American from New York City. The pianist, who was prodigiously talented, was from Germany. These musicians from widely varied cultures and backgrounds communicated with a graceful dignity. You could feel the love in the room, the respect, the shared sense of wonder.
Realizing and accepting this fact underscores the need for strong music education programs at the high school and elementary school level. Without strong and readily available music programs, the type of students I encountered at Berklee might not have had the opportunity to shine, to grow and to receive and share the empathy that is music-making's greatest gift.
I asked Chris Woodside, deputy executive director of the National Association of Music Education (NAfME), about the benefits of music education above and beyond the studying of the craft of music-making.
"It's interesting that you made that clarification – that music-making is indeed its own reward," Woodside said. "That's something that NAfME most definitely believes – that music for music's sake should absolutely be taught, because it has intrinsic value. Students who are offered music education on a high level are encouraged to pursue self-discovery, to find out who they are. On top of that, there are abundant studies stating that there are extra-musical benefits to music education – that students who study music do better in math, for example. That's value added, to us – a bonus."
Woodside and NAfME came to my attention when a representative of the association reached out after a post-Grammy Awards column in which I suggested that the Grammys could earmark more money for their Grammy in the Schools program if they spent less money on their glitzy televised bacchanal.
Woodside admitted that "there is of course always more that could be done," but was emphatic in his insistence that "this all can't be laid at the doorstep of the Grammys, where there are many friends of music education." Rather than look for someone to blame, he said, it's more in NAfME's interest to pursue the full funding of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, a law which includes provisions for music education.
With the Trump Administration pursuing voucher programs and pushing private schools, I asked Woodside if there would be an attendant weakening of the public school system and a negative impact on music in our public schools. I'll admit to having strong feelings about this issue. I went to two different private Catholic high schools. Neither of them offered a single music class. My life might have been very different if they had. I taught myself music, which is never the best way. And I'm sure I'm not alone.
"We just don't know yet," Woodside replied. "There's no question that there is a strong interest in the Trump Administration in vouchers and charter schools, and this could have a major transformative effect. But NAfME is apolitical. We figure out how to do our work with whatever administration and whatever Congress we have to work with. Our mission is the understanding of and the making of music. Period. We will work with whoever is in power on behalf of the kids. "
Advocacy for – and grassroots activity supporting - music education costs you nothing. And it just might change a kid's life.