For thousands of years human history was passed down the generations using music as a way to remember long sagas before they could be written down. In these modern times, we tend to think of music as an entertainment or something that helps a troop of soldiers to step out smartly in a parade. Music is not just entertainment. Music has a profound biological resonance and it is an essential component of nearly every human endeavor. Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist, wrote a book called "Awakenings" in which he describes his patients whose brains were severely damaged by Parkinson's disease. These patients were unable to walk, but when music was played they were able to get up and dance across the floor. Music has an alternate set of neurological pathways through our bodies and our brains.Some of my favorite memories revolve around time spent listening to Ronstadt's Canciones de mi Padre album with family and friends. I can close my eyes and hear my long-deceased nana on my mom's side singing Tu Solo Tu to me, or my tata on my dad's side belting out ¡Y Andale!
Music programs have a very discernable positive effect on our children's education. A recent survey by Harris Interactive of 450 randomly selected high schools revealed that students who are enrolled in a music program have a 90.2% graduation rate, while those who take no music classes have a 72.9% graduation rate. Christopher Johnson, professor of music education and associate dean of the School of Fine Arts at Kansas University, conducted a landmark study comparing test scores of students in a music program with students who had no music. Professor Johnson later testified before Congress, presenting some eye-opening data: students of all regions and socio-economic backgrounds who studied music scored significantly higher on math and English tests than students who did not study music.
Recently I have been invited to sing at several schools. I agreed on the condition that I not sing from the stage to a large school assembly but rather in the classrooms of first and second graders so that they could hear un-amplified music in a more natural setting the way I experience it in my living room. I know that many of these children don't have families that play music at home. In fact, most of them have had no experience with anything but recorded music. They think music comes out of their television or computer screens, not out of people's hands and mouths. After they got over the shock of discovering that we didn't have volume knobs on our heads or on our acoustic guitars, they settled down and listened to our selection of folk songs from the early part of the twentieth century. These were not children's songs. They were songs about building the railroad, exploring unknown territory and the loneliness of being a stranger in a new land. Afterward, we talked about the stories in the songs and how they might apply to their lives.
There are some excellent programs that promote live performances in the schools and they deserve to be supported. Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist who performed recently at President Obama's inauguration, has volunteered his time to perform in schools with the help of an organization called Young Audiences.
In my hometown of Tucson, an organization called OMA (Opening Minds to the Arts) has made a tremendous impact in helping children of many different cultures and languages to assimilate into the Tucson Unified School District. Children of African refugees, Native Americans, and Mexican immigrants, all have benefited from learning music, the universal language, as they struggle to become proficient in English and excel in their other subjects. In only the first year the program was implemented, the dramatic rise in test scores in schools being served by OMA surprised teachers and researchers alike.
Link to full remarks
I even remember tearing up when Linda appeared with Elmo on Sesame Street, singing La Charreada. It was the first time I felt like the rest of the country was paying attention to something so closely connected to my identity.
That album (and yes, I own the vinyl...plus a CD, DVD and now digitized version) was my first personal introduction to my mother tongue of Spanish. My parents didn't speak it in our house and barely understand it today due to the hate their parents experienced growing up in the era of Operation Wetback when it was declared open season on Mexicans, regardless of which side of the imaginary line they were born. It's a sad thing, really, and something I've been trying to rectify by studying and re-learning a language that holds an indescribable connection to my soul.
Linda's testimony today is consistent with what I experienced when Canciones debuted in 1987 - a renaissance of cultura, to a new generation that encouraged learning. She was already an established artist in the country/pop world and by doing an album in her native tongue using powerful songs that go to the heart of what it means to be Mexicano, people like me found ourselves memorizing the words to the corridos and boleros, exercising our brains and hearts to make room for another language.
I'm pleased to have the opportunity to see this amazingly talented (and liberal!) woman perform at this year's Tucson International Mariachi Conference towards the end of April. I attended a mariachi serenata performance of hers a few years ago but can hardly contain the excitement for this one. Reading Linda Ronstadt's testimony today, and reflecting on my experience of having music be a guide for deeper education, brings an uncontrollable ¡Grito! from my lips.