Kevin: Despite what we know about the value of infusing art and music into our children's lives, 1.3 million students in the United States don't have access to music education classes. Why aren't we investing more in arts programs that enrich children's lives and lead to success in other subjects? And what can we do to ensure more children are exposed to the transformative power of music and the arts? This is "What I Want To Know."
And today, I'm joined by Michael Powers to find out. Michael Powers is the music department chair at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and the founder and artistic director of the newly-formed Orchestra Los Angeles. He is also an accomplished conductor, who has led a wide variety of orchestras and ensembles in the U.S. and around the world. But perhaps most of all, he's a leading advocate for music and arts education. And he is with us today to explore how we can bring these programs to more kids, and why it is so vitally important that we do. Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael: Oh, thank you so much, Kevin. It's such a pleasure to be here, and to meet you, and to be able to speak with our friends here listening today.
Kevin: I'm always fascinated how people get to where they are. And your commitment and dedication to the notion of music, it really germinated when you were young. Tell us a little bit about that.
Michael: My uncle gave me a clarinet when I was about, I would say 11, 12 years old. And I took that clarinet to school and I went to the band, whether you're gonna choose an instrument, I said, "I wanna play clarinet." And the band director said, "We have enough clarinets already. How about one of these instruments over here?" When I looked, I didn't know what any of them were these brass instruments in hindsight. I think there was a trombone, and a euphonium, and a French horn. And I said, "Well, that looks interesting, that curly, you know [crosstalk 00:02:24]
Kevin: It's French horn.
Michael: Michael: French horn, right? The band director said, "Okay, great. Well, we're gonna get you started. Here's a mouthpiece." I said, "Why don't I get to play?" He said, "No mouthpiece." And they taught me how to buzz and give me a little mirror, "In two weeks, you must buzz this mouthpiece before we give you the instrument." And, you know, that period passed by. They finally gave me the instrument, sat down in the classroom, there's other kids around, we put that mouthpiece in that French horn, I sat down, and I made it sound kinda like this. It just went all over the place. But it was my start. It was just like, oh, wow, magic. I'm making a sound here. And it kind of sparked an interest. It sparked to like, hey, this is something I've never experienced before. I'm making the sound. I'm engaging with this. And I started my journey in band.
Kevin: But you obviously, Michael, had a lot of natural talent. It had been there. I mean, let me ask you this, because this leads to a question I was gonna ask you when we talked about the students you serve. For many years, I felt I had no artistic talent. I mean, I said, I can't draw, I wasn't good, and I don't have any musical talent. I have since come to believe that we all have some of that in us, it just has to be cultivated the right way. Is that a fair approach?
Michael: A hundred percent. Somebody says they're tone-deaf. Well, one or two people that can be clinically diagnosed, but the rest of them are afraid of failing. And it's a job...
Kevin: I was running from the choir.
Michael: It's the job of these arts professionals, these teachers to say, "Come in and create that environment. You can do this. Here's how we're gonna do this." And just to wrap up the story, I did my tape. We did this on cassette tapes back then. We sent it in and I got in, sophomore year, we're talking after only a little over a year of playing [crosstalk 00:04:40]
Kevin: That's remarkable.
Michael: And I get in and okay the big day.
Kevin: So, let's take this to your work with Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, because you obviously see a lot of mini Michael Powers come through those halls in that school.
Michael: I'm seeing them come through. Now, I have to say this is my second year. I started during the pandemic. And I didn't get that one-on-one connection to the students, learning who they are and what their stories were. And this is...this year has been a lot of that learning who they are, where they're coming from. And I've now been through two cycles of admissions and learning who these kids are. In fact, now I'm able to see these same stories of these kids in LA, who don't have strong music education programs in their schools, but they're finding their way. And we are definitely fortunate here in LA because we have so many resources to have things like YOLA, Youth Orchestra LA, the program with LA Philharmonic, Harmony Project, Inner City Arts, the Neighborhood Music School in Boyle Heights. And schools like laxa, Grand Arts downtown, and other magnets. Now, imagine, okay, Los Angeles, of course, we're really lucky to have all these resources. But who's the kid in Cloverdale, California, with a tiny School District, like you mentioned before, where these cuts are being made for the arts, how do they get access?
Kevin: Well, see, Michael, that's why you're there. And I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge your career prior to getting involved with students. You become a world-renowned conductor, and people know your work. And this is the one question I wanted to make sure I asked you, what led you to sort of deviate a little bit from that professional music career and get your hands dirty with the up-and-coming students of tomorrow?
Michael: A life in conducting naturally, if you're one that's always seeking to communicate more powerfully with groups of people, human beings, students, adults, professionals, whoever they are, you become a natural teacher. You become a person who's invested in seeing the best in every individual coming together collectively to make music the best way they know how. In fact, my years of teaching at USC, I taught orchestra and conducting, and I thought a lot about what is conducting. I thought a lot about that, because I was teaching students who had been my colleagues. I graduated in '05. I was very lucky to be hired to start teaching in '05 the fall, right out of graduate school. And so, literally, I had students in my classroom who had been sitting next to the spring before. So, I had to think long and hard. Why am I here and why am I the one teaching you? What does it mean then conducting and to be a conductor? And it took me a few years to really hone in on this, and this is my best go.
