My View: Everything I need to know, I learned in music class
Music education isn't just learning Mozart, Andrew Schwartz writes: "It’s about learning how to think, rather than what to think."
March 20th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

My View: Everything I need to know, I learned in music class

By Andrew Schwartz, Special to CNNAndrew Schwartz

Editor’s note: Tuba player Andrew Schwartz holds a bachelor’s of music from the University of Hartford. He did graduate work at The Manhattan School of Music and is working on an MBA at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, where he is president-elect of the Graduate Business Association. He is an intern at Atlanta-based music startup Tunefruit. Schwartz's story first appeared on CNN iReport.

(CNN) - It’s no secret that education in America is broken. We can’t define a good school, let alone figure out a way to measure success. Yet when money is tight, as it is right now because of the forced budget cuts, the first thing to be cut is always the arts. And that’s a tragedy.

I spent six years in music school before making a switch to business school. I was convinced that I was going to be a musician. I loved music. I was good at it, and I was willing to do anything to get to the top. But then I realized that, even at the top of the music game, the job security isn’t there. So I dropped out of grad school and am now earning an MBA.

But through that transition, I’ve realized why music needs to be a cornerstone of education. Music is an art and a science, and it's one of the best ways kids can learn  creativity and those mythical critical thinking skills. The focus of the curriculum isn’t forcing everyone to learn about Bach or Mozart. It’s about learning how to think, rather than what to think.

READ: Forced spending cuts slash hope for teachers

That “how” is the holy grail of education. It’s exactly what makes a good scientist, a good entrepreneur or a productive member of society. I don’t play the tuba anymore, but I think the lessons I learned from it are actually more ingrained into me now that I have some distance from the actual medium I learned them in. Here is just a portion of the many life lessons I learned through music:

Work hard and it pays off
This one came early on in my short-lived musical career. I wasn’t a very good musician when I first started out. It was obvious why: I only practiced an hour a day. But Katie down the street practiced four hours a day. My solution was to kick it up to six hours a day until I was just as good as she was. I had to make up for lost time, and I soon overtook her.

Make it happen
An amazing musician once said to me: “Make it happen."

There will always be obstacles in your way. My junior year in college, my quartet was making a recording for an international tuba competition. (Seriously.) It seemed almost impossible for us to get together to record, but we found one time: 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday. We had all been in class since about 8 a.m., and I had a serious sinus infection. It might have been the coffee and more meds than a doctor would recommend, but I’m convinced that these simple words cleared my head and allowed me to power through the pain and exhaustion. We made the semifinals.

Know where you stand
My teacher in grad school was fanatical about controlling variables. (Hey, a business school lesson!) This meant everything from designing your own instruments to recording everything that you play. But it didn’t stop there. What about your diet? Your exercise regimen? Everything that could have an impact on your performance needed to be taken into account. In music, and in life, to make decisions or move forward, you need to have as much data as possible about current conditions.

Do your research
A piece of sheet music doesn’t tell you exactly how to play everything. In fact, it’s just a general guideline. You would play a staccato note differently in Shostakovich than you would in Mahler. It’s important to fully understand context, and the only way to do this is to do some serious research. Read a biography, read what the composer wrote, talk to the composer if you can, look at several different versions of the score and listen to different records to figure out exactly what you need to do. If you don’t have accurate or complete data, you can’t make a decision, right?

READ: Hear the music - STEM studies aren't the only path to a better future

Make connections
Before I went to business school, my classmates and I always related the music to something else. Wagner’s intense “Ride of the Valkyries” is a waltz, which makes it fundamentally no different from Diane Birch’s “Photograph,” except that you're more likely to hear Birch in the background at a coffee shop. What you know about one thing can apply to the other. The deeper you go, you can make different links. Everything in life connects.

