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The Lifelong Effects of Music and Arts Classes

If your local symphony or non-profit theater are selling enough tickets to stay afloat, thank a music teacher.
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Photo showing a family of four in front of a tree lit for Christmas

(Photo: Alice Achterhof/Unsplash)

Music teachers have it tough. Hours are long, pay isn’t great, and many live with the knowledge that their jobs could be eliminated in the next round of funding cuts. Surely a significant number occasionally ask themselves: Why am I doing this anyway? Am I really having any long-term effect on these kids, and on my community?

Well, it turns out that they are. New research suggests they are creating arts aficionados, and cultivating the next generation of patrons and performers.

“If one aim of music education, as many music educators report, is to engender a lifelong connection with the arts,” writes Kenneth Elpus of the University of Maryland, “the results of this study suggest that music — and arts education more broadly — is achieving this aim for many alumni.”

For his study, published in journal Psychology of Music, Elpus analyzed data from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, an ongoing project of the once-again-threatened National Endowment for the Arts. It included data on 9,482 American adults regarding “their childhood experiences with music and arts education.” A larger group of 35,735 were asked about their arts-related experiences over the past year, as an audience member and/or creator.

“Rather than disengage from art-making and arts attendance upon graduation, students of school-based music and arts education were significantly more likely (than their peers) to create art in their own lives, and to patronize arts events,” Elpus reports.

Even after taking such factors as race, sex, and socioeconomic status into account, “Both music performance and music appreciation courses are strongly associated with later arts participation as patron/consumer and performer/creator,” he writes. For example, compared to their peers, “Former music-appreciation students were 93 percent more likely to attend classical music or opera performance as adults.”

Not surprisingly, former music performance students were far more likely than their peers to either sing or play a musical instrument as an adult. But, interestingly, they were also “186 percent more likely to take photographs as an artistic endeavor.”

Indeed, Elpus’ data suggests studying one art form appears to increase interest in others. Those who had taken a dance course or a visual art appreciation class in school were 73 and 71 percent more likely than their peers to attend live theater as an adult. Former dance students were also 63 percent more likely than their peers to attend a live jazz concert.

So, all you Mr. and Ms. Hollands out there, your diligent work is not in vain. Not only are you helping kids’ intellectual and social development: You are also, in the long run, bolstering the health of our nation’s arts organizations by supplying them with new audiences and donors.

“Arts educators should not take this charge lightly,” Elpus writes, “and recognize that their daily work, if done well, can help their students develop into an arts-engaged citizens.”