Ch. 26: Can the Arts Help Children Excel Academically?

A Professional Musician Shares His Views

When David Eby isn’t teaching music to children at the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon, he’s a professional cellist with The Bodhi Trio, the Oregon Symphony, and the Portland Cello Project.

David also teaches cello at Lewis and Clark College. He leads the Advanced Strings at Oregon Episcopal School, and he’s a Teaching Artist for the BRAVO Youth Orchestra, an El Sistema program that brings classical music training to disadvantaged youth. David lives in south Portland with his wife Madhavi, their daughter Caitlin, and their Manx cat, Maggie.

(Visit, where David shares his insights on meditation for musicians and the spiritual healing power of music for our lives.)

David has taught in the Living Wisdom Schools for more than sixteen years — initially for two years in Portland, then twelve years at the original Living Wisdom School at Ananda Village near Nevada City, California, and now again in Portland.

Q: David, let’s have an informal conversation about the role the arts can play in helping kids be happy and successful in school and in their lives. Have you given much thought to the role of the arts in children’s development, particularly during the “Feeling Years” from 6 to 12?

David: My daughter Caitlin is in sixth grade now, and she’s performing with the Pacific Youth Choir in Portland. They sang Mahler’s Third Symphony recently with the Oregon Symphony, and it was a spectacular, high-powered event — Mahler can be pretty heavy, but she was moved to tears by the beauty of it.

Caitlin gets a great deal of joy from music, theater, and writing, and she’s very passionate about it. She grew up in the Living Wisdom Schools and now attends the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy in Portland. I’ve taken her to choir practice since she was a tiny tot, so she knows our entire repertoire inside and out. (laughs)

In my own life, the arts have been a foundational theme. When I first picked up the cello at age six, I immediately knew with a solid intuition, “This is my instrument!” Music was a constant throughout my childhood, and playing cello and singing gifted me with many incredible experiences.

It was during those wonderful years from six to twelve that my heart was most open and that I was able to experience something greater than myself through music, call it a higher inspiration, God, or my own highest potential. I believe the name doesn’t matter so long as we recognize the amazing things music can do for us.

There are two aspects to music. There is, of course, the purely physical, sonic experience. And then there’s the interior, subjective response. The sonic experience is what the sound waves are doing to our bodies.

Many studies have shown that music, especially playing a musical instrument, builds important connections between the two hemispheres of a child’s brain, and that when the child is having a musical experience many areas of the brain become engaged.

Music touches a number of brain areas simultaneously. When we’re performing, the whole brain lights up in a striking way that we can see on scans. Those effects happen also when we’re passively listening to music, but to a lesser degree, and even when we’re just thinking of music that inspires us.

So there are those purely physical effects, but there are also other, “energetic” impacts. By energetic, I mean effects of sound that can touch us in deeper ways. They are what moves us to say “Wow! Oh my, that piece really moved me!” Or “That music struck a chord with me — I really resonated with it.”

It’s something I think we can safely say lies beyond our ability to perceive intellectually, and beyond the simple effects of sound waves on our body and brain. There’s something deeper than the physical beats and sound waves that music can awaken in us.

Unfortunately, a great deal of popular music today is nothing more than computer-generated sounds, beats, rhythms, and special effects that are designed to impact our brains as sensual “ear candy.” And while it can get our energy moving and excite our emotions, when it’s over it just dumps us back out on the curb again.

I’m deeply intrigued by a kind of music that does the exact opposite — a music that bypasses the mind and draws us inside to touch on something larger than the little ego, and that we instinctively recognize as a very real higher part of ourselves.

Q: Are there levels of uplifting music? For example, music that can raise our mood, and other music that can take us to higher places?

David: I’m convinced it’s true. I once coached at a music camp where an amateur quartet played a Schubert piece. It was lovely — Schubert wrote some incredibly inspiring pieces, and some of the Schubert songs have a powerful ability to cheer us and make us smile and feel that life is good. But I believe there are even higher levels. Brahms said that when he composed music he would come in contact with a divine presence that was “superconscious” — he used that word — and that it was from that level that he received his inspiration.

