How 24,000 Students Leave Their Hearts in San Francisco

By Mark MacNamara |

There was a moment the other day, actually a few moments, while listening to the Balboa Brass Quintet play to an audience of 30 8- and 9-year-olds out in the Sunset District, when you forgot all your concerns about children these days, all those ominous arcs. Concerns about whether a particular pedagogy works; about whether boys will flourish; about whether children these days feel too entitled, too fearful, too self-absorbed, and whether they can survive the coddling from their helicopter parents, or the demands of their tiger moms, or just the weight of a device-ridden, increasingly fast and shallow culture.

Not to mention those other, long-range concerns, whose implications gather, cloud-like each year, as high school and college loom: about whether a liberal arts education matters much anymore; whether your child will have the “grit” as Thomas Friedman put it last week in his second New York Times column on hiring practices at Google — the grit to major in say, computer science, and risk getting a lower grade than you might receive majoring in English or anthropology.

And speaking of risk, what about concern for those promising young musicians who are told by their parents that music is actually, contrary to all the money and time and attention spent to that point, not the equivalent of dentistry or law? (Don’t tell anyone, but music majors are actually considered “added value” by many large corporations and startups alike — because musicians have experience doing 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and they know how to work together, on a team, or in a community.)

Greasing the Wheels

“My greatest hope is that children come to understand the importance of community,” Sophie Lee said, musing, while she looked out her office window at the playground at Sunset Elementary. She is the school's principal. It was early afternoon last week; the kids were moving like electrons around the school yard. “And that’s part of why the arts are so important to me.”

We had come to hear about how the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music Program was doing. It’s been an integral part of the school district’s approach to music education since 1988. Is it making a difference, we wanted to know, and how?

Principal Lee
Principal Lee
Sophie Lee is one of those principals you dream about for your child’s middle school. She’s been in education for 40 years, an administrator for 24 years, and at Sunset Elementary for 12. She is cursed with a relentless desire to make things better, to keep the PTA focused, the kids encouraged and challenged, the teachers feeling a sense of accomplishment. She manages a school with 407 students: 42% Asian, 30% Caucasian. In all, 25% are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch.

She works from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., then another hour or two at home answering email. On the weekends, she’s planning yet another field trip, another carnival, another gardening day, another reading. She has 50 readers who come out to the school to read to students. She’s got the fire chief, the police chief, this official and that, and she has Donato Cabrera come down from Davies Symphony Hall. He’s one of her very favorites and she claims he’s always swept away by the experience, seeing the children and experiencing Sophie Lee’s carefully nurtured community.

It is a community founded in large measure on her personal interest in the arts, and music, in particular. She grew up in Chinatown, in that now familiar Asian-American setting where the expectation is to study piano and violin. She also played in her middle school orchestra. She takes great pride that in her public school kids can experience drama, art, choral music, and instrument instruction. Not all the district schools provide so much and not all the district’s principals hold the arts in the same regard.

Which is to say that these arts programs, no matter how well intentioned or designed or financed, or performed, are only as effective as the administrators who implement and support them.

“I do expect my teachers to collaborate with the different consultants that come here and to implement the programs we agree on,” Lee said. “The goal is to integrate the arts with academics; neither is in isolation from the other.”

Particulars of the Program

The Adventures in Music (AIM) program, which focuses on grades 1 to 5, is one of a dozen education and community initiatives sponsored, and paid for, by the San Francisco Symphony. Others include instrument training; the youth orchestra; “Music for Families”; the Symphony’s website for kids; a program serving amateur adult musicians (Community of Music Makers); various lecture series; and, of course, several free concerts.

But it’s the AIM program, and the instrument training program, which together provide the real musical juice for San Francisco public schools. The AIM program was established in 1988 as part of the Symphony’s role as “civic partner,” a role sometimes forgotten, the Director of Education at the Symphony Ron Gallman told us recently. “I’m not sure the public understands that the Symphony and the school board have been working closely for years to make this happen.”

From the beginning, the AIM charter has been to introduce music appreciation — based on “foundational music” not just orchestral music — to every single elementary school student in the district, for free, and beyond using music as a way to enhance the teaching of different subjects, the program’s goal has been to demonstrate artistic excellence and “foster an awareness of music in the context of everyday life.”

What better way to train a replacement audience — and replacement donors — for the Symphony’s new century; these kids who may never play an instrument but who will never forget hearing real musicians for the first time.

This year, the program serves 24,000 students in 91 schools. Most are public, but there are also a few independent schools as well.

The music curriculum, which is tied to such subjects as social science, history, and geography, includes all the tools of the trade. This year the focus is on “Music of San Francisco, Music of the World.” Each student and teacher receives a journal, a laminated binder map of the world (teachers get a laminated wall world map); a “whimsical” map of California, a CD by the ensemble Ka-Hon, a pencil, and double-barrel pencil sharpener.
In addition to the series of concerts where students are bussed in to Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony, they hear other ensembles in their schools, including the Dynamic Trio; Ka-Hon; Triad Winds, a wind trio; a jazz combo called the We Bop Jazz Quartet; a Chinese ensemble, Melody of China; Out of Bounds, a string quartet; Caribbean Express; and the Balboa Brass, a quintet.

