The Sound of Learning

Patrice Pascual
October 4, 1999

The first time I sat in a classroom with Betty Scott, she was making the five-year-olds hold their noses.

"OK, let's say it together," says Scott, returning to the front of her sunny music room at University Park Elementary School just outside of Washington, D.C.

"S-A-A-N-D-S-A-A-N-S," twenty-seven nasal voices intone, bodies bobbing slightly as they name Scott's favorite composer.

"Excellent!" Scott enthuses, smile lines creasing around her brown eyes. "Next class, we'll hear a song Camille Saint-Saens wrote about graveyards!"

"I know why you chose this composer," says Alison, raising her hand just after the
words blurt out. "It's because he wrote a song about Halloween!"

"Halloween!" the children cheer. It's two weeks away from trick-or-treating and the school's much-anticipated Halloween assembly, where Scott's 650 students—who she teaches twice a week from kindergarten through grade six—sing spooky but silly tunes to delight and tease their teachers. That's just one highlight. Over the course of the year, Scott will have her students identifying Beethoven and B.B. King, using rhythm to solve "musical math" equations and starting each day by listening to Mozart on the P.A. system. Washington native opera singer Denyce Graves may stop by their classrooms, or a guest composer such as Bill Harley, who records on a national label.

While there is much to admire in Betty Scott and her petite musical-sophisticates, it struck me that this fine education was somewhat other-worldly in a public school where over a third of kids are receiving free-lunch and 27 is actually an acceptable kindergarten class size. But the more time I spent watching Scott, the more I realized that a solid music education shouldn't be relegated to just one more "extra" that some American kids get, but most don't. Plenty of kids might not have the inclination or support to excel in the science fair or in the book-writing contest, but in the arts, they may find a place to shine.

I'm thinking of kids like Tyrell.

The chubby sixth grader comes to Scott's classroom after the day's final bell wearing an oversized white shirt worn by grocery clerks and blue sweat pants. "Can I play?" he asks. Scott nods, and he sits down at the keys. He's new to the school and having some difficulty adjusting, so they've agreed that Tyrell can play only if he's had a good day in class. He doesn't read music, so Scott has written out a numbered finger system: 5434-555-444-555. He plays the first stanza of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Next, Scott joins him at the piano for a boogie-woogie duet. Tyrell beams while he struggles with the repeating bass line.

After a few minutes, Tyrell's bus is called and he leaves, thanking Scott and smiling at me though we haven't met. I ask about the boy, and Scott says he learned to love the sound of the piano after hearing it at church. He's lived in several. Tyrell is homeless.

"He doesn't know that I know," she says quietly.

Now any good teacher would look for a way to help a kid like Tyrell. Or Andrea, or the dozens of others I've watched come to Scott for instruction, support or to celebrate some good news. These aren't kids who have heard that music education correlates to higher SAT scores or
math skills. They don't know that by eighth grade eighth grade, they have just a 25 percent chance of participating in weekly musical activity. They just know they like what they're learning about music, and about themselves. Those lessons can last a long time.

"Thanks for telling me I did a great job in my solo in 'The Wizard of Oz,'" reads a tribute sent to Scott, "even though all of the boys in my class had their hands over their ears!"

Sounds like success to me.

Patrice Pascual is the Director of the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families and former managing editor of Connect for Kids.

For more information on music education, visit the
National Association for Music Education.