Music in Schools Today

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Member Spotlight: 

The Unique Role of Music in Teaching Literacy

We are excited to shine a spotlight on one of our newest members, Music in Schools Today (MUST). Our membership is expanding to include increasingly diverse organizations like MUST, who build literacy skills through unique approaches and skill sets that go beyond a traditional reading and writing focus. Their master teaching artists promote school readiness themes of language acquisition and ESL, science and numeracy while strengthening social-emotional skills. 

MUST has established and supported music programs in the Bay Area since 1983. In the past decade, MUST has responded to changing school needs by increasing in-school artist programs, developing music, theater and visual arts programs and returning to their original role in advocacy.

We sat down with Executive Director, Meg Madden and Program Manager, Pedro Rivas Lopez to learn about how MUST uses music to promote physical well-being and social understanding, and build bridges within local and global communities.

What makes Music in Schools Today stand out?

Meg In terms of Oakland, we did a 4 year study through the visual performing arts office for all children K-5 which gave us a research background and inspired what we did next. We started doing Jazzocracy, which is the history of Oakland through the lens of jazz. From that, we morphed two years ago into a program called Jazz Equity, which is more focused on the most underserved kids. There would be individual instruction, sectionals, preparation for performance for the underserved kids…Jazz is based on improvisation, that is really the key, that’s what is reflected in democracy and diversity. 

Pedro: The Adopt an Instrument program is very unique to Music in Schools. During the pandemic, Adopt an Instrument has become crucial in keeping music and art alive for folks and communities… Teachers have so many stories about how necessary the program is for students to get through (the pandemic). 

Meg: We’re going to be offering our programs to the 40 Community Schools in Oakland. The program is called Music Plus. The curriculum has music, a visual arts/theater component. It also has a musical toolkit that includes books. We spent a lot of time looking at what books are truly diverse, and are the best that help kids learn to read.

What is Music in Schools hidden talent?

Meg: I think it’s just the unique role of music in teaching literacy. Because music is an early organizing intelligence. Actually, in brain research, you find that there’s a part of the brain that is just devoted to music. There is no part of the brain that is just devoted to reading or science. Music is tied into learning to balance and walk and the very fundamental mechanisms by which we survive. When you teach kids from the very beginning, even in the mother’s womb, it gives kids a richer brain, and they’re going to be better at learning everything else. 

Looking at it from the child’s point of view, especially for kids that are struggling in school, music is something that is fun, a release, a way to express themselves, a way to relax. We’re doing a lot of work on relaxation and resilience right now, because mental health is emerging as so much, as an issue. We’ve always taught social emotional learning, but we’re really focusing more now on what are the key elements of working with traumatized children. Music and the arts are such a direct entree to the emotions, they can really create healing in amazing ways. 

“We’re doing a lot of work on relaxation and resilience right now, because mental health is emerging so much as an issue…Music and the arts are such a direct entree to the emotions. They can really create healing in amazing ways.”

Can you share a story or anecdote that has had a significant impact on you?

Meg: Mine is based on the story of  Hansel and Gretel. We had a little boy, whose father put a shotgun to his mouth and shot himself in front of his children and the little boy stopped talking.  He had a very loving aunt and uncle who really took care of him. We had a performance piece based on Hansel and Gretel, and he wanted to be the frog. They made him a beautiful costume of the frog. We got into rehearsal and he started croaking and jumping. And he hadn’t made a word or a sound! After that, it was like magic; he opened up and began talking again. 

Pedro: I have a couple stories but the one I can identify with as well, is how middle school students feel so lost. They are trying to identify who they are in the world and how they feel. During one of my site visits in San Lorenzo, I was at a Haitian dance class and there were thirteen kids in the class, all girls except one boy…he had been struggling with a lot of issues of self-esteem and understanding if dance or if staying in class was something for him. Our programming and the dance allowed him to connect to himself and feel who he was. It allowed him to celebrate his authentic self. Those are moments that I feel that Music in Schools Today lives for. For someone who feels they have no place in this world- music and art does that.

How has your work been affected by the pivot to distance learning?

Meg: It’s totally transformed how we deliver programming. We’ve been able to build an online relaxation and resilience curriculum, an entire curriculum that can be tapped into across the country. We’ve been getting resources to help us do this that we didn’t have before, that we’re really grateful for, through a program committee. They are helping us craft a hybrid and virtual curriculum. 

Everyone wants us to get back into the classroom. People are so tired of being online. Now we are expanding and need to beef up our group of teaching artists to support schools in the Fall. It’s very exciting and we’ll rise to the occasion! 

Why did you decide to become an OLC member?

Meg: We got involved with the OLC because it’s such an incredible vehicle for networking. Our experience of the weakest part of working in Oakland is a feeling of isolation. If you’re working in one school, it’s not the same as working in another and often, the teachers aren’t talking to each other. Sharing these experiences with other members is enriching. Later, we found that you had all these (literacy) resources, such as helping us develop our book lists. We really want to get  acquainted with all the members and see to what degree we can partner.  


This blog is a feature highlighting our OLC Members in action. We know that building a future where every Oakland child learns and loves to read will take all of us. That’s why we’ve built a thriving network of organizations to learn, collaborate, and champion literacy.  Learn More about our Membership by visiting our website.  For questions about Membership, contact Jethro Rice at jethro@Oaklandliteracycoalition.org. ——————————————————————————————————————————-

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