Why Learn an Instrument?


Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.  Psalm 33:3

Thursday night we had our “Instrument Fair” and it was such a pleasure to see (and hear) so many kids get excited about playing an instrument next year.  I saw a lot of smiles and heard a lot of positive comments, even from some kids who had come that evening not sure they wanted to play.  Our new instructor, Elizabeth Staff Dockery, is top notch (click Elizabeth Dockery, bio to see her background).  And her husband Steven did an amazing job demonstrating all the instruments for us and explaining the differences.  Some kids “caught the bug” right then for the instrument that they wanted to play, while others needed to try them out first.

Part of the purpose of the evening was to communicate a bit about why we are choosing to prioritize this particular endeavor for our students, to introduce everyone to Mrs. Dockery, to give students a chance to pick an instrument and actually rent one (all will be delivered to the school prior to the first day), and to generate excitement!  I was so glad to see so many families there.

Many families are ecstatic we are doing this.  However, both that evening and over email I have gotten several questions about why we are doing this and whether or not it is fair to make it a requirement, and so I wanted to go ahead and respond to those who may have this question.  The questions made me realize that I have probably not done an adequate job of explaining what we are doing and the reasons why, so I thought it might be helpful to do so here.

Why instrumental music?

There are numerous studies about the advantages of studying music, even if the student never goes on to play past junior high.  The effects of studying a musical instrument range from increasing the capacity of your memory to bettering mathematical ability to sharpening concentration, all things that we want for our students.  Please see this excellent article on the 18 Benefits of Playing a Musical Instrument for more information.

Instrumental music also truly fits who we are as a school.  In an age when students are getting more and more “brain stuffing” and more and more arts programs are being eliminated, we are choosing a broad education (the abundant feast) over a narrow one and the pursuit of beauty over merely the pursuit of a career.

Why a band instrument rather than an orchestral one (like violin)?

Mrs. Dockery and I made this decision together after discussing it.  There are quite a few reasons for this.  The music made for beginning bands is more accessible than orchestra music.  It takes less time to achieve proficiency.  And tuning is much harder for an orchestra than a band.  It is more difficult to learn a stringed instrument in just two classes a week without private lessons.  This does not mean we will never offer strings, just that we cannot do so right now.  Perhaps at some point in the future if we can afford another teacher, we can allow this option for our students who desire to play a stringed instrument, especially if they are also able to afford outside lessons.

Why is it required (not optional) for 6th grade (and this coming year for 7th-8th)?

This was a curricular choice we made as a school.  You may remember band being entirely optional in your school, but you likely went to a public school with many more students, perhaps a thousand students or more.  Bigger schools can have more programs like band which are entirely optional.  Because band requires a qualified person (with training in multiple instruments and training in how to teach them to beginners, someone who knows how to conduct, etc.) this isn’t something we can easily find someone to come do for just an hour once a week (qualified people need a job that pays a little better and involves more hours a week).  If we provide a second option at the same time, it costs us twice as much, and the instructor is the most expensive part of any new offering.  Also we want all our students to have this shared experience for at least one year.  Being a smaller private school almost always necessitates making band a requirement for at least a single year. I consulted with the band teachers at Carmel and Covenant Day before we chose to take this on, and instrumental music (band) is required at both of those schools for a half year or a full year for some of the same reasons we are doing it.

When we do picture study as a school, it is a curricular choice that we make based upon our values as a school.  Even if a child doesn’t like to paint and says that they aren’t an artist, they still need to pick up a brush and try.  And often- almost always- students surprise themselves by how well they do.  This is like that- it is a curricular choice we are making as a school.

Is it required for three years or just one?

We plan on only requiring this for one year for our students.  Normally it will be required in Intermediate III (6th grade) and optional in Junior High.  We had to begin with three grades this year partly because otherwise our junior high students would have missed out on doing this otherwise, and also to build our program (this is related to being able to afford to offer it at all).  We hope to have grown a bit more the following year as a school so we can provide a secondary option to junior high students who do not wish to continue with band, and we believe we will also have a fair number of JH students who will wish to continue.  However, it will always be required for one year from here on out (Intermediate III).  Students not yet in the 6th grade can look forward to learning an instrument in 6th grade, and then whether or not they continue will be up to them and their parents.

What about the cost?

