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Evaluating Music Education in Cuba and the United States

In Cuba, the journey to implement public music education has paralleled the country’s battle for compulsory education, and nationhood itself. The implementation of widespread education reform was a pillar of Fidel Castro’s plan for the nation, and music education was an important facet of this reform. The tying of music education to a new, nationalized Cuban identity has lead to the prioritization of music education in Cuba that is unparalleled in the United States.

The tying of music education to Cuba’s national identity has yielded stunning results. Cuban music schools are world renowned for producing some of the world’s greatest musicians — a disproportionally high number considering the nation’s population of 11 million. Domestically, Cuba boasts tremendous job opportunities for professional musicians. For example, the country has 18 professional choirs and hundreds of community, church, and youth groups. By contrast, the United States only has one professional, full-time choir.

Cuba’s multitudes of musicians have all flowed through the nation’s excellent public education system — one of Latin America’s most successful. There, students receive high-quality music education from pre-school through Grade 7 for multiple hours per week —compared to less than 1 hour in American elementary schools. Curriculum is linked to the cultural and historical context of Cuban society, and lessons involving creativity, movement, and singing are presented using methods grounded in current cognitive and psychological theory. Talent is identified very early on, and Grade 7 students are encouraged to audition for one of the country’s specialized music high schools.

Music education in the United States, on the other hand, is in the midst of a crisis. The increased emphasis on standardized testing initiated by No Child Left Behind has left many schools scrambling for hours in which to drill multiple-choice questions. Cuts in funding have forced some schools to prioritize some subjects over others, and often the first of these subjects to go is music. Surveys show that the American public strongly supports music education in public schools, but consistently ranks music at or near the bottom in importance among school subjects. As Aristotle once mused, “All gentlemen play the flute, but no gentleman plays it well”.

In Cuba all children are afforded the opportunity to play the flute — or the piano, or the guitar, or any instrument in the orchestra — and play it well. Opened in 1961 as one of Castro’s early education reforms, la ENA (the Escuela Nacional de Artes) in Havana offers a nationalized music program for children ages 8 to 18. Admission is based on an extremely competitive audition, and the school offers boarding for students from other provinces. If a student does not make the cut for la ENA, there are still a wide variety of options: each province of Cuba has at least one specialized high school for music, and these high schools feed into university-level conservatories or jobs within the education system. The high schools offer training in elementary music education and performance, preparing their students for life as a musician.

In the United States, however, music instruction steadily declines in importance as a child grows older. In elementary schools, music classes are typically offered several times a week. In a study conducted in the 2009-10 school year, the United States Department of Education found that 94 percent of elementary schools offered instruction in music. However, this number declines drastically during secondary school, with students forced to seek musical instruction mainly on a performance basis. Choirs, bands and performance groups are still somewhat prevalent, but the quality of instruction varies, and student-to-teacher ratios are sometimes as stark as 1000:1. Music education has been linked to language development, math skills, multitasking skills, and an increased IQ, but these benefits have been ignored in a system that values only the bottom line.

At the turn of the century and leading up to the revolution, Cuba’s struggle for a nondiscriminatory, ethical education system paralleled its struggle for independence. Fidel Castro vocalized the battle cry of public education to fuel his January Revolution of 1959, and his idealist principles of equity, opportunity, and integration — albeit now within a very limited scope — remain preeminent within Cuba’s public education system. Like many aspects of the government at this time, music academies — and their public school counterparts — had devolved into bastions of corruption. Complaints of the selling of music diplomas and the exploitation of student musicians were rampant.

When Castro came into power, he immediately began comprehensive education reform to mitigate these deplorable aspects of Cuban socio-politics. Based on the writings of José Martí and Karl Marx, Castro set up an education system that encouraged self-sacrifice, honesty, nationalism, and internationalism. He also set out to combat the nation’s dismal literacy rate of 23.6 percent by sending Literacy Campaign volunteer teachers into the more rural areas of the country. Castro’s Literacy Campaign paralleled another campaign devoted to musical literacy and appreciation. Identifying music as a powerfully unifying force, Castro sent music appreciation teachers to towns throughout the nation to inform children about the history of Cuban music.

Castro recognized that music must be valued in order to have a well-balanced, forward-thinking society. The nationalization of the existing private conservatories and music schools led to the consolidation of a Cuban musical, and therefore national, identity.

Now, the ENA teaches a wide variety of classes and styles. The students are taught solfege and counterpoint, and every instrument in the orchestra is catered to with private, one-on-one instruction, all of which is free. All students learn the piano in addition to their primary instrument. However, in addition to these classical foundations, the students are taught quintessential Cuban rhythms and song structures, effectively integrating multiple aspects of Cuban society into a comprehensive curriculum. Their senior year of high school, ENA students are expected to sit in on an elementary school classroom and learn the fundamentals of music education — all while continuing one-on-one instruction — thus ensuring the cultivation of musical prowess amongst all generations. What results is not only an adept workforce of musicians, but also a unified society that collectively values the power of the arts.

In an interview, the principal of the ENA emphasized that nothing short of absolute success as a musician is allowed. She articulated that, once the students are attending ENA, they are expected to be the best musicians they can be. The students feel a responsibility to not only themselves and their professors, but also to the nation, continuing the legacy of collectivity and dedication instilled by Castro during the revolution. Students often go on to work as both performers and teachers, maintaining the cycle of music appreciation and education.

Coming from a large, underfunded public performing arts high school in New York City, experiencing la ENA filled me with jealousy. It is easy to see the one-on-one instruction and the expectations of a career in music as exceptional and unique to this system, but the principal assured me they are met with a lot of the same problems faced by public schools in the United States. La ENA’s funding comes almost entirely from the Cultural Affairs Ministry, and they are always in need of more money. The building is decrepit, and the practice rooms do not have proper soundproofing. Although jobs are almost entirely guaranteed in Cuba, most people make a very low wage. Therefore a majority of graduates work as both elementary school teachers and performers in order to make a living.

One thing la ENA does not lack, however, is a culture of expectation. It is assumed that graduating musicians have an important role within society. Performers continue to express a national identity, while educators help pass on the values instilled by Castro. Having gone to a performing arts high school similar to la ENA, I was often told “if you can see yourself doing anything other than music, do that.” Music is a treacherous career path in the United States, where many public programs are dying. The devaluing of music on an institutional level replicates itself in the real world: many musicians cannot make a living in their chosen field.

Modern United States schooling paints a picture of success as a series of numbers and test scores, and it is difficult for legislators to find a place for creativity in this picture. Cuba is far from perfect, but the culture of expectation and support surrounding young musicians has led to an incredible outpouring of artistic talent. A broader school of thought is encouraged, and the cycle of sustainability and support continues throughout generations of young musicians.

About the Author

Isabella Creatura '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.