I’ve found that music is a kind of road map for my life, like a source code that can capture inspiration and the wonderful consciousness that great composers can enter and bring down into their works.

We’re given these dots on a page, and when we perform them there’s a light that goes on at some point on the scale of inspiration. Then you can play the notes, and if you can carefully tune into the present moment and be completely focused and receptive, you can bathe in a ray of that great light. You can become immersed in the same inspiration that the composer experienced. And if they received it from a high place — for example, a Handel clearly did when he composed the Messiah — you can feel it touching your soul.

It’s like a drug that’s concocted from a very effective prescription for bringing your consciousness into a happier place. It starts with the realm of pure ideas — the dots on the paper — and then you use your energy to create a sonic vibration that moves those ideas into a place deep within us.

For me, it’s like nature — it’s one of those rare precious things in our lives that can awaken a remembrance of a beauty buried deep in us all, and an understanding of where our truest fulfillment comes from.

Our greatest fulfillments never come from anything material. When you hear music, can you put your finger on it? Can you capture it? It’s played, and then it goes away. It’s completely immaterial, yet it’s one of the greatest gifts God has given us, because it can take us into a kingdom inside where our universal birthright of happiness is already perfectly present and eagerly waiting to fill us.

Q: While you were growing up, and in your career as a musician, was there a point where you felt there was a ceiling on the inspiration of the kind of music you were playing?

David: (laughs) First of all, when I was in the Feeling Years from six to twelve I was a complete music snob! My teacher had to pull me aside and say, “David, I’m afraid I have to give you an unsatisfactory grade, because your attitude has been really, really bad in music class.” I wasn’t quite present enough at that age to be able to snap out a sassy reply — “Yeah, well — this music is horrible!” (laughs)

But it was. It was totally, totally uninspiring! At the same time, I was deeply moved by the folk songs of the 1970s, especially the tunes from Godspell and others. My Dad is a Presbyterian pastor, so I grew up with an awareness of the inspiration of Spirit, and I had many experiences that reassured me: “As long as I have music, everything will be okay.”

I had some amazing inspired experiences that carried me through high school. But then, toward the end of college, after a great deal of formal training, I woke up one day in a kind of panic, wondering, “My gosh, what have I done with my life?”

I thought, “I’ll end up playing in an orchestra surrounded by miserable, cynical, jaded musicians, of whom there many, and uninspired conductors, and an audience that’s dwindling, and music that, for the most part, isn’t inspiring at all.”

There’s lots of inspired music, but orchestras often have to program “new music” to win the grants that support the inspiring stuff, and it’s very unfortunate that in our contemporary music we have a great deal to learn about inspiration. Today it seems that the more atonal and outrageous it is, the better the music is regarded. It certainly can be powerful, but not always in a good way. Uplifting? Hmm, I don’t think so.

So I put my career on hold in my late twenties, and I went off in search of the lost inspiration — and, interestingly enough, I eventually found it.

At first I was looking for a way to serve society through music, because I felt it would at least be heart-opening and fulfilling. So I joined a troupe of storytelling musicians who were performing for children in the Feeling Years from six to twelve. We took popular stories and set them to music, and we would act out the characters while we played, like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I remember playing the Mayor of Hamlin for a season — I would strap the cello to my body and we would play and sing and enact the story, and for a long time I felt inspired, because it was serving the needs of young children who desperately needed upliftment through the arts.

But then after a time I began to feel that it was too much “art for art’s sake,” with no true higher purpose, so I began working with the Suzuki Method, which is founded on a beautiful concept of nurturing children who may never become professional musicians, but who will be human beings with beautiful hearts. But it wasn’t long before I realized that I wanted something more.

I wanted to be surrounded by people who weren’t only practicing good teachings, but who were looking for Truth writ large, because I knew that there was a level of music that could truly touch my soul, and it was the kind of music I was longing to explore and perform. And that was when, thank heaven, I became a music teacher at Living Wisdom School in Portland.

I had quit professional music at that point, and I dove headfirst into teaching those kids in the Feeling Years, and it was the hardest job I’ve had, because it took tremendous energy to manage the kids and connect with them.

I had a class of all girls and one very shy boy who was overwhelmed and wasn’t able to put out much energy, so for the first two years I had the typical, terribly difficult, soul-searing experience of being a novice teacher.

