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Music Education: It Shouldn’t Play Second Fiddle

Music is part of ‘core curriculum,’ says musician and composer Kevin Eubanks.

By Cindy Long

Most people know Kevin Eubanks from leading “The Tonight Show Band” from 1995 to 2010. But the acclaimed guitarist and composer is also a public education advocate who is passionate about how music can help shape young minds.

Eubanks, who emceed the NEA Foundation Gala in February, is the product of public schools and hails from a musical family. His mother—a gospel and classical pianist—taught music for 35 years in a Philadelphia middle school.

After leaving The Tonight Show, Eubanks—who studied music education in college—became the artistic director of the Jazz in the Classroom program for The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where he visited public schools and worked with music students in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

This Active Life asked Eubanks to share his thoughts about teaching and music education.

TAL: From your classroom experiences, what have you learned about teaching?

I’ve learned that the most important thing is to establish a level of trust. Teaching is so much more beneficial and efficient when you’re not afraid of each other. Opening up the channels of creativity only happens with trust. I think it’s the basis of good teaching.

TAL: Why should we preserve music education in schools?

First, I don’t like to separate out “music education” from education in general. I just don’t see the distinction between music and the core curriculum. One of the reasons it’s always cut is that it’s perceived as an elective type of education that’s fun and creative, and it is, but that’s why it is a key component to the core curriculum.

There’s science in sound. There’s math in compositions. There’s poetry in lyrics, and there’s a long, rich history to music. What’s more, students of music learn how to take direction, to come together as a group to collaborate, and to follow a leader. Everything core education subjects are supposed to prepare you for is inherent in the arts from day one.

TAL: How does the process of learning how to play an instrument benefit individual students?

When a student takes an instrument into a room and sits down with it, he has to solve a problem. He’s trying to get his fingers to do something new, or he’s trying to hit a note or strike this chord or that chord, and it’s a struggle. But the student goes into that room for an hour every day and works on it. After a few days, he solves the problem, and that feels really, really good. It builds confidence. The student learned to focus, to not give up, and to continue down the path until the solution arrived, which it always will with time and practice. That lesson can be applied to almost anything in life.

TAL: After teaching in schools across the country, what have you learned about students and what do you hope for their future?

One thing that I don’t think is stated enough is that kids who come from a particular environment or economic group have the very same problems as kids who come from a different group or environment. We all tend to share an ignorance about what happens on the other side of the fence, whether it’s a million dollar fence or a $10 fence. What we have in common and what our students have in common is that we don’t understand each other. One of the most important elements of education is to get our students outside of their own fences. My hope is that education will bring those fences down and take down the barriers of fear and ignorance.


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