Work with others
In business school, everything is a group project because in the “real world,” you work in teams. Great. That’s what music school was. Put five people in a room together, all with different ideas on how a piece of music should sound, and you need to figure out how to make the best music that you can. There is no escaping these people; you have to work together because you can’t just eliminate an instrument. If your French horn player gets mad because you didn’t eat the cookies he brought and walks out, you can’t perform. It’s better than the lesson that came from business school – please, if a team member’s work isn’t up to snuff here, I can do it myself.

Be responsible for your work
When you’re performing music, you can’t cheat. You can’t say to the audience, “You don’t get it.” If they didn’t understand it or like it, you failed. You are completely responsible for your product being well-received.

I recently spoke to a recruiter from a large tech company and was told that two of the most important traits they look for in new hires are their ability to think like the customer and taking complete responsibility for their work. It’s a sense of responsibility that has to be learned, and I learned it as a musician … in high school.

I’m not advocating for everyone to go to music school. I am saying that we, as a nation, need music education to teach everyone these lessons and more. It’s what will help prepare students to join the workforce, whether they’re part of an orchestra, a lab or a startup. Keep kids involved in the arts and stop underestimating the inherent value of music education.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Andrew Schwartz.

What life lessons did you learn in music class - or maybe biology, calculus, English, gym, or even underwater basket-weaving? Share your story in the comments!

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Filed under: Humanities • iReport • Music • Voices
soundoff (203 Responses)
  1. ivettelopez

    I completely agree with Andrew's article. As a journalism major, I still take music classes outside my university because the music somehow gives me clarity, serenity and a structure that I use to focus on my regular curriculum. It is truly a shame that music education is not seen as a necessity to discipline the minds of young children.

    April 2, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  2. Totally free Sheet Music- How to Discover It

    Just want to say your article is as astounding. The clarity on your submit is just nice and i could think you are an expert on this subject. Fine together with your permission allow me to grasp your feed to keep updated with coming near near post. Thanks one million and please continue the gratifying work.

    April 2, 2013 at 6:13 am |
  3. Kathy in KC

    Move people. Make them cry. Make them want to lift their arms and feel what you are singing (or saying). Choose your music or your words to connect with people's emotions and they will want more.

    March 31, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  4. mtorcellini

    Reblogged this on matt torcellini | human.

    March 30, 2013 at 9:21 am |
  5. soberparties

    As musicians we learn how to critique smaller parts of a larger project. This helps when troubleshooting, leading a team, or just being more attentive to people's needs. As an event planner I'm able to manage several tasks throughout the night and not even stress about it. I've done it all as a percussionist 🙂 – Jake

    March 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  6. Vusani

    I learned in band that I can have fun with my friends doing something at which I'm not very good. I had no intention of devoting the practice time that Andrew did. I enjoyed running and math more but marching band was fun. 8 steps equals 5 yards. It was math and athletic and my band friends got my jokes and my teachers tolerated my sense of humor and tried to teach me despite my musical mediocrity. Years later I realize why I got up so early to practice marching and playing on a cold, dark high school parking lot. It was fun.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  7. Alabama Tuba Lady

    Andrew...I do believe I know you! CTEW – Tuba/Trumpet retreat? You're a great tuba player and now I see you are a great writer. I'm privileged to know you and continue to wish you the best. OH! and without hesitation I agree with you. I always thought my good driving record was in part because of my involvement in band and orchestra. It's a matter of reading what the folks around you are doing and anticipating smooth movement that gets everyone to the "fine" without a crash.

    March 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  8. ruthcatchen

    I am inspired by this blog post to write my own about the same subject. I think about my life as a musician every day and what it taught me about learning, priorities and life. I love what I do now, but I wouldn't trade my years as a musician and the discipline, process, hard work and creative expression that it taught me. I have those experiences to share with students and those experiences to help others learn.

    here it is:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    March 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  9. Saikumar

    The points of view were good and honest.. inspiring.. My take is music will find its way just like life.. they are not inseparable..

