Fighter pilots and the battle for music education

Yesterday evening I was delighted to attend the Continental League Music Festival at the Boettcher Concert Hall.  Students from every DCSD high school, along with students from Heritage, Regis Jesuit, and Littleton High Schools were selected to participate in three honor ensembles: orchestra, choir and band.  All three groups shared the stage and even performed as a combined ensemble to close the program.  The caliber of these musicians was outstanding; they all put in hard work and are truly to be congratulated.

I usually sit in this section when I attend Colorado Symphony concerts--but it wasn't conducive to seeing the entire group of students!

The three ensemble conductors were accomplished musicians and educators.  During the performances, each took the opportunity to advocate for music education in their own ways.  Being an aerospace engineer who is also a civil servant, one speech in particular resonated with me, although I suspect it would have done so even if I were neither of those two things.  Colonel Lowell Graham (USAF, Ret.), conducted the honor band.  As the former commander and conductor of the U.S. Air Force  Band, he proposed five ways that musicians are like fighter pilots.  Or, as I prefer to think of it, ways that fighter pilots are like musicians.

Work independently.  Fighter pilots are generally alone in the cockpit.  They need to know how to operate the aircraft and use it for the purpose at hand.  Music breaks down to individuals who play individual instruments or sing using individual voices.  Each musician is responsible for his or her own part of the music and must work to learn it themselves.

Work as a team.  A pilot is not alone.  He or she has a ground crew, receives direction from others, and works in tandem to accomplish the mission.  Any musician who has ever worked with any other musician needs to know how to collaborate to make an ensemble piece come to life. 

Look ahead.  Pilots are constantly scanning the horizon and the skies ahead as they fly.  Being a step ahead will help prepare them for engagement with an adversary.  Musicians know how to read ahead and be ready for whatever comes next in the music.  They cannot afford to be immersed only in the present, lest a change take them by surprise.

Multitask.  A fighter jet cockpit is a dizzying array of instrument panels, indicators, switches, dials and knobs.  A pilot must know how to stay informed of anything he or she needs to know in all of these readouts, while paying attention to the skies ahead and while thinking about tactics to wage the battle.  Musicians have multiple things to do when playing or singing with a group as well.  While manipulating the instrument or using a voice to bring the music to life, he or she is also listening to fellow musicians and being attentive to the conductor. Multitasking is a necessity.

Complex problem-solving.  Fighter pilots think on their feet.  There is no time to analyze everything slowly.  Pilots think strategically to address all of the tactical issues that arise in the blink of an eye.  They are analytical and trained to overcome and win conflicts.  Musicians must be the same way.  A musician is translating the music on the sheet—essentially “code” printed on paper—into sound for an audience.  In doing so, the vast array of notes, clefs, ledger lines, key signatures, time signatures, dynamic markings, and other written instructions are simultaneously read to become seamless music that is heard and enjoyed by audiences everywhere.

I find this list extremely compelling.  This list is like a wish list for skills we need our kids to have as they move through school and out into the world.  Training in music and the arts provides these things effortlessly.  No one is struggling to emphasize these things to kids in music ensembles.  They have learned them by default.

Education in music and the arts, unfortunately, is threatened by shortages in resources.  I have never talked to a single person who is cavalier about this, or who is happy with the idea of music and art education going by the wayside in favor of more “basic” subjects like math, reading and writing.  Rather, as Col Graham showed, everyone believes that the arts help our kids be better in those areas.  When I was at CU Boulder, the most common double degree was in engineering and music.  We cannot afford to let arts education continue to slide.

I have been involved in the Patrons program at Chaparral High School for some time now, attending and supporting events throughout the last few years for the performing arts there.  I know other high schools have similar booster programs to help their arts programs.  This is a great start—I want to do more.  I have already been working with other board members to examine ways to augment arts education in DCSD.  The Continental League Music Festival was a great event to revitalize my efforts.  Arts education is too important to sit back and hope for the best.