April 20, 2017: Louis Armstrong: Lessons for the Library

April 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Timeless. In the recent Belmont Media Center debate between Library Board of Trustees candidates, one candidate referenced how, while growing up, she used the World Book Encyclopedias as her reference source.  In contrast, I am reasonably certain that my Millennial daughter has never opened a World Book volume, turning instead to the internet as her primary information source.  The Belmont library serves both individuals, the middle-aged person who turns to books and the Millennial who turns to the internet, even though looking perhaps for the same information. As that BMC debate comment acknowledged, it is the information, not the mechanism used to record and make that information available, that withstands time.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Louis Armstrong, labelled by TIME publishing as one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time.  It was almost this day 94 years ago, April 5, 1923, that Armstrong, as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recording. And the world changed. According to music historian Phillip Atteberry, “jazz, more or less as we know it, could have happened without a lot of prominent people. If Benny Goodman hadn’t come along as the King of Swing, someone else would have. Something like jazz could have happened without Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Thelonious Monk or even Duke Ellington. But jazz as we know it simply could not have happened without Louis Armstrong.”

More than 40 years after making that first recording, Louis Armstrong was still making history. In 1964 (May 9th), Armstrong ended the Beatles run of 13 straight weeks of having #1 songs with his recording of Hello Dolly. The musical revolution in the United States wrought by the Beatles, in other words, was grounded, at least temporarily, by a nearly 63 year old man who had been playing his trumpet for 40 years.

Much can be said about Louis Armstrong’s legacy. Born in poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong became an international music icon. Even if not the originator of the jazz solo, Louis Armstrong took the jazz solo to new heights. Armstrong gave birth to the use of improvisation in American jazz music. Armstrong began his career with one instrument (the cornet), not moving to a different instrument (the trumpet) until 1926.  Even later, Armstrong added decades of unique vocal renditions to his musical legend. All of which is known today, of course, to both young and old.

Which brings me back to the Belmont public library. As I sit here thinking about Louis Armstrong making that historic recording back in April 1923, I find myself somewhat awed by the task that the Belmont library has undertaken for our community. The job of the library is to make accessible not merely music, but information, in a multitude of forms, from a multitude of eras, to a multitude of people. From Louis Armstrong’s first recording in 1926, to his Beatles-defying recording in 1964, up to the music he recorded before his death in 1971, the music of Louis Armstrong will live on in public libraries. Whether available to my Millennial daughter (through You Tube), or to folks my age (through a paper book), information about the life and music of Louis Armstrong is made available to all comers through the public library.

In this era known as The Information Age, you truly have to appreciate the complexity of the job undertaken by the Belmont public library, as a community institution, in making available timeless information to anyone, and everyone, who seeks it. And one must admire the commitment of the people who keep that institution vibrant through all the dramatic changes in information-sharing over time.

December 11, 2014: Bandorama and school music funding

December 11, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

This past Monday night, nearly 500 students of the Belmont Public Schools gathered to make music at Belmont’s 43rd annual Bandorama. It was such a pleasure to again see Belmont’s kids collectively demonstrating their math and science skills.

Music, of course, is more than artistic expression.  Music is one of the four subjects that comprise the quadrivium, that group of disciplines (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) that has, since Plato’s time, allowed scholars to describe the physical world.  From Aristotle, through Euclid, to today’s Belmont public schools, the quadrivium has been taught.

Belmont’s music program has long been one reason that our schools are held in such high esteem.  And though our daughter graduated from BHS several years ago, my wife and I still take great pride in watching our community’s students progress in their ability to make harmonies and rhythms, from elementary school, to middle school, on through high school.

We know today that music education has a broad, positive impact on the overall education of our kids.  The Scientific American reported, not long ago, that “music lessons can produce profound and lasting changes that enhance the general ability to learn.”  Instrument training in particular, the Scientific American said, makes it “easier to stay focused when absorbing other subjects, from literature to tensor calculus.”

One study done at the University of California—Irvine found that music uniquely enhances higher brain functions required for mathematics, science and engineering.  A profile of college bound students by the College Entrance Examination Board reported that “students participating in music education scored higher on the SATs than students with no art participation.”

An even more recent study looked at scores from almost 7,000 students at three grade levels (5, 8 and 11), finding “significantly higher scores. . .for students involved with music compared with students not involved with music.”

Bandorama, in other words, is not just a demonstration of Belmont’s commitment to aesthetic expression by our students. It is also a commitment to fundamental science, technology, engineering and math education.

Despite its importance, I worry that music education in Belmont may be incrementally eroded over time, both through a narrowing of classroom and extracurricular offerings and through the erection of participation barriers such as high activity fees.

I don’t intend, however, for this discussion simply to be a plug for full-funding of music education.  Some people may instead feel that there should be more AP classes, while others may believe that more language options should be available.  Yet others may believe that the schools should receive less money, with those dollars instead being spent on road and sidewalk repair.

Belmont will soon enter what is known as “budget season” within Town government.  Lasting through Town Meeting in May, Town officials will devote countless hours to deciding how financial resources will be raised and allocated among community priorities.

Starting in weeks, not months, in other words, policymakers will begin discussing which priorities will be funded in the coming fiscal year.  In addition, Town Meeting nomination papers will soon become available for persons wanting to be active participants in, not merely observers of, the decisionmaking about which town and school services get funded.  And it is never too soon to begin talking with family, friends, neighbors, parents of classmates, and others about how you believe Belmont should generate and distribute its financial resources.

Certainly, we should enjoy our community’s Bandorama simply for what it is.  However, Bandorama is, also, a cogent reminder of the need to take those individual and collective actions required to ensure that Belmont continues to provide superb education in all its aspects.