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Singing praises of music education

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Singer Sylvia McNair will join the annual meeting of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic on Monday.
Singer Sylvia McNair will join the annual meeting of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic on Monday.

An internationally known vocalist will sing the praises of music education at the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s annual meeting.

Sylvia McNair, who has sung on the top opera, classical and pops stages worldwide for more than 30 years, will be the keynote speaker at the free event highlighting how music helps students learn and develop character and responsibility.

The annual meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday at YES Cinema and Conference Center, Fourth and Jackson streets.


The Bloomington resident, who performed with the Philharmonic in 2010, expects to sing a few songs during the event. Philharmonic leaders said they picked the two-time Grammy winner to provide validity to the concept of music enhancing learning and life.

McNair has firsthand knowledge about early childhood development and music.

“Look — I come from a family of music educators,” she said.

Her mother was a public school music teacher for 38 years and fought to keep arts funding in Mansfield, Ohio, schools in the 1960s and ’70s. McNair began piano lessons at age 3 and violin lessons at age 7. However, the 58-year-old Indiana University music school graduate didn’t begin singing professionally until the early 1980s, considered a late start for a vocalist.

McNair said she is impressed that 20 percent of the Philharmonic’s estimated $719,000 annual budget goes to music education, from strings programs in the schools to summer music camps. That budget percentage is triple the national average and more than almost every other orchestra its size in the country, Philharmonic music director David Bowden said.

“That is amazing,” McNair said.

During the past year, the ensemble’s education programs have reached 6,200 students. Families that cannot afford music programs are eligible for scholarships.

Bowden, who has conducted the local professional ensemble since it began in 1987, has long said music education is about encouraging people to be well-rounded and to appreciate music as an element of quality of life.

In recent months, he has been citing a collection of national studies showing that early involvement with music links to better academic performance and other healthy results, such as high school graduation.

A 2010 Northwestern University study suggests that regularly playing an instrument changes the shape and power of the brain and may be used to improve cognitive skills to increase IQ.

More recent studies have shown that direct involvement with music, such as playing an instrument, might even ward off dementia.

“We have not always done a good job of telling people that one of our primary focuses is encouraging people to make music,” Bowden said. “Much of the public knows us mostly for presenting concerts.

“Part of my personal mission has become helping people understand how music trains the brain to learn.”

McNair, a former high school basketball player and track star, wants to encourage parents to think beyond sports to capture their child’s imagination and passion.

“There are other ways for students to experience teamwork and success other than sports,” she said. “And let me be clear that I obviously have nothing against sports.”

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