Conducting is the musical art which helps every person to achieve their best through the environment you create.
Kevin: Is it what you expected it to be?
Michael: It is, and it's a big job. And I inherited a wonderful faculty but a lot of legacy faculty. I mean, people like working there. I have faculty who've been there for more than 20 years. I've got a wonderful vocal jazz legend, Miss Pat Bass, still teaching 25 years later vocal jazz and gospel. I've got, you know, Mr. [inaudible 00:08:42] teaching orchestra for 20 plus years, I've got Nelly Ghazarian and Miss Larson teaching piano for decades. So, there's a way that we do it at LACHSA. So, I'm coming in going like bravi tutti, great job everyone. This is great. And here's a vision for the next level of what I believe music education can and go.
So, what does that mean? I talked about the 21st century musician, as opposed to the conservatory musician. I grew up in a conservatory environment where I was trained. And so, you're gonna learn your instrument really well, and you're gonna take auditions, and you're gonna win a job, and you're gonna make a living as a musician or conductor, whatever the endeavor. I believe that that mode, that model is evolving and needs to evolve. That the idea of being a musician needs to include a few more things than just learning well an instrument. And this is what I'm trying to bring back to LACHSA. But I'll say a musician, an artist, let's just make it a bigger picture here, an artist needs to understand their role as a citizen, that they are part of a greater community in which to make an impact.
Kevin: But to have it in the DNA of the definition of an artist is what you're talking about. And I love the not-so-subtle shifts in trying to help that evolution take place in the way you describe it. So, this has been fascinating. I do have one global question I wanna ask you before we sign off, and I really think I wanna talk to you more at another time. But because I think that people are still looking at music and arts education with traditional 20, 30-year-old lenses. And I think the point you just made about it being an integral part of leadership development, and connecting with people, and helping pulling out the best in people, the service, I think that's the future. So, the question I would ask you, this is what I really wanna know. How do you see the best way to bring that vision of a holistic musical experience to America schools?
Michael: If I'm gonna start with the systemic level, strong arts education, K through 12, across the board, that art in our schools serves a greater purpose than just entertainment or a place to put kids who don't excel in other things. That art is a necessity in our lives. It teaches empathy. It teaches love. It teaches how to work with people. It teaches the ability to believe in oneself, and to achieve, and to develop great work habits. Physiologically, it develops the brain in a way that no other means can do. In fact, MIT just put out an article this year saying, "You wanna make your kids smarter, teach them music, not coding." I'll send you the link if you like my friend.
Then there's a landmark study at USC as well that studied the brains of YOLA students, Youth Orchestra LA over the course of five years and compare them to students who did not have music. And students who took things like the physical skills like sports, you know, let's study the brain. So, both MIT and USC found similar results in that. Music specifically, and I don't wanna diminish the other arts, but they found music specifically did a more powerful job of developing neural networks that connected the halves of the brains, synapses between the brains than any other endeavor, art, or subjects. And that helps other things outside of music, like speech, logic, and other ways of engaging with other subjects, which helps kids to be "smarter."
In other words, they're learning a language in music. Music is not just blips and bleeps on a piece of paper, it's a symbolic language that translates into vibrational energy that we received in our body through evolution has accepted and knows that there's an emotion that's related to that. It just creates, I mean, it's a magic thing, it is music is magic. But it's also been found that music through science we can see how that works. Now, K-12 arts. Now, what...and beyond that, when we get to the high school and college level, we should be using art to help students to develop entrepreneurship, leadership, to think of, like I said before, making an impact in your community. It's not just a form of entertainment.
Representation is one of the new big things that has really been an important part of this, with music specifically, that we need to engage composers and communities to create art which reflects the identity of our students in the classroom as well, so they feel seen, that are then beyond that our concert halls, our operas, our symphonies, our dance, ballets, need to make sure that the identity on those stages represents the students in America as well. That we need more representation so that the art is not something esoteric. It's not something that I can achieve because I don't see my future self on that stage. It must be relatable and relevant to their lives.
Kevin: Michael Powers, I tell you what, I really enjoy not just your story, but your evolution as an artist and as a human being, and how you...that's led you to go to the next level, in terms of helping our young people, and so I really appreciate you being on "What I Want To Know."
Michael: Thank you, Kevin. Appreciate you too. Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, and don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Davis. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Michael
Michael Powers is the music department chair at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and the founder and artistic director of the newly formed Orchestra Los Angeles. He is also an accomplished conductor who has led a wide variety of orchestras and ensembles in the U.S. and around the world. But perhaps most important of all, he is a leading advocate for music and arts education.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.