Phoenix Symphony: Mind Over Music program

Two dozen fifth-graders crowd around a table in their science lab at ASU Preparatory Academy, chattering excitedly as they anticipate the commencement of a dissection. But the subject of today’s anatomical investigation is not, as you might expect, a frog. Instead, it’s a cello.

Laurie Stearns Selby, visiting from the Phoenix Symphony, removes the front of the instrument, specially prepared with Velcro, with a satisfying zzrrrrrkk! She explains how the vibrations from the strings travel through the bridge, the bass bar and the sound post to the body of the cello, then to the air inside and back out the curlicue-shaped f-holes on the top piece.

“The kids just love it,” Selby says of the “Velcro cello.” “It really makes that great ripping sound, and the audience is just horrified. ‘Oh, what are you doing?’ ”

The real surprise is that, although students are learning about the inner workings of a string instrument, the primary subject of today’s lesson is human anatomy.

The class is boning up on the various systems of the body — skeletal, nervous, circulatory, etc. — for a fast-approaching exam. And Selby is helping them remember the material by way of analogy: The ebony fingerboard, for example, is like the backbone, providing structural stability, while the air moving in and out can be compared with the respiratory system.

Engaging the students

The unorthodox study session is part of Mind Over Music, a pilot program by the Phoenix Symphony now entering its second year at ASU Prep, a charter school in downtown Phoenix that serves a high percentage of low-income students. The purpose of the initiative is to study how integrating music education into the curriculum can enhance academic performance, particularly in STEM topics: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Symphony musicians — 20 through the course of this school year — present to K-5 classes lessons developed with teachers to reinforce subjects. Sometimes the application is direct — the relationships between notes on a musical scale have a mathematical basis, for example — and sometimes it is a matter of integrative learning, using one type of knowledge to reinforce another.

“It’s just a different style of learning in the classroom,” says ASU Prep teacher Alyson Walker, whose students were thrilled by the Velcro cello.

“The Mind Over Music lessons are going to appeal to the visual-spatial learners as well as the musical, to some extent the bodily-kinesthetic,” she says, referring to the seven distinct “intelligences” identified by Harvard researcher Howard Gardner.

“I would never think to include musical instruction into teaching about the different organ systems in the body. That’s not something that naturally comes to mind. But the musicians are able to make those connections and incorporate that learning style into our lessons.”

The Mind Over Music program was designed by Kim Leavitt, former director of education and community engagement for the symphony, now with the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts in Baton Rouge, La.

“The theory is that when you engage kids in learning another content area through the arts, you amplify the learning experience,” she says.

“If you think about real life, we don’t operate in silos. When you get up in the morning, you’re drawing from hundreds of different data and stimuli just to get yourself to work. But when kids sit in a classroom, they’re just taught math, they’re just taught science. So by showing them that everything is interconnected, it changes them cognitively and helps them see everything in different ways.

“There’s not just one right answer. You can make analogies and comparisons and draw conclusions, and that’s that type of critical thinking that has disappeared from the classroom.”

It’s not just theory at this point. Mind Over Music measures student performance in various subjects, comparing children in the curriculum with a control group receiving traditional instruction. In the first year, 83.4 percent of MOM participants scored 85 percent or higher on science assessments, compared with 51 percent of the control group. In math, the gap was 16.9 percentage points; in language arts, it was a more modest but still impressive 9.6. The average improvement over all subject areas was 17.2 percentage points.

Turning it around

Before coming to the Phoenix Symphony, Leavitt was director of arts education for Tennessee. She is one of a handful of American specialists in designing large-scale arts-integration programs.

“Those programs proved very successful in terms of turning around failing schools” in Tennessee, she says. “Students scored higher on math, science and language-arts tests because they were learning that content through the arts.

“There’s ample research to show that the arts teach all of the 21st Century Learning Skills,” she adds, referring to an education-reform initiative championed by a coalition of teachers, business leaders and policy makers. “You can be engaged in a math lesson, engaged in a science lesson and never use critical thinking, never use creativity, but in the arts you have to use those skills or you will not succeed.”

Although there are a number of initiatives across the country to integrate the arts into the general curriculum, Mind Over Music is unusual because it is being spearheaded by a symphony orchestra, Leavitt says.

“A lot of symphonies have musicians that will go into schools and perform or speak to a class, but in Mind Over Music, we actually have musicians sitting down planning with a classroom teacher. They design a lesson or a unit from scratch, so it’s really a level of instruction that most symphony musicians don’t take on.”

Revitalizing Arizona

Mind Over Music was launched as a three-year pilot program, but the symphony is looking to secure grants to continue and even expand it to other schools. And the testing data so far certainly bolsters its pitch to funders.

The Phoenix Symphony didn’t develop the program for purely altruistic reasons, CEO and President Jim Ward acknowledges.

“This came out of maybe a more practical need,” he says.

As with most major arts institutions, educational outreach has always been part of the mission at the orchestra. Longstanding programs include Symphony for the Schools (field-trip concerts) and One Nation, which augments music teaching in elementary and high schools on the Salt River Reservation.

However, Ward says, “As we went out in the world to raise funds for our existing music-education programs, we kept getting asked about the impact that we were having. People wanted to know what the results were — with numbers.”

Ward, a former executive for “Star Wars” studio Lucasfilm, was hired in January 2011 to engineer a turnaround at the symphony, which was $3 million in debt and facing further deficits. But beyond simply “right-sizing” the budget for the state’s largest performing-arts company, Ward was determined to redefine its mission.

“When we came aboard, the mission at that point in time was ‘We want to be the next Los Angeles Philharmonic,’ ” he says. “And the problem with that was … I knew the dialogue in this community was not about the Phoenix Symphony becoming the LA Philharmonic. Far from it. No one was even talking about the Phoenix Symphony. The dialogue in this community is about the economic challenges we are facing, the lack of diversity of our economy, education.

“These are the things that people were talking about. So for us to have credibility and a seat at the table, we came up with a vision of the Phoenix Symphony being the arts leader in the revitalization of Arizona, solving the problems that Arizona has.”

Mind Over Music is a key part of that effort. And if it has the benefit of turning on young people to appreciate classical music or even to aspire to become musicians themselves, all the better.

“For us it’s not only the fact that we’re able to combine music with science and math, but also just exposing our students and our families to culture,” says ASU Prep Principal David Lujan.

“Because of the partnership, we’ve had the opportunity to have the symphony come to our auditorium and perform for our families. Our students have traveled to the symphony and seen performances there. For most of them, it’s their first exposure to the symphony, and hopefully it’s an exposure that will last a lifetime.”

Reach the reporter at kerry.lengel@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4896.