Most people know Kevin Eubanks from the Tonight Show Band, which he led 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 on February 8, says he’s the proud product of public schools and a musical family. His mother, Vera Eubanks, was a Philadelphia public school music teacher for 35 years. A gospel and classical pianist, she exposed Eubanks and his siblings to the music of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as to a healthy dose of gospel on Sundays.
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 his hometown of Philadelphia.
NEA Today recently talked with Eubanks about teaching and music education.
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.
Educators also need to make kids understand why they’re there; to help students make the connections between school and beyond. Once they see the connections between school and their family, their community, their city, their state and their world, they start to understand that they have a role to play, and that it begins at school. It gives them a natural sense of responsibility that they should contribute in some way. That empowers them and gives them the motivation to want to learn and to try harder.
Why should we preserve music education in our 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, but it’s also a key component of 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. The arts brings all of the core disciplines to together in one song, or one dance, or one painting. What could be a more perfect curriculum to have in a school? And the best part is that sharing your art with others is the whole point.
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.
How does participating in a band or choir help students become critical thinkers?
I’ve been to many schools where there was a band or a choir or an ensemble that was worried about an upcoming concert they were completely unprepared for. They’d chosen music that was too difficult and there was no way they’d be able to perform it successfully in time. Some people wanted to cancel the concert, but I showed the students that they simply had a creative problem and that it could be solved with more creativity.