Low-income CMU music students don't get a fair chance to play

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Parents who dream of their five-year-old playing sonatas can bring them to Carnegie Mellon in the hope of lessons. Through an application and interview process, their child can become one of ten students accepted to the Beginning Piano program, which trains children from the ages five to seven. The benefits of childhood music training are well documented, and music education is a great way for the School of Music to give back to the Pittsburgh community. However, the cost of the Beginning Piano program — and the distinct lack of financial aid options — makes this education and its plethora of benefits inaccessible to children of lower socioeconomic status. The program inadvertently ends up perpetuating privilege and elitism instead of giving all kids a chance at learning classical music.

The caliber of Carnegie Mellon’s music programs is well known. Lesser known around campus is the Music Preparatory School, which houses the Beginning Piano program and additionally trains kids from the ages four to 18 in piano, percussion, guitar, and string instruments. Students in the general program take weekly private lessons at $85 per hour, as well as a free elective. At around $900 per semester, the Beginning Piano program is more comprehensive, including a 30-minute private lesson, a 45-minute group lesson, and a 45-minute Eurhythmics class, which non-music majors may know as the reason your music major friends spend exam week skipping around their dorms.

While Eurhythmics may seem odd from an outsider perspective, it is one of the cornerstones of music education here at Carnegie Mellon and is not offered at many other institutions. It teaches students how to better articulate themselves through music by feeling it with their whole bodies, and it has been proven to increase young children's self-awareness.

The other benefits of the Prep School program are less unique to Carnegie Mellon and more widely researched. A study by the Boston Children’s Hospital found that music training in early childhood improved development in the areas of the brain that control executive functioning. According to head researcher Nadine Gabb, “Since executive functioning is a strong predictor of academic achievement, even more than IQ, we think our findings have strong educational implications.” Learning an instrument also helps with language processing. The Stanford Report found that music training helps people detect small differences in syllables and the rapidly changing sounds that make up a language. Another study published in PLOS One found a correlation between at least three years of musical training and increased fine motor skills, vocabulary, and nonverbal reasoning.

What all of this adds up to is that programs like the Music Preparatory School help students improve their reading and physical ability, expand their vocabulary, raise their academic performance, increase their problem solving ability — all in addition to gaining the ability to play an instrument. The rewards of these improved abilities are obvious in the Prep School’s student body. Dan Barrett, the director of the program, described its typical student as an overachieving, Ivy League-bound kid with 25 extracurriculars. Surprisingly, the students who seriously apply themselves to the Prep School often do not go on to study music in college, because they excel in many fields. Barrett tied this academic success to their experience with music, and the weight of scientific research backs him up.

However, the gains from music training may be even bigger, and arguably more important, for the groups that Carnegie Mellon has failed to serve. A 2014 study by Northwestern University found that students from impoverished backgrounds experienced a greater ability to interpret speech after two years of music lessons as children. Underprivileged youth often have difficulty interpreting speech patterns precisely, which is a major contributor to the academic gap in performance between children from rich and poor backgrounds.

Academic performance is one of the few tickets to upward mobility, and the New York Times reported in September that the gap in earnings between those with and without a college degree is the biggest it has ever been. Yet according to the same article, “only five percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school have a college degree.”

Giving children from underprivileged backgrounds the skills, self-discipline, and self-confidence necessary for college is vital, and music education can provide that. Carnegie Mellon has not been idle in this important field. Dr. Natalie Ozeas of the School of Music has created programs to get music exposure and education into Pittsburgh public schools, including an initiative to give keyboards to classrooms.

However, the Prep School remains unattainable for many. The $900 semester cost for the Beginning Piano program in significant, and the program requires a commitment of four or five semesters, adding up to about $3500. Most students in the program continue their study through middle or even high school; poorer students must do the same if they want to see the same benefits. This is can mean over $3000 per year for a family already struggling to pay the bills.

To be fair, this is how most universities run their music prep schools. However, Carnegie Mellon can and should break the pattern. The benefits of financial aid options are clear for underprivileged students, but there are also benefits for all of the students and the program at large. Having students from different backgrounds in the group lessons will allow all the children to hear about different perspective and experiences, and offering scholarships will help break the elitism so common in classical music programs.

It will not be easy for the Prep School to create scholarship options. The program is currently completely self-funded, and the resources offered to students are impressive and therefore expensive. Nonetheless, the program should make it a priority to offer at least one full-ride scholarship through the entirety of their piano program, as well as a few partial scholarships. Carnegie Mellon has a chance to be at the forefront of equal access to music education, and we should take up the challenge. We want the best and brightest students — from all backgrounds.