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CourtesyChuck Surack, founder and president of Sweetwater, says music education set the stage for his achievements.

Sound of success

Value of music, arts education incalculable, worth fighting for

My friend Jim Anderson, director of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, recently reminded me of something I did when we were both in band together at Ben Geyer Middle School years ago. He said that one day I came into basketball band practice with the various instrumental parts all written out for a song very popular at the time. The whole band was astounded by my taking the initiative, when I just I took it for granted.

The point of the story is that it reminded me, once again, of how crucial music was to my overall education and how it continues to be central to my personal life and to my success as an entrepreneur and businessman.

I was very lucky to have a great music teacher, Sam Gnagey, the principal tuba player for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. Sam is one of those totally inspiring teachers who can literally change your life. He taught me not only how to play the saxophone but a host of other important skills, including how to concentrate, how to draw on my creativity to see beyond the obvious and the mundane, how to collaborate with others, and how to dedicate myself to achievement and excellence. Most importantly, everything he taught me had a profound effect on every other aspect of my education.

Today, quality music instruction is no longer the educational priority it once was, particularly when budget constraints force tough decisions. I fully understand the importance of spending within your means, but the practice of disproportionately cutting arts programs in order to maintain academic programs is misguided, shortsighted and counterproductive.

In recent years, numerous scientific and statistical research projects have shown that music students score higher on SAT tests, have higher attendance and graduation rates, are much less likely to engage in destructive forms of behavior, such as drugs and alcohol, and are less likely to be disruptive in the classroom.

It has been demonstrated that music education reinforces critical analysis skills, improves problem-solving skills, fosters superior working memory, inspires creativity and innovation, strengthens perseverance, supports better study habits and self-esteem, and develops interpersonal communication and collaboration skills – all of which translate to higher achievement in other academic areas, math, reading and English in particular.

For me, being in band throughout my middle and high school years gave me all these skills and, additionally, taught me how to lead and to get along with others. Plus, it gave me the self-confidence to seek out success in other ways, both in the classroom, where I got great grades, and outside of school, where I started several small and successful businesses while still a teenager. Today, I own several companies, with more than 1,000 employees, and none of that would have been possible if I hadn’t learned to play a musical instrument.

At Sweetwater, I am surrounded by the smartest, most effective and dedicated people I know. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of my employees are musicians. It comes as no surprise to me that musicians tend to score higher than non-musicians on the intelligence tests we administer as part of the hiring process.

I am very privileged to be able to give back to the community. My wife, Lisa, and I are particularly committed to supporting music programs throughout the region and are delighted to fund the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Music Teacher of the Year Award. And not surprisingly, our 7-year-old daughter, Adderly, is already well along with her piano lessons.

Recently, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels visited Fort Wayne and met with business and community leaders. He touted the importance of statewide education’s focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). I didn’t hesitate to raise my hand and point out that the acronym should be STEAM, that he’d left out the “A” for arts.

He quickly agreed and apologized for the omission. I hope that all of Indiana’s leaders, educational and political, will broaden their definition of what is truly effective education, by always including the arts in their planning, advocacy, policy-making and budgeting.

Finally, some schools are actually cutting arts programs to give students more time to prepare for tests in science and math. I urge parents not only to encourage their children to become involved in music, but also to fight hard to keep music programs in their schools alive and thriving.

Chuck Surack is founder and president of Sweetwater. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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