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I’ve been in isolation for over a month and, for the first time in that stretch, I have come to terms with doing nothing. I make my way over to the piano and start playing like I’m 9 years old again — and I feel years of conditioning, judgment and insecurity evaporate.

There’s still a voice in my head that desperately tells me I need something tangible to show the world when this is over. But today I’m listening to the kid, and I’m thinking of music and education in a different way …

 Now that many of our lives have slowed down because of COVID, there’s a part of me that thinks having nothing to do wouldn’t be such a big deal if we had a healthier creative education. A child makes a painting and then throws it away, makes up a song and then happily forgets it the next day. Very few adults are still connected to this type of activity. We come along, and at a relatively young age we separate students based on some idea of ability, often only nurturing those who we decide are good enough to make something worth keeping or showing.

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We even put the idea into a child’s head that they have to show it and then we wonder why so many of us feel guilty when we can’t be productive during a global pandemic. We’re all sitting at home, disconnected from our inner child and we don’t know what to do.

We’ve forgotten what existing, playing, creating, even loving for the sake of it is like. What if we had learned the value of play and exploration for its own sake, and didn’t have so much baggage heaped on our shoulders before we even start? But here we are, and here we have been, doing the same thing to the next generation.

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The financial barriers to music education are lower than ever. A school can now have a functional recording studio for half the price of a single brass instrument. But the lack of appreciation for the arts in schools shines a light on where we’ve gone wrong. In an overly justified world, can we finally allow ourselves to enjoy these things for the sake of it? If the arts teach children that the act of creating is enough in its own right, then intuitively they will feel like they can be enough in their own right. But so many of us unlearn that innate feeling of worthiness. It can be scary to sit with yourself, undefined by what you ‘do;’ but I think for many adults that is the first step towards any true education. How can we connect with a student on a human level with so many walls between that interaction? How do we, so heavily identified as “grown up,” know what’s best for the youth when we’ve lost any connection to our own ‘first learning’ — to our own childhood?*

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My band and I have visited many schools over the past few years. We try to engage students musically within the simplest context of social play — one student hits a drum to the rhythm of a peer’s clap, responding not just to the sound but the connection between two people.

The student gets to direct our band of eight adults in whatever way they see fit. Here they can find new ways to communicate and soften any barriers of generational hierarchy.

This has all been under the watch of some incredible teachers who have singlehandedly changed the direction of their programs.

These are the teachers who openly welcome an assembly like ours, who embrace an environment of play and who see the value in an experience that can’t be measured.

I wish that I had mentors like these when I was growing up, but what’s left now is to learn from them and hope that soon they’ll no longer be outliers in our school systems and society.

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Our intention was to ignite some kind of spark — to bring an experience that would linger and help students think a little differently about music, arts appreciation and even themselves.

Now, I’ve started to realize how much these students actually taught me, how much each adult should be learning from them.

If arts appreciation teaches children that the act of creating is enough in its own right, then intuitively they will feel like they can be enough in their own right. But so many of us unlearn that innate feeling of worthiness.

It can be scary to sit with yourself, undefined by what you “do.” But for many adults, that’s the first step toward any true educating. How can we connect with a student on a human level with so many walls between that interaction? How do we, so heavily identified as “grown up,” know what’s best for youth when we’ve lost any connection to our own first learning, to our own childhood?

We’re going to find great ways to teach the nuts and bolts, to bring a spark. The challenge lies with us adults, as educators, and with our intentions.

We need to think about where our own education steered us away from exploration and confidence, towards this need for validation. We have an opportunity in this world-wide shake-up to slow down and finally re-connect with our inner child. To revisit the very first feeling of creating something of our own for no one but ourselves.

I have no idea what the world will look like post-COVID, but what I do know is that we all have a responsibility to reflect on what this quieter world is showing us, and what we want to bring to that future. The slow road to that answer for myself began this morning, with two hands drifting on the piano and no other thought on my mind.

This story about music education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization covering inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Nick Ferraro is the vocal/alto sax player for Busty and the Bass, a band he helped form when he was a student in McGill University’s jazz program.

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Nick Ferraro is the vocal/alto sax player for Busty and the Bass, a band he helped form when he was a student in McGill University's jazz program.

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