A Piano for Every Child May Sound Impossible, but in Some Schools It's Happening

The program Music and the Brain knows how big the benefits of music education can be.

(Photo: Alexander Crispin/Getty Images)

Feb 11, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Growing up, Lisha Lercari studied piano, listened nonstop to Aretha Franklin, the Beatles, and Bach, played guitar, and attended rock concerts.

“During my last year of high school I got hooked on studying music in depth, not just listening to it, discovered the thrill of counterpoint, and pretty much from then on knew I wanted to be a music teacher,” she says.

"Five-year-olds have so many neurons flying in their brains that they need to use them. The benefit of music is that it makes things connect more easily. "For the last 17 years Lercari has been the director of Music and the Brain, a music program she created that operates in 100 New York City public elementary schools, many of them in poor neighborhoods.

Her curriculum is inspired by a 1990s study that connects the experience of early musical instruction to increased cognitive ability. That study from the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the Department of Physics at UCLA finds that music training causes long-term enhancement in the reasoning of preschool children.

“Music helps students to focus, to concentrate, to attend to a task, and to memorize things,” Lercari says. “They learn pattern recognition, and it helps with math skills and literacy.”

Supported by various organizations, from the Ford Foundation to the 42nd Street Fund, Music and the Brain installs 15 to 25 pianos and keyboards in labs in each participating school. It's one of the few programs with a piano curriculum aimed at K–2 students, though it can also be used effectively with beginners of any age. Lercari says she enjoys using it to teach parents to read music in 30 minutes.

The extensive curriculum includes a repertoire of 156 songs, including examples of classical, folk, children's music, and world music. Presented sequentially, the songs teach ear training (for rhythm and pitch), movement, analysis, geography, history, storytelling, games, singing, dancing, piano playing, improvisation, and performance. The program also includes three piano books, as well as teaching manuals, rhythm and keyboard cards, theory papers, poster-size copies of each song, and 43 CD recordings.

Music teachers are given an initial training and attend an annual workshop. Instead of just teaching musical notes to children, Music and the Brain stimulates kids to think, act on that thinking, and become inspired to produce their own sounds. Take the William Tell Overture. In some programs, students may learn to read music and then play the song. With Music and the Brain, students find where notes are repeated, discuss and describe the music and how it felt to them, and create a story to go with the music.

According to the curriculum, students have “internalized the song in many different ways” before they sit at a keyboard, and this allows for better music interpretation and self-correction as they play.

“It is a rigorous hands-on program that motivates our children to read, write, think, and problem solve,” Norma Genao, a principal at P.S. 185 in Harlem, says. “Our students have been excited about the program as well and continue to be motivated. Our children did an outstanding musical performance of what they learned in the program.”

Some parents are so thrilled that their children have gotten involved in music that they are saving money to buy a piano or keyboard for birthdays and Christmas presents. Lecari says she loves it when parents are involved because then children have a better chance of excelling, not just in music but in all school activities.

Though studies of Music in the Brain have thus far been small, they have been promising. Early on, a study done in some of the New York schools implementing the program showed that students participating in the program did better on standardized tests, calculation, reading, and spelling. At one school, the kids in the music classes also scored significantly higher on the NYC-administered LAB test, which measures English as a second language.

"Early music education is one of those experiences that can make a profound difference," Lercari says. "We are finding that our kids read more quickly and listen more, regardless of which teacher is using the program. That kind of focus helps them in all areas of learning."

Lercari works tirelessly to put the program in as many schools as possible to counteract education budget cuts and the subsequent decline of arts programs. Music and the Brain has been exported to several New Orleans schools, as well as Montessori schools in France and schools in Israel and Chile. She's also hoping New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, will support the program's expansion in its hometown.

“The schools in this country need to go back to where they were in the '70s when they understood that music education was seminal to children,” Lercari says. “Five-year-olds have so many neurons flying in their brains that they need to use them. The benefit of music is that it makes things connect more easily. Kids are dying to learn and understand, not just music, but they want to grasp this world that they are in.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.