Vol. 113 (2022)

Training Young Leaders
Through Music

By Anne Fitzgibbon

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA



Several years ago, I attended the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, and in a discussion on “Why Music Matters,” one of the panelists professed, “I can take any subject and relate it to music.” That panelist was Clayton Anderson, a NASA astronaut, who is also a proud trombone player, organist, and vocalist. Hearing his words fueled a longtime fascination I have had with the preponderance of musicians hiding at the top of various industries: Director, Stephen Spielberg (clarinet); former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (piano); Tech Founder, Paul Allen (violin); Architect, Rafael Viñoly (piano); Chef, Emeril Lagasse (drums), and the list goes on.


Is it a coincidence, I have wondered, that music is the common denominator among so many high achievers? What exactly is the connection between music and success?


Education research suggests the answer can be found in the strong foundation that musical training lays for academic achievement. In a 2019 study for the Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers found that those who participate in music performance programs such as chorus, band, and orchestra show stronger school attendance, better SAT scores, and higher graduation rates than their peers. Notably, these trends remained consistent across race, gender, socioeconomic status, and educational background.


Summarizing the study, co-author Peter Gouzouasis explained, "Students who learned to play a musical instrument in elementary [school] and continued playing in high school not only scored significantly higher but were about one academic year ahead of their non-music peers with regard to their English, mathematics and science skills."

Harmony Program Students Rehearsing

My own belief in the powerful benefits of music inspired my founding of the Harmony Program, an organization that brings musical training into New York City communities in need. Every day our students discover the value of focus and persistence in the face of challenges. As former Yankee centerfielder and guitarist, Bernie Williams, says of music, “There’s no shortcuts; you have to put in the work on a daily basis.” And, whether harmonizing in a chorus, performing chamber music, or jamming in a band, our young musicians learn to cooperate with their peers. Or, as ten-year-old Harmony Program violinist, Charlotte, described after a concert, “When we performed, it was like telling the world that we work as a team and that we are unstoppable together.” By strengthening life and leadership skills, music creates opportunities for students to excel in their classrooms as well as – one day – in board rooms, newsrooms, and operating rooms, following in the footsteps of pianist and investor, Bruce Kovner; bass guitarist and NBC News Anchor, Lestor Holt; and clarinetist and surgeon, the late Dr. Michael Debakey.


But to what extent can we credit music with these accomplishments? As encouraging as educational data and anecdotal experience may be to music education champions, they do not prove a causal relationship between the study of music and academic or behavioral outcomes that lead to success, evidence that might compel us to put music education within reach of every child.

Kids Talk about the Harmony Program 

Fortunately, researchers in the field of neuroscience have shared a stunning revelation that should hasten us in that direction: music makes us smarter. Thanks to technical imagining, neuroscientists have discovered that practicing music has the unusual capacity to activate every known area of the brain. Stefan Koelsch and Walter Seibel explain, “Making music in a group is a tremendously demanding task for the human brain that engages virtually all cognitive processes that we know about, including perception, action, cognition, social cognition, emotion, learning and memory.”


More specifically, neuroscientists have found that the brain processes music and language similarly as both rely on pitch, timing, rhythm, and volume. Because musical training improves students’ phonological skills – that is, their ability to identify and break up sounds – they learn words faster, begin to read sooner, and develop richer vocabularies. A 2011 Canadian study saw dramatic improvement in children’s verbal intelligence scores after a mere four weeks of music instruction. “We started with one simple question, ‘Is musical training beneficial?’ said Dr. Sylvain Morano, “and the answer that we got was a resounding ‘YES.’ Musical training has a positive impact on a set of core neural processes that are related to focus, intelligence, reading, academics, and more.” 


Music, it seems, is to the brain what weightlifting is to our muscles, and this form of mental training improves children’s cognitive capacities, or their very ability to learn.


When young musicians in the Harmony Program take the stage for the first time, I often explain to our audience of family, friends, and school leaders that although a performance of Twinkle, Twinkle sounds simple, it represents a highly complex learning process. During music-making, children read and interpret printed musical notation, dictating the pitch, speed, and volume of the notes; they manipulate their instruments, adjusting their backs, hands, fingers, and mouths to regulate the production of sound; they listen to their own voices and respond to those of others; they follow the visual cues of the conductor; and they convey to their audience an emotional experience. Importantly, all of this happens at exactly the same time.

While none of this is news to music teachers, who understand young musical minds at work, the benefits of music-making are not widely known, even among educators. Indeed, while musical training may be one of the most promising tools to address the yawning “achievement gap” in our public schools, music education is still considered extracurricular and is, in fact, most scarce in communities of highest need. The Education Department’s 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that nearly 50 percent and 40 percent of black and Hispanic eighth grade students, respectively, had reading skills below grade level. At the same time, according to a study that year by the Grammy Music Education Coalition, children of color comprised the great majority of students nationwide who did not have access to music education.


What will it take to convince our schools to provide all of our children with access to the advantages of music-making? And who among us cares enough to help?

Anne Fitzgibbon

As I spy musicians in places of prominence, with public platforms and legions of social media followers, I see potential ambassadors across every sector, industry, and field – from actress, Meryl Streep (violin), and author, Dan Brown (composer), to former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan (clarinet), and Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, Nathan Chen (piano). I encourage them to lend their influential voices to an advocacy campaign the Harmony Program has launched called, “Musicians Among Us,” to highlight the impact music has had on their personal and professional development, to raise awareness around music’s proven potential, and to advocate for its broader and more equitable access. 


Campaign participants to date include CBS News National Correspondent, Adriana Diaz (violin); NY Philharmonic Principal Clarinetist, Anthony McGill; Pro Doubles Tennis Players, Bob and Mike Bryan (guitar, drums and keyboard); neuroscientist and podcaster, Maya Shankar (violin); CEO of Warburg Realty, Frederick Peters (piano); CBS Chief Medical Correspondent, Jonathan LaPook (piano and guitar); and many others.


This diverse collection of leaders embodies Clayton Anderson’s assertion that every subject can be related to music. Let’s share this campaign with other “Musicians Among Us” and help build a path to music education for all.


As Charlotte would say, “We are unstoppable together.” 


Anne Fitzgibbon
Harmony Program    


Anne Fitzgibbon is the Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Program, a nonprofit organization that provides young people from underserved New York City communities with free, intensive musical training with the goal of supporting their healthy social development and academic achievement. She holds a graduate degree from Princeton in Public Affairs, an undergraduate degree from Barnard College and studied clarinet at the Juilliard School.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.