Many students in my “Music and Healing” course played in school bands and orchestras, or sang in choral and musical-theater productions. But almost none of them still sing or play the piano or violin.
They have become too busy with demanding academics, clubs or competitive sports. I try to reignite their interest because I believe in the value of musical creativity to balance the individual, to relieve stress and to fire the imagination — all things that college students desperately need.
Recent research supports this thinking. Yet most colleges provide precious few opportunities, except in audition-based college choirs and instrumental ensembles.
Current standards set by the National Association of Schools of Music for college music degree programs acknowledge the value of teaching improvisation to music students, who “must acquire a rudimentary capacity to create original or derivative music.”
But what about the value of recreational music-making, which is widely believed to improve physical and psychological well-being? Studies show that this kind of informal music “alters gene expression pathways in patients with coronary heart disease” and is useful for “promoting brain plasticity across the life span.”
Also, in one remarkable prison program in Philadelphia, music affords inmates “a chance to feel human again.”
Technical and artistic developments in music are important, but there are too many larger benefits of musical creativity to limit the conversation to those pursuits. An example of this may be seen at SUNY Fredonia, where a student improvisation group, “The Improv. Collective,” announces that it is “a community” that “benefits from the courage of the performance major, skill of the music educator, creativity of the composition major, technology of the sound recording major, nurturing of the music therapist and most of all, from the ‘beginner’s mind’ of the non-major.”
Many colleges and universities have initiated recreational drum circles as part of their extracurricular offerings — often as college-community activities that serve the additional benefit of connecting students to people outside the academy. These are wonderful environments for people who consider themselves amusical, but don’t necessarily challenge the self-identified former musician.
Music departments need to find ways to go beyond their obvious mission to serve those students whose sense of well-being could be improved through music.
My students are out in the community, doing drum circles at a local VA hospital, offering music classes for children with special needs and singing to babies on ventilators at a local hospital.
One student group works with an organization that serves women and children who are affected by HIV/AIDS. The students sing, dance and drum alongside the people they are sent to “help.” As one student wrote in her journal recently, “While I have been a little afraid to sing out loud since I discontinued musical theater, these kids have encouraged me to let my voice be heard no matter what it sounds like. Being a part of the musical atmosphere again has made me miss my days in theater a lot lately and I look forward to continuing to explore that part of myself again.”
The mantra of the SUNY Fredonia program, borrowed from the folk wisdom of Zimbabwe, is: “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” These words should be food for thought for all of us who are ushering a generation of overworked, over-stimulated, and over-stressed young people into adulthood.
They can dance and sing, and we ought to encourage them to do so regardless of what they are majoring in.
Mona Kreitner is a part-time assistant professor of music at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.