Address from Richard W. Riley
About Music Education
Following are excerpts from an address by former U.S. Secretary
of Education Richard W. Riley to the National Assembly of
MENC on Tuesday, July 13, 1999:
Several weeks ago, I went to England, Scotland, and Ireland to
visit schools and share ideas with educators. While I was in
London, I went to see a play, "The Prisoner of Second Avenue,"
starring Richard Dreyfuss. Afterward, I spoke with him backstage
and he said that of all his movies, he was most proud of
"Mr. Holland's Opus."
As a child, I took piano lessons for three or four years. I was not
destined to become a great musician. But I know that through
music, children learn to reach for their very best. You have all
witnessed the intensity with which children prepare for a recital.
They practice and practice until they can play the piece without
errors. Imagine if, when they are a few years older, they approach
a geometry test with the same intensity. Then imagine if they
continue to strive for excellence as college students, as citizens,
and as parents.
As music teachers, you lead children to do their best, and you teach
them that through practice and persistence they can achieve
something close to perfection. You also teach them to appreciate
the joy of music.
No one ever derived more joy from music than the great cellist
Pablo Casals. At the age of 93, after his long, wonderful career,
Casals decided it was time to write his autobiography, which he
called "Joys and Sorrows." You have to admire a man who waits
until he is 93 years old before he begins his autobiography. Casals
was either very confident of his longevity... or an incredible
For eighty years, he began each day by sitting down at the piano
and playing two of Bach's preludes and fugues. In his
autobiography, Casals explain this morning ritual:
"It is a sort of benediction of the house. But that is not its only
meaning for me... It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life,
with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.
The music is never the same for me -- never. Each day it is
something new, fantastic, and unbelievable."
None of us claim to have Casals' understanding and talent for
music. But all of us share part of his experience -- the miraculous
feeling when music lifts our spirits, transports us, and helps us
sense the beauty of the world.
As music teachers, you help your students experience that
miraculous feeling. And your best students, when they become
accomplished musicians, can inspire that feeling in others. You are
giving all your students-- whether they are musicians or not -- a
tremendous gift.
The American composer Charles Ives' first teacher was his father.
As you know, Ives' compositions ignored tradition, jarred listeners,
and could not be played by the best musicians of his time. So, you
won't find it surprising that his father employed some unusual
teaching methods.
For example, while Charles sang "Swanee River," his father would
accompany him on the piano. Now, that's normal enough. But the
trick is, his father would ask Charles to sing in the key of E-flat,
but he would accompany him in C major.
Why would he do such a thing? No, the discord was not a form of
punishment. As Charles recalls it, his father created this odd
musical exercise so the Charles would "stretch" his ears, leave
customs and habits behind, and take nothing for granted.
A more recent American musician, Leonard Bernstein, could
identify with both Casals and Ives. Like Casals, he loved the pure
beauty of music. Like Ives, he promoted avant-garde music.
And Bernstein was a teacher. In his "Omnibus" television
programs, he led millions of viewers -- children and adults -- to a
better understanding of music.
He wrote a book, "The Joy of Music," that was based on the
television programs. In a chapter called "What Makes Opera
Grand," he describes the power of opera. According to Bernstein,
when we watch the greatest operas, we enter a different world, and,
afterwards, "we are enriched and ennobled."
So, what does all this mean? Casals says music fills him with the
wonder of life and the "incredible marvel" of being a human. Ives
says it expands his mind and challenges him to be a true
individual. Bernstein says it is enriching and ennobling.
To me, that sounds like a good case for making music and the arts
an integral part of every child's education. Studying music and the
arts elevates children's education, expands students' horizons, and
teaches them to appreciate the wonder of life.
Communities all across America are coming to realize the
necessity of including music and arts education as core subjects in
the curriculum. In doing so, they are improving their schools and
giving more children the opportunity to succeed.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, every school board meeting begins with a
student performance. What a great way to remind school officials that
music and art should be at the heart of the curriculum.
In Miami's elementary schools, every child learns art and music,
receiving 60 minutes of art instruction and 90 minutes of music
instruction every week. When schools emphasize music and the arts,
teachers and students become more enthusiastic and the entire school
day is infused with energy.
In the early 1980s, the Charlottesville, Virginia, orchestra program
had eight members. That's not an orchestra -- that's two string
quartets bumping into each other. Thanks to enthusiastic teachers
and support form parents and community members, the orchestra
now has nearly 100 members. And they have won state awards,
earned national honors, and performed at the White House.
And in a suburb of Washington, D.C., a young girl named Riley -
whose grandfather is very proud of her and likes to mention her in
speeches from time to time -- recently participated in an
elementary school band concert. The turnout and enthusiasm for
the concert was incredible. The parking lot was full. Parents were
supportive. They praised the band teacher. And, of course, the
music was great.
All of these are good reasons for supporting music education
throughout the country. And I'm sure that you are all aware of the
research that shows a connection between studying music and
improving skills that are useful in other academic areas.
When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory put together a team of
engineers and scientists to work on the Mars rover project they
weren't looking to form a band. However, most team members
were artists. There were metal sculptors, photographers, actors, and
To celebrate a successful launching in June 1999, a group of
engineers and scientists at Jet Propulsion Lab did in fact form a
band, calling themselves "The Big Band Theory."
If we can develop strong music education programs in schools all
over the country, good things will happen. Our schools will be
stronger. Our children will be smarter. Our nation will be greater.
And our lives will be filled with music.
What message does it send our students if a modern prison is built
right down the road, but their band room has a leaky roof? We
need your help so that Congress will understand the need for
modern schools across America.
I'd like to close with a few more words from Pablo Casals, who
wrote about the important role that teachers played in his life:
"To be a teacher is to have a great responsibility.... Children and
young people are our greatest treasure; when we think of them, we
think of the future of the world. Then consider the significance of
nurturing their minds, of helping form their outlook on the world,
of training and preparing them for the work that they will do. I can
think of no profession more important than that of teaching."
I am grateful to each of you for your work in the classroom. When
you teach children to love and appreciate music, you are helping
them lift themselves up to new places of the mind and the heart.
Thank you.
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