Yale harmonizes music and literacy in local schools

It is Tuesday morning at John C. Daniels Magnet School. Class is in session and the building is quiet, save for faint music echoing down the sunshine-flooded halls.

Inside the music auditorium, more than a dozen sixth-grade students perch in front of music stands, flutes, clarinets and trumpets in hand. Some play Brahams, others Christmas carols.

Music classes like this one are increasingly rare in American classrooms, as budget cuts continue to threaten the scope of public-school curricula. But here in the Elm City — in a school district plagued by limited funds and a shortage of teachers — a town-gown partnership has made music a priority.

John C. Daniels is just one of over 20 local schools reaping the benefits of the Class of ’57 Music Education Project, officially launched last fall through a $5 million donation from the class of 1957 and the School of Music. Today, project managers John Miller and Olivia Malan and as many as 40 Yale music-school students are using Yale resources to entwine academia and the arts in New Haven Public Schools — by organizing everything from music, art and writing projects to performance and trips to Sprague Hall concerts on the University’s campus — in the hopes of increasing students’ Connecticut Mastery Test scores.

And, in the process, Miller and Malan will collect data from their nucleus schools on the correlation between student achievement and music education — a relationship suggested frequently in existing research. In fact, in the months since the program’s inception, New Haven principals, music supervisors and Yale officials say they have already noticed a decline in disciplinary problems among their students.

“Music provides kids with some amount of discipline and gets them in the right direction about how to learn,” Associate Dean for Administrative Affairs at the School of Music Michael Yaffe said.

‘An infusion of activity’

The rationale behind the Education Project originated five years ago at Lincoln-Bassett School, selected as a pilot because of its low test scores, Yaffe said.

“We were mostly focused on Lincoln-Bassett because it was one of the lowest test score schools in the district,” Yaffe explained. “The Class of ’57 and School of Music selected it as a place that could use an infusion of activity.”

But more than anything, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said, the program provides New Haven students with their “birthright.”

“We give hope a conversation,” he said. “It not only gives children a chance to learn to love music, but also something more comes out of that.”

At its 40th reunion, the class’ assemblage of lawyers, doctors and consultants began to ruminate about the future and its imminent 50th anniversary gift. The consensus: The gift should be a project to benefit the New Haven community.

Somewhere along the way, the men chose music, one of the original seven liberal arts, said Thomas Chittenden ’57, who is now secretary of the class.

“The real tag is that this is a Yale College class of non-musicians who decided they wanted their gift back to Yale to be about music education – businessmen, lawyers decided they want this to be their gift,” Yaffe noted.

After working with Blocker and Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo, the class and the School of Music set out to implement the program, progressive in its Yale-New Haven collaboration, providing music students an insight into the teaching world and public-school students the benefits of their expertise.

“It is important to be able to have some experience in teaching,” Chittenden explained. “It’s not easy these days for young people to make it as a singer or an instrumentalist particularly if one plays classical music.”

And, the program provides a model that other districts can emulate — generates a larger conversation about teaching and music.

“If this project could build and document a model about Lincoln-Bassett and sponsor some research that could confirm the real value of it, that would be pretty powerful,” Chittenden said. “It could turn around what over the past twenty years has been real erosion in the degree of music teaching in music schools around the country.”

Every other year, the international symposium supported by the endowment invites music teachers from across the country to disseminate philosophies, methodologies and recognize excellence in the field. The gift also supports the hiring of a visiting professor who will be cross-listed in undergraduate and graduate courses.

Working locally, acting nationally

But the mission of pedagogy clear in the Education Project gives way to the larger goal of emphasizing music education, Director of Public School Partnership for New Haven and State Affairs Claudia Merson said.

“It is not simply a local music outreach program,” Merson said. “It is part of stressing the importance of music in the schools. That was something the Class of ’57 felt so strongly about. They are working locally but acting nationally.”

In the era of No Child Left Behind, collective action in the vein of the Education Project must exist, Merson said. As the hours spent teaching non-standardized test activities wane and financial resources disappear, she said, the arts are often flushed to the backwater. But the combined efforts of Music Supervisor Regina Warner and the Education Project are acting as New Haven’s catalysts for artistic revival, Merson noted.

The newest addition to the Education Project, launched by Miller this year, attempts to address the test-focused No Child Left Behind mentality from an artistic perspective: Music is used to enhancing writing, reading comprehension and concentration, three essential test-taking skills.

“[The class] is conducted like a Yale class, and the children love it,” Worthington Hooker School Music teacher Susan Arnold said. “They are jumping out of their seats to answer [the teacher’s] questions with good answers where they make connections and have depth to their answers.”

Another project, at John C. Daniels, uses storytelling, drawing and music to draw connections between vocabulary and imagery. Karen McHugh, a fourth-grade teacher whose class participated in the project, used the activities to teach students to be observant and then use observation to promote creativity.

“The activities helped reinforce to students that thoughtful sequencing in a story is important,” McHugh wrote in an e-mail. “It also reinforced that a story is made up of events. I have been able to refer to the project, specifically how the song and picture was divided, when talking about creating events for a story.”

The next step of the Education Project reflects Yale’s internationalization efforts, particularly in China. When John C. Daniels shifts from a bilingual to a trilingual school next year — adding Chinese to the existing dual English and Spanish curriculum — music students will communicate across cultures and oceans through a video chat with music students Beijing, Yaffe said.

‘The missing link’

But, while the Education Project nourishes arts in New Haven and even fosters international ties, the long-term goal of the class of 1957 is policy oriented, Blocker said.

“They wanted to change public policy in the arts and create a project that could be a model for different institutions in music,” he explained.

But promote policy, Miller and Malan’s research must first support the theoretical claims music aficionados have made for years, that musical exposure enhances academic performance.

“Research components to prove this will make a difference,” Yaffe said.

Despite the speculative assumptions about the relationship between academic performance and music education, a myriad of organizations have thrown funding behind the effort to integrate music in public school curricula. Some New Haven students are the recipients of a VH1 Save The Music grant — part of a nationwide program to restore instrumental music education in America’s public schools.

When the Education Project publishes its official findings, Miller imagines they will reflect the observations of educators across the Elm City. Many principals and teachers already perceive a difference, he said — even principal Ramona Gatison at the formerly ailing Lincoln-Bassett school who now “praises good behavior and test scores.”

And as the Music Education Project continues to expand, tacking on new elements and bringing melodies and harmonies to more New Haven schools, its essence will remain the same.

“What you learn from music is not exclusively for music,” Miller said.

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