Balboa Brass
Balboa Brass
The Balboa Brass Quintet is a motley and diverse crew: four men, one woman, and not just great musicians but also great teachers and storytellers: animated, and distinguished by sheer talent. The ‘head brass’ — on tuba — is Zach Spellman, in red sneakers on the day we saw him. His energy and wit is reminiscent of Daniel Pinkwater: an always interested barker, but not overwhelming and never condescending or insincere.

And here they were, in front of 30 third graders, leading them through a cultural geography lesson about how music describes San Francisco and at the same time relates it to the rest of the world. They began with a languorous version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The effect was immediate. The children fell silent, and became completely enthralled by the music, and short personal narratives. It was very much a show, with just the scent of Broadway, but also a powerful demonstration of the appeal of professionally played music.

Numbers in the geography tour included, “O Solo Mio,” a bit of Neapolitana to suggest the flavor of North Beach; the Mexican Hat Dance, for the Mission District; “Sakura,” the Japanese folk song about the coming of the cherry blossoms, and so a way to relate to Japantown and the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park. And then from San Francisco to England. The quintet played The Colonel Bogey March, and from that to a jig to portray Ireland. And from there to France, conveyed with “La Vie en Rose” and a touching personal story told by Alicia Telford, who plays the French horn. The group finished with “Take The A Train,” suggesting New York, but also the Fillmore District and its jazz festival.]

Afterward, a gaggle of children, ages 8 and 9, sat around a table and talked about the concert. Their reactions: It was “great,” “fabulous,” “really different.” “The funny jokes were really funny.” “They told stories about different neighbhoods and the music was really good.” “All the instruments they had,” said a girl named Talia, “I really want to play at least one of those instruments. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen the French horn in person.”

And does the music help you learn about geography? “Yes,” they all chimed. “It tells us where places are and what the culture is like,” said a boy named Evin. “It’s like you just listen to him and you learn something about it,” said another boy named Jasper.

Bottom Line: The Effect

Asked about the effect of these concerts, one of the teachers at the event, Monica Edler, wrote in an email, “Next year, when my students are in 4th grade, they’ll have the option to learn a musical instrument with a music teacher once a week. A majority of the children choose to play an instrument and I think part of that is because of their exposure to music through the AIM program. The concerts expose them to music they might never have heard before from many different cultures and from all over the world. Music also has a calming and relaxing effect on the students and can take them to a special place in their minds.”

Which is all well and good, but always the question remains, what do these kinds of programs really provide? What’s the effect? Beyond an appreciation of art for its own sake, do children learn other disciplines more easily after listening to or studying music? We spoke to Vinod Menon, a research professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford; he’s studied the effects of music on brain functioning. The short answer, he said, was that there is no explicit study to suggest a causal relationship between listening to music and learning other skills.

However, he pointed out that listening to and learning music does encourage the brain to recognize auditory patterns and structures, and to recognize deviancy from those structures. He gave the example of pauses in music that can grab the brain’s attention, so if you have an expectation that music is going in a certain direction and it goes in another then that draws the brain’s attention. And if the brain can focus on that change in a pattern it may also respond to changes in other kinds of patterns. Like a muscle if you will.
Moreover, said Menon, “in terms of performance, the integration of the visual, the auditory, and the motor systems, and that facilitates information-processing across multiple brain areas. Again, this area of study is still anecdotal. But we know these kinds of changes do occur when you listen to music: the way your motor system interacts with auditory system changes when you learn a new piece of music, for example. But the big question that no one has really answered is, how do you transfer this ability to other cognitive domains.”

And the Community Impact

And what about music and community? Is there a causal link there? Does music encourage socialization on a neuron level?

Once more, for Dr. Menon, the question is amorphous and beyond the scientific method. Yet there is evidence to suggest a synchronization in brain responses to music. In that context, our brains often function alike.

“Now whether that results in a sense of community or socialization,” explained Menon, “that’s hard to show in the context of causality.”

The fact is, research is moving away from these “meta cognitive questions,” to the finer points of how brain processes work — for example, how emotion is represented in music; “why the brain pays attention to certain kinds of musical structures and not others.”

In the end, there seems to be no proof that music makes it easier to study science or language; nor, from a scientific point of view, does it necessarily lead to stronger communities. We may know that instinctively, and there is compelling anthropological evidence, but finally, there is only experience to go on.

For Sophie Lee, the importance of the AIM program, and the arts in general, is that they offer children something bigger than themselves, and unquestionably they bring people together, for the better. “We want all of our kids to be as integrated as possible, and we want them to embrace the opportunity to help each other and not feel isolated. Just this morning I saw a little girl in the hallway helping one of the Special-Ed students make his way to class. She was acting as his buddy and that kind of awareness and empathy comes from sharing music class together. It’s one of the few times children, no matter their disability, join together. That alone is a great result of these kinds of programs.”

Mark MacNamara ( is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.