Malcolm Mitchell graduated from Yale nearly 50 years ago, but he wouldn’t be surprised to hear that his alma mater is now home to an opera company, a good number of chamber orchestras, and more student-run a cappella groups than at any other American university.
That is because Mitchell ’57 knows music has a special significance at Yale.
“There’s a connection between music and Yale that goes back for generations,” Mitchell said. “Freshmen coming into Yale have more music in their backgrounds than freshmen at other colleges.”
So when Mitchell and other alumni from the Class of ’57 decided to organize a community service effort in honor of their upcoming 50th reunion, one proposal stood out: improving music education in public schools.
“We discussed a number of projects, but as soon as somebody mentioned music, especially the fact that there is less music in elementary schools than when we had been [there], the class got very excited,” Mitchell said. “There was virtually no vote — as soon as the topic came up, everyone said, ‘That’s the one.'”
Five years later, the project — called the Music in Schools Initiative — is thriving, uniting 75 of Mitchell’s former classmates, the Yale School of Music and a local elementary school. Meanwhile, the class of ’57 is watching its vision become reality only a few blocks away from its old dorm rooms.
Mitchell said he and co-coordinator Don Roberts ’57 have been trying to involve their classmates as much as possible in the project in order to make it more than a simple fund-raiser.
“We insisted that [the initiative] be something that all classmates could participate in — that the work would be done by the classmates themselves,” Mitchell said. “It isn’t that we simply [chose] a worthy cause as an object of our charity, but rather that we defined a project that we could actually carry through ourselves.”
Alumni from the class are collecting newspaper articles and academic research on music education, meeting with music teachers and national organizations, and even studying programs in their local school districts. They are also working closely with the Yale School of Music and Education Through Music, Inc., a New York City-based nonprofit, to implement the project at the Lincoln-Bassett School in New Haven.
The two-year pilot program at Lincoln-Bassett aims to do more than bring music into the classroom. The program’s coordinators said they hope skills learned in music class — such as logic, concentration, and how to follow instructions — will translate into academic and personal success for the students.
“The idea of the program is that the arts, and music, can contribute to an overall education,” School of Music professor Paul Hawkshaw said. “The mental processes and even the physical processes [of music] are things which children can take and apply to a broader perspective of things.”
At Lincoln-Bassett, kindergarteners are learning movement to music, second graders are playing notes on new keyboards, and third graders are learning math by thinking about rhythms and the values of different notes. The new emphasis is helping the school focus on the “whole child,” New Haven Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Eleanor Osborne said.
“We do so much around tests and test scores, we forget that a well-rounded child isn’t a kid who took a test; it’s about cooperation, collaboration, developing aesthetics for fine things,” Osborne said. “When you get to be 50 years old, you are not going to remember that you passed eight tests, but you are going to remember that you played an instrument — that will stay with you forever.”
New Haven Supervisor of Music Regina Lilly-Warner said that after some initial growing pains, the program is producing positive results for Lincoln-Bassett students.
“Every day we see a little bit more — a kid is blossoming, or coming out of a shell, or something in math has clicked because of what he learned in music,” she said. “That makes it worthwhile.”
Lilly-Warner said even teachers are benefiting from the increased presence of music at the school.
“Teachers who had never gone near the violin played violin. One of the secretaries said, ‘Oh, I took my keyboard out at home and I’ve been practicing my ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,”” Lilly-Warner said. “It’s a winning situation for everyone involved.”
Ellsworth Davis ’57, correspondence secretary for the class, visited Lincoln-Bassett recently with some classmates to see the program in action. He said he believes the program’s impact will be “quite terrific.”
“The kids were very focused,” he said. “They’re taking to it quite well.”
Davis said he hopes as many of his classmates as possible will get involved in the initiative during its remaining five years — a process he said is already beginning to happen.
“A lot of people originally thought music and kids, you know, it wasn’t football and big guys. They didn’t quite get it,” he said. “As we’ve gone along, more and more people have conceptually and actually signed on. They’re seeing that music, which has been so important to so many of them, is missing in an organized way from the lives of many kids from less prosperous schools.”