Then we moved to Ananda Village, where I taught music at the original Living Wisdom School for twelve years, and it was a very, very successful, incredibly fulfilling experience.

Q: Here in Palo Alto, the directors and teachers at the Living Wisdom School often have trouble persuading parents that engaging kids in the performing arts has a profoundly positive effect on their academic performance because there’s a strong component of feeling in the learning experience, and it needs to be cultivated as a cornerstone of the academic curriculum.

One of the students is an extremely gifted young classical pianist. He just finished third grade, and you can see that he’s totally focused and engaged when he’s performing, and that it carries over to his studies and his interactions with the other children and the teachers.

In your teaching, have you noticed that young children’s lives are improved by the time they spend with the arts?

David: Without the slightest question! One of my first students in Portland was Keshava Betts, who’s in his late twenties and plays cello very inspiringly.

Keshava realized as a very young child that whenever he was feeling low, he could pick up the cello and play and he’d feel better – and that’s a huge gift. Being able to access such a powerful tool to raise our consciousness is one of the most priceless skills we can learn.

One night many years ago, I came out of a terrible opera rehearsal, and as I drove through the rain I felt utterly drenched by the misery of it all. And decided I might as well practice singing a solo that I was scheduled to perform, from an oratorio called “Christ Lives.” It was just a way to pass the time on a miserable drive, and I wasn’t expecting any great change in my consciousness. But then — whammo! — I felt such a tremendous current of joy that I actually had to pull over to the side of the road to avoid being dangerously distracted. I thought, “What in the world just happened?! I don’t understand this. How did this happen?” (laughs)

The song was very simple — it stayed within the octave and wasn’t sophisticated at all, yet it left me wondering, “How did this move me so powerfully? How was it able to change me in an instant?”

It helped me understand that music can hold a vibration of consciousness, and that when we wander into an inspired piece of music, it suddenly feels as if we’ve walked into a beautiful temple. When we walk into a holy place we feel uplifted, and when we walk into a holy song the same inner change occurs.

It’s why I feel it’s such an profound responsibility to provide uplifting music for children. At the school in Portland now, I am constantly witnessing how, whenever the children walk into these pieces, it changes them. I feel it’s very important to provide those opportunities for them to explore the higher places in themselves.

It’s not something you can drive into them. “Now I want you to feel!” (laughs) You can’t force it, and the same with adults, there are adults who love listening to the music, but maybe they have a hard time tuning into the inner experience, and it’s a joy to help them find that happiness.

I’m working with a music education program called El Sistema that was started in Venezuela in 1975 by an educator, musician, and activist, José Antonio Abreu. It brought intense classical music training to the slums, the barrios, and it transformed the society, to the point where 80 percent of the doctors and lawyers and educators came up through this system as children. And that’s an amazingly statistic!

We’re working with children in an impoverished area in north Portland, and it’s hard to measure the changes in just the last three years, but we’ve seen an incredibly positive development of personal skills, confidence, and social maturity.

Q: These inner changes are starting to be documented by science. It’s been shown, for example, that in the presence of expansive feelings of love, kindness, and compassion the heart’s rhythms become extremely harmonious, and those harmonious vibrations have powerful effects on the body and brain. They’ve found that in school districts where they’ve taught heart-harmonizing methods, including methods that use music, the children’s grades improve.

David: A wonderful thing about music is that it brings the children into an uplifted, happy place in themselves, without having to nag them into changing. (laughs) They don’t need a teacher or parent yelling at them, “Change your energy!” And the kid is going, “I don’t know how!” But if you get them performing uplifting music, it puts them in the right cycle effortlessly.

It’s been great fun to have the children perform only very high kinds of music for a period. I was amazed by how the kids never tired of it, and if they wanted to learn new songs, we were fortunate to have hundreds of pieces to choose from.

Through music young children are able to tap into a higher awareness that will stay with them, without having to struggle to quiet the mind. We would sing positive, uplifting songs that they loved — like “Mañana, Friends,” or “A New Tomorrow” or “If You’re Seeking Freedom,” and it was amazing to see how their mood would change.

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