I do realize that there is a cost involved for parents, but given what you are getting, it is quite minimal.  The school is picking up the cost of the teacher and the books and other things required for this (much of that will be taken care of based upon our fundraiser this year).  We need things like hardy music stands and a set of cymbals and a bass drum in order to have a band.  We are providing all of that.  Much like the high school students who have to purchase their own Macbooks, the students taking band do need to cover the cost of their own instruments, partly because it is simply too difficult to manage the care of these if they are school-owned.  And the monthly cost is minimal- approximately $25 per month (and an extra $6 per month if you want insurance against damages).  That is about the cost of a family having dinner one night a month at Chick-Fil-A.  For that cost, your child will have the experience of playing an instrument in an ensemble.  It is less than the cost of an elective or playing a sport (over that same period of weeks).  Also, we did inform parents about that additional cost in our enrollment/re-enrollment paperwork this year.

My child plays piano.  Why do they have to learn another instrument?

There are benefits to playing in an ensemble that go beyond what it means to play a solo instrument.  Students learn to work together, to listen to each other.  It builds esprit de corps to perform a piece together or to go and get adjudicated together.  Eventually, we would like to take students at the end of the year to have a piece adjudicated at Carowinds.  That is something Mrs. Dockery has done with her students in public school and it was a wonderful experience.  Especially for students who aren’t athletic or who don’t play a team sport, this is a great opportunity to learn the same kinds of lessons they learn in team sports.  But even for those who do play team sports, there are lessons to be learned in a music ensemble (it is about the whole group sounding good together, not about you as an individual) that really cannot be learned any other way.  While some students are naturally gifted, it is really cool to see students get better through practice.  You notice it in a way you don’t notice with anything else because you cannot play a piece and then suddenly after practicing it you can!  And reading music is an incredibly important life skill that also helps students with reading words on a page.

Why now?

The timing of this has to do with a number of factors.  We are at the size as a school where we felt we can take this on, and we also are feeling that we need to invest a bit more in our Arts program as well as our Athletics program, as these are the two areas where students investigating Arborbrook and students already at Arborbrook have expressed interest in more than what we currently offer.  The timing also had to do with the availability of an instructor.  I searched high and low to find an instructor last year but could not find a qualified person who could do this for what we can afford to pay.  Elizabeth was available this coming year (partly because she wants to be home with her infant son more than she is now teaching at a public school), and is truly beyond qualified.  She is remarkable.  And I also wanted to wait a full year so we could let parents know about this in our enrollment documents in the fall so they could factor that into their financial decisions for the following school year.

A Note about Some Intangible Reasons

There are some intangible reasons we are doing this also.  Yes, there may truly be someone who plays this year who ends up becoming a musician.  Perhaps they didn’t even realize they had this skill.  Last night, I heard one student “play” every instrument extremely well, and I didn’t realize he was a musician in the making until that moment.  But the reasons go beyond that.  As a Christian school, we value truth and beauty.  There is a beauty in music that goes beyond what students are naturally drawn to on their iPods.  We have them read literature that they wouldn’t choose on their own because we want them to appreciate imagery and symbolism and to have their thinking expanded.  We want to nourish their souls.  Music- actually playing music- does this for you in a different way.  Music stirs us with beauty that goes beyond words.  It will greatly enrich students understanding of Inspirational Studies (listening to music).  I believe it is something we will still be doing in heaven even if some of what we do now falls away- we will be singing praises to the Lamb in heaven and probably playing instruments too.

In closing…

I would truly be glad to speak with you more about this in person if you still have questions.  I hope that if you are one of those who isn’t quite sure about this that you will give it a chance.

Please know that I deeply appreciate those of you who came to me in person or over email directly with your concerns.  I have a great deal of respect for that and I never want to shut down a legitimate concern.  My door (literally and figuratively) is truly open to anyone with a concern or a suggestion or a question.  I truly want Arborbrook to feel like a safe place for such concerns to be voiced.  I always appreciate it when people come to me directly rather than complaining to others and so I am thankful I heard directly from those who had concerns. Perhaps you may have something to say that I have not considered, and sometimes I will change my thinking about things after discussing them with a parent who has a concern.

I think you will be amazed at what your child can learn in a year under Mrs. Dockery.  They will make a joyful noise together and eventually it will actually begin to sound like music!