Innovation Strategy: Music Service Corps

Everyone agrees that solving today’s complex and troubling global challenges will require new ways of thinking and working. A majority of Fortune 500 companies tell us that, even more than reading and math, American students need to be learning the core skills of innovation to succeed in a competitive world economy.

How do we ingrain our future workforce with the common skills of the most successful innovators—the scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and policy-makers who conceive and create solutions to our most vexing problems? Skills like: imagining possibilities; having the courage, persistence and discipline to pursue them; working on a team, integrating feedback and performing under pressure.

In the spirit of thinking outside-of-the-box, I’ll submit a word: music. We should create a national service corps for musicians and artists to work in public schools and underserved communities. Not only because the arts are important. But because the critical skills a child develops when she struggles with her instrument, writes a song, joins a band or finds her voice in a choir are the same ones needed to succeed in the creative economy and solve our greatest future challenges.

The Music National Service Initiative (MNSi) is piloting this idea with MusicianCorps — a “musical Peace Corps” that seeks to increase school and life achievement among disadvantaged youth by expanding access to quality music education. To quote a 2006 speech of former Governor, current bass player, Mike Huckabee: “Ask a CEO what they are looking for in an employee and they say they need people who understand teamwork, people who are disciplined, people who get the big picture. You know what they need? They need musicians.”

Music education has been shown to increase concentration abilities as well as intuitive and conceptual thinking. And schools with music programs have significantly higher graduation rates than those without (90.2% as compared to 72.9% according to a 2006 Harris survey of high school principals).

Of course, kids also love music. In a recent MTV survey, teens stated that music defines them more than family, moral values, religion, and style. Before software engineers can create complex algorithms, they must first develop a passion for inquiry, exploration, trial and error. In short, great innovators love to learn. And nothing engages young people in the process of learning better than music and the arts.

Unfortunately, school budget cuts and stretched family incomes have greatly reduced opportunities for enrichment through music and the arts. MusicianCorps would help address this need, and benefit not only the children but also our economy ($166.2 billion annually) and culture.

The strategy is rapidly gaining traction. The Aspen Institute recently named MusicianCorps 1 of “10 innovative policy proposals that will strengthen U.S. communities”. Last month, an unprecedented national gathering of music and arts organizations voted to “create a national AmeriCorps/WPA-type program” for artists. And Barack Obama lists an Artist Corps among his top priorities in his arts policy paper.

At the same time, national service programs are set for significant growth. Yesterday, Time magazine’s Managing Editor, Richard Stengel followed up on last year’s national service cover story(“The Case for National Service”) with a public commitment to help make it a legislative priority in Washington. The presumptive Democratic nominee has already stated his intention to double the size of the Peace Corps and expand Americorps from 75,000 corps members/yr to 250,000. And a group of music-loving Congressional Members is forming a bi-partisan “Musicians Caucus” to add a little groove to the upcoming service debate.

Music has a rich history of creating conditions for more civil dialogue on Capitol Hill. Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan would finish a bruising week of legislative battles singing Irish songs together at a piano. Recently deceased White House spokesman, Tony Snow often attributed his positive outlook to his flute playing. And many elected officials have spoken freely about how music provides a “constructive outlet” for their stress and allows them to “transcend politics.”

Imagine what constructive music outlets could do for millions of youth–many of whom come from low-income, violent neighborhoods and have never spent time with their father–as they try to process complex emotions, stay out of trouble and succeed in school. Before he was given a trumpet, Ambassador Satchmo, Louis Armstrong himself was considered a juvenile delinquent. It’s not a stretch to say that Music saves lives.

Imagine 25,000 musicians and artists, 10 percent of what’s been proposed for AmeriCorps, working not only with kids who can’t afford instruments or lessons, but with disabled children, elderly with dementia, returning soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder and to strengthen American relations abroad as Armstrong and the Jazz Ambassadors did during the cold war.

As Members of Congress consider launching a new Health Corps, Green Corps and Education Corps, let’s not forget an Artist Corps, the creative catalyst that will help them all – not only to address the world that is, but to imagine and innovate the world that can be.

Kiff Gallagher is a singer-songwriter and Founding Chair of the Music National Service Initiative. He is a past President of Social Venture Network; and served on the White House legislative team that created AmeriCorps.—–