Why Music Matters
- By Alize Rozsnyai
A reflection on music education at South Philadelphia High School
I am frequently surprised to hear that the students I teach have disciplinary or scholastic issues of some sort in other classes – to me they bring their best, and I feel that I see their full potential, their joy of creation and learning, and their relentless motivation so clearly that I can’t imagine them any other way. I love hearing about a student’s musical interests, how they are striving to hit high notes, or need help discovering their voices. However, I love it most when students talk with me, not about how they are making music, but why. I think after training at a conservatory for so long, it was challenging for me to understand how a young, untrained student feels and relates to music, needing it to get through their day. It is deeply moving to be reminded of this, and that while musical technique is important, it is far from the most important thing we learn in music school. Music unites people without them knowing it – without them giving it their permission. Music is a fundamental part of life which is why, in my opinion, it can be so easily overlooked in public education. But music, like other forms of art, is actually everything there is, because it is the soul. If you, as a teacher or mentor, have no connection to a student’s soul, you have no way to teach them, period. That is what I believe.
I love watching the students come in each day, transformed by the excitement and opportunity to make music that day. No matter what else had happened in their prior classes, or last night at home, over the course of our time together, they change. Their posture straightens, their morale improves, and light comes over their faces. Their gaze – their ability to hold direct eye contact – improves with one another and with me. While they stand taller as individuals, confidently, they also acknowledge the importance of their unity as a team: a musical family. Their tone of voice changes: gentle yet commanding, confident, and in turn. I consider each moment with them to be a gift. I am honored and humbled to work with them.
As a warmup, we play improv games which require alertness, directness, and eye-contact. They must not lose focus or the game cannot continue – but the beauty is that nobody can lose. We only slow down as a group, and then wait for someone to come back on board.
In reflecting on my own high school experience, this type of individual expression, accountability, trust-building, and recognition did not occur in my classes. Think about a student in math class sitting at a desk, staring at a paper taking a test, working through a problem set, aiming for a grade, until the bell rings and pencils are down. In the improve exercise, each student is completely necessary for the entire class to participate and move forward as one; they are interdependent on one another. This is a unique perspective and experience the performing arts brings to our schools.
Based on my position at SPHS, I do not offer grades in choir and I am grateful that I am not required to do so. The beauty of our work together is that it is not a means to an end; it is an experience with intrinsic value that I hope instills strength, compassion, and engagement among my students. The idea that all of life, and that every task we engage in should be this way is a concept I wasn’t even able to understand until graduating from college, because public education as we know it is not built this way.
The best part of my job is reminding each and every student that they alone are enough, just the way they are. And not only that, but they are essential to our team. When they walk into our classroom, where we go as a group is limitless. Their individual and collective potential is limitless. The sounds and harmonies we create together, while at first for our own pure enjoyment, lead to curiosity and natural learning. Offering music education in our schools plants the seed of curiosity, expression, passion, and engagement that is too often lost from our schools. The experiences I am sharing with my students, add meaning to every moment, and remind me “how” we can learn. That is what my students have taught me.