    March 27, 2013 at 1:48 am |
  10. piccolois

    Great article! Thanks for posting Andrew, I plan to share it. I shared my own story in my article "Life Lessons I Learned in Marching Band" for Powell flutes (written for the flute teacher).

    I tell my students that no other life activity has you deal with so many variables at one time: note reading, rhythm reading, keeping tempo, watching for accidentals, articulations and dynamics, keeping pitch, remembering to breathe and use air wisely and responding to others by adjusting to pitch, tone and dynamics on the fly. The more advanced student has the added concerns of phrase shaping, coloring the sound, changing the vibrato speed and amplitude, playing in "the zone", focusing on stage presence, and cuing the other musicians, all while coordinating the tongue, air and fingers in a technical passage to within the smallest fraction of a second. I have often wondered as to which side of the brain got the greatest workout- it seems to be an even match between logic and artistry.

    March 25, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Jan

      Amen...glad to see there are some young folks who actually "get it"...bravo...what a great educator!!!
      now, all that needs to be done is implementation...the truth be told!!!

      March 26, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  11. pianogal

    Wow! Great article and comments! I've been thinking about the ability of music to reach all of mankind. It is one of the basic ways we have of communication between every human being. Rhythm is innate in nature as is balance, pattern - so much more that music encompasses. It also makes connections between every discipline - even the physics of the overtone series, pitch, volume, and tone color. There are few disciplines that are so grounded in math that also provide Maslow's peak experiences. If taught well, it also prepares students for life as the author states. Students must learn self-discipline for practice, and the profit of reaching long-term goals, as well as working with others to achieve a mission. They must think to play a musical work - what is the tempo, what is the rhythm here, how should this melody be interpreted, is this the most important part of the piece, is this the most important part or a supporting part of the instrumental blend, where should I take a breath - all these thoughts must be brought together in real time, and many more - yet, most important, how can I communicate the absolute beauty of this music and help my audience to feel? As I began –wow!

    March 25, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  12. Jason

    "But through that transition, I’ve realized why music needs to be a cornerstone of education. Music is an art and a science, and it's one of the best ways kids can learn creativity and those mythical critical thinking skills."

    While I don't disagree that music can teach creativity and critical thinking skills, it does not need to be a cornerstone of education - putting aside the impractical nature of such an idea, it's just not necessary. What you fail to mention is that the other humanities disciplines, and the social sciences, also offers a path towards being creative and thinking critically. History, English, Psychology, and so on and so forth, are all perfect for this goal.

    Business and the hard sciences, including Computer Science, aren't as good at this (or almost entirely fail), and it's a major reason why humanities and social sciences need to be a cornerstone of our education - of which music is certainly a part of.

    March 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Jess

      I'm going to assume that you were just writing without thinking clearly when you said that music didn't need to be a cornerstone of education in one sentence and then immediately followed that by saying, "humanities and social sciences need to be a cornerstone of our education – of which music certainly is." What I'm going to assume you meant to say is that music, while an excellent way of teaching creativity and critical thinking, is not the only way to learn these skills.

      I would take issue with your statement that music is not necessary. This article is expressly describing why the writer feels it is necessary. And I would agree. Think of all the ways in which music influences your life every single day....movies, TV, hit songs on the radio, religious services (and I could keep going) tell me that music isn't necessary. What would life be like if there was no music? While intense study of music my not be everyone's cup of tea, I don't see how a basic understanding of such a pervasive element of culture isn't necessary (or at least very valuable).

      The ancient Greeks (not to mention almost every serious proponent of education reform) live by the idea that "the arts" (dance, music, theater, visual arts) are integral to education; not only for the benefits described in this article, but because the arts are the stronghold of culture. What is a society without culture? That answer would be very scary.

      "Music is to the mind as air to the body." –Aristotle

      March 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  13. etummons

    Reblogged this on singingdancingcreating.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  14. Leslie

    For a group to work together as a whole they must listen to each other as well as play their own part.

    March 24, 2013 at 12:58 am |
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