What does it feel like to win a Grammy?

I’ve been hearing that question a lot lately. The answer is that it feels amazing, and I love that the award is so closely tied to this community.

But even as we all celebrate this historic win, I have been asking myself, “How can we take this Grammy energy and excitement and turn it into something that benefits Johnstown?”

I propose that we do something significant and make a dramatic new investment in music education as a society.

The benefits will be far-reaching and inspiring for our current students in their academics and their lives, for the people whose lives they touch with their playing, and for their future, no matter what profession they choose for themselves.

I’ve written before about the value of sports. As you may know, I was a three-sport varsity athlete in high school and gained so much from those experiences, as well as those involving music (and I’m very excited to be throwing out the first pitch for the Mill Rats’ opening day on May 27!).

I am not proposing that we reduce our support of sports. Rather, I am proposing that we value the arts at a level equal to athletics. The fact is that as a country, we don’t currently value the arts nearly as much as we do sports – and that is a problem.

What if we took this moment as an opportunity to become a leader in the country, showing how a rural community can value music and the arts in a way that ends up transforming the future and vibrancy of this entire region?

What I propose is to add to what is already working.

An example to the country

The dedicated music teachers in our area are doing incredible work every day. They often provide instruction on both wind and string instruments, all while conducting several ensembles, as well as choirs.

Several of them play in the JSO, and others have partnered with us in important ways over the years. I can’t say enough about each one of them and their central role in the fabric of our musical community.

Musical theater programs are often energetic and robust, and we should keep all of that success going. But if we choose to be an example to the rest of the country in all of the musical opportunities we provide, what will that look like?

Knowing the benefits of string instruction in particular, is it possible for every high school to have a robust orchestra, band and chorus program? Can we ensure that every fourth and fifth grader has access to both string and wind instruments through their schools, and has instruction in school as well as access to private instruction if they choose?

What is our vision for the arts in Johnstown?

Now is the time for us to set this vision in motion, and we will be holding conversations and meetings with our local teachers and superintendents over the coming weeks to see what will be possible.

I will be encouraging us all to dream big, both in what schools are able to provide, and in what our partnership can look like.

Once students have experience on their instruments, our Johnstown Symphony Youth Orchestra is a fantastic place for kids to play, under the expert direction of David Anderson, and the JSO is eager to partner with schools.

Recent transformative grants from the 1889 Foundation and the Community Foundation of the Alleghenies makes me more optimistic than ever about our capacity to do this work together.

Jessie Yahner, a dedicated young trombonist and violinist in the JSYO who just played in a workshop with our professional brass musicians last week, wrote about the role of music in her life: “As a human, studying and playing music has helped me by giving me something to constantly look forward to, and I have met so many wonderful people through music.

“As a student, studying music has helped me to develop good habits and skills (time management, hard work, etc.) that can be applied to other tasks/subjects irrelevant to music. As a citizen, music has helped me to get involved with my community by playing in the JSYO and alongside the JSO.”

With 12 seniors graduating this year and seven of those entering college as music majors, the JSYO has room to grow through strong recruitment – and in most cases, students who audition will have been playing their instruments for several years in school or in private instruction.

Life-changing outlet

We have seen how the arts bring innovation, creativity, health, joy and economic activity to this area. And as Jessie so eloquently stated, for our kids, there are more layers to these benefits. The arts are a crucial vital, life-changing outlet and path.

According to a 2020 report by the Getty Foundation and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, “Music lessons in childhood correlate with better academic performance and higher IQ scores, even when controlling for family income and parental education.” Another study from 2019 surveyed over 100,000 students and found “a clear effect of music lessons on academic performance.”

Studies have consistently shown that music benefits the brain, as well as the spirit, and that kids who play music are, on average, a grade level ahead of their peers academically.

They are also less likely to drop out of school, and they perform better on tests. But more importantly, music gives them an emotional and social experience at that crucial developmental age where the world around them is a swirl of possibilities and confusion. They can better understand their own emotions through the music they play and study and listen to.

Music creates a sense of self, a habit of discipline and an ability to set and meet goals that will benefit people throughout their lives.

The Getty report also demonstrated that “music instruction and practice lead to measurable gains in creativity.”

In our ever-changing world, we need our students to be able to adapt and innovate, and music is one of the best ways this can be developed.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, says that “the best engineers, the bright ones, the really creative artists that can create an entirely new product category at Apple, they ALWAYS had a strong music background.”

As an added benefit, playing strings in particular has become one of the best ways to gain admission to our local colleges, and to receive scholarships.

If we invest further in the strings programs in each of our schools, we would see benefits all across society.

Pathways to success

Together, we just won a Grammy. The community has been over the moon. I’m so happy, and I’m so grateful that life led me to this place. More than anything, it makes me want other kids to have the same opportunities that I had.

We envision ways for music to create truly transformational change. If the JSO were given a $2 million grant to run a Saturday music school, we would be able to create a robust program in partnership with our local schools and families and community centers.

And if all the components came into place, I can say this: if every child in this city and region played an instrument for two or three years, we would see a dramatic shift in all sorts of side benefits. Kids could play for patients in hospitals. Students could form their own ensembles. Every church could offer the music of these student musicians at their services, even more than they already do. Weddings and special occasions would be celebrated to the sounds of local high school string quartets.

Your next holiday party could mean hiring the high school jazz band, led by a young bandleader who very well might win the next Grammy for Johnstown.

But there are benefits beyond the test scores, health, wellness and innovation that music brings. There is also an intrinsic value to the experience of playing music. Music heals the soul – it gives voice to the mysteries of love and loss and our search for meaning. It settles us and inspires us.

Johnstown is such a wonderful place to raise a family. We owe it to our kids to give them an exemplary artistic education as well as providing excellence in academics and athletics.

Let’s take this Grammy energy and make something truly great together.

Let’s fund robust string programs, orchestras, bands, and choruses in all of our schools, encourage our kids to take part, and start our next Grammy winners on their path right here in Johnstown.

James Blachly is the 12th Music Director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. He recently won a 2021 Grammy® Award for his recording of Ethel Smyth’s “The Prison.”

Trending Video

Recommended for you