‘Fifty-five percent of city public schools didn’t have a music educator, even before the COVID-19 pandemic…one aspect of that rebuilding must be integrating music as a core subject in the curriculum and ensuring all city schools have certified music educators.’

Emil Cohen/NYC Council Flickr

Students at Queens’ P.S. 150 perform in 2018.

As teaching moved rapidly into uncharted territory last spring, New York City students lost family members and teachers to the pandemic, leaving them with still-to-be-resolved trauma. Teachers had to teach via online platforms, while students lacked access to computers or internet access. Yet, despite ongoing and seemingly insurmountable challenges, teachers continue to be innovative and find ways to keep students motivated and engaged in learning.

Over the past year, the nation has gotten better at recognizing issues that were always there. As the new administration in Washington thinks about how to get us beyond the pandemic, and candidates for the New York City mayoral race line up, we have the opportunity to rebuild better on all fronts. As a former educator, I believe one aspect of that rebuilding must be integrating music as a core subject in the curriculum and ensuring all city schools have certified music educators. Despite the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) specifically highlighting music as critical to well-rounded learning, 55 percent of city public schools didn’t have a music educator, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Music is core to what makes us human. After I was kicked out of my middle school chorus at a New York City public school, I felt excluded and my confidence plummeted. I have always wanted to make sure other children don’t have to have the same experiences. I now lead Education Through Music (ETM), a nonprofit that provides access to music education to thousands of children in NYC.

Music is critical to a well-rounded education, developing our students’ creativity as well as promoting overall achievement in school. By nurturing students’ passions and interests, we help them develop and grow beyond the restrictive and relentless focus on standardized test results. We also keep students engaged with learning. Recently, one ETM school found that students were more likely to attend school for the full day when they had music class first thing in the morning. One online student started the year disengaged and hating music class, but through the past few months has participated more and more in online activities and recently shared that she “LOVES music!” in her class chatroom. Encouraging students’ enthusiasm for learning in any subject can only be beneficial to their wider learning.

That infectious enthusiasm is needed now more than ever. As our young people—especially the vast majority of city public students who are BIPOC—come to terms with the collective trauma of the pandemic and of a history of racial injustice, music is both a means to process and heal and a way to bring classes together to share their emotions. Seven out of 10 New York City schools say arts funding is insufficient. High-poverty schools are about seven times less likely than low-poverty schools to fund their arts programming through their Parent Teacher Association (PTA). High-poverty schools are also three times more likely to report receiving no arts funding other than the insufficient Department of Education (DOE) provision.

We can no longer treat music as a “nice to have” extracurricular. It must be taught by credentialed teachers who are both musicians and education professionals, like ETM teacher Mr. Martinez, who explains music theory through basketball and cooking. We also need a socially conscious curriculum, including different types of music from a wide variety of cultures that engage with students’ interests. Just after the election results were announced, Mr. Taylor, ETM teacher at MS/HS 223, asked his students to select two or three songs to be set with now-Vice President Kamala Harris’s nomination acceptance speech, either as background music for or commentary on the speech. This allowed students to analyze the world around them through songs they understood and work towards a full playlist for the class to share. 

As a city, we must reprioritize funding for arts education as soon as possible. I understand this won’t be achieved overnight but, in the meantime, I urge teachers and parents to make the most of the resources ETM and other organizations provide for free. These online music lessons are not a substitute for a full music program in the core curriculum, but can serve as a stop-gap until those programs are established.

We need high-quality music education for all students and it can be done, in person and online. Students blossom through music teaching. Let’s grasp this opportunity, as we rebuild in response to the challenges of the pandemic, and ensure all NYC’s public school students have access to music teaching so more children have that transformative experience.

Penny Swift is the executive director of Education Through Music.