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88 Keys to Humanity

There it is. The AP Calculus test. It’s sitting right in front of you in its pristine plastic-wrapped packaging, and you can’t wait to tear into it and get started. “You may turn to page one and begin testing,” says the exam proctor. You waste no time in opening the packaging and turning on your TI-84. The first few problems are a breeze: derive, multiply, derive again. Anybody could do this, you think. This is supposed to be the AP Test? You quickly reach problem number four. It seems simple enough, but you see the phrase “take the antiderivative.” Then it hits you: your calculus teacher didn’t teach you how to take the antiderivative of a function. You think—almost want to say out loud—But that skill is integral to a basic understanding of calculus! It seems obvious that anyone who wants to be truly all-around good at calculus would be taught such a fundamental concept. Yet many of today’s students do enter the real world lacking not just important calculus concepts but an essential part of their overall education: music experience.

Just like the AP calculus student who left their class with no experience with antiderivatives, many kids and teenagers today are leaving school with little to no musical experience or knowledge. This calculus example may seem a little far-fetched, but everybody has gone to a test only to get partway through and have to stop short because they have run into a question they know nothing about. This is exactly what happened to the AP calculus student and is happening right now as many young students go through middle and high school without being given any music experience. The problem resides in the education system—it shouldn’t just teach math, science, and grammar. It should give its students an education in music as well—something that is uniquely human and connects people from all over the world. It seems obvious that anyone who wants to be a truly well-rounded person, nay, a well-rounded human should have some sort of music education. Just like the calculus student who didn’t learn everything about calculus, it doesn’t make sense that students should leave the education system without learning what it means to be human. Music is an essential element of human life, and has been around for many millennia. Some schools don’t require music education to graduate. But why, in education’s quest to make well-rounded humans, should music be ignored when concepts not every student will need to know—like derivatives and antiderivatives in calculus—are emphasized?

I was in the sixth grade. I sat at the smooth keys on the baby grand in the “music room,” my fingers seemingly seeking out all the wrong notes. Not surprised, I kept on playing the song—or some musical abomination that resembled it—because missing notes was familiar to me. Good thing my lesson isn’t for a few more days, I thought as the hardly musical sounds sprang from the piano to crash through the house and into my ear canals. Suddenly, I felt my mom’s hand on my shoulder. Her firm grasp stopped me. Naturally, I expected her to ask me to go back to the beginning and try again; I myself was almost at the point where I would do so voluntarily. I slid my hands off the now warm keys and turned around to see what she had to say. She looked away, down at the floor with her hands on her hips—what she usually does when she’s frustrated. She posed me a simple question: “Do you want to quit piano?”
Frustration sprouted up inside me as soon as I heard those words: why was I here sitting at this piano anyway? I didn’t enjoy playing it. In fact, I hated it—and I let my parents know it. So why was I still there wasting my time doing something I hated when I could be doing something else?
I bounced in the back seat of my mom’s red minivan as we pulled up to the yellow, antiquated house that held the piano studio. I was jittery. Excited. Today was the day I would quit piano and be done with it for the rest of my life! I imagined the possibilities: I was doing calculations in my head faster than a computer to figure out how much extra time I would have each week to devote to something else other than my piano lessons and practice. I hopped out of the minivan and slammed the door, my hand immediately wet from the rainwater on the door handle. The air even smelled of rain—that clean, sweet scent that appears after a downpour. I imagined the rain washing away the nuisance piano playing was to my life—giving me a fresh, clean start.
I walked out of the piano studio half an hour later signed up for another year of piano lessons. Truthfully, I don’t know why I decided to go through with it. I was so sure that playing piano was hurting my life, not helping it—yet I decided to do the opposite of what I knew I should have done.
I played piano all through high school after that day, and enjoyed almost every minute of every practice and every lesson. Looking back now, I can say that sticking with piano has unquestionably played a huge role in my life. Now, I have a much greater appreciation for music and can take part in it by creating my own. Only now can I grasp how much I would have missed without it. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I decided to throw away my music education—but it would have been similar to the calculus student who realized he didn’t know the basics. I would have been living my life without access to a basic, uniquely human experience.
Coming from this background, I can confidently say that having experience in music has greatly improved my life. Because music is such a human experience that can be shared by everybody, I can’t see that increasing music requirements in the public education system would hurt students in any way—in fact, it can only benefit them. But since I didn’t get the majority of my music education through public school (I did play cello in the orchestra but never became too involved in it), I need to revise my earlier statement. Where kids and teenagers get their music education is not important; what matters is that they get one at all. There are many schools that do not require any music education whatsoever for graduation, and that should be changed. I’m glad my parents pushed me into piano—and it’s up to schools to do the same. There is little excuse for a school to not have some sort of music program. You don't need a grand piano to learn how to play. Keyboards are cheaper than ever, so any public school should be able to afford at least a few. Just as no calculus student should take a test without knowing the fundamentals, no middle or high school student should graduate without basic music experience. Hopefully our society changes its tune about the role of music education in creating well-rounded humans beings.

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