“Anywhere and all around the world, kids are kids and music is music...” Benton said.

Music Education Takes International Tone

Cuban music has a way of injecting itself into your body, making it hard to sit still. Your feet begin to tap, hips sway without command and before you know it, the beat has taken over. In November 2011, Armstrong assistant professor of music education Carol Benton traveled to Havana, Cuba, as a National Association for Music Education (NAfME) research delegate. There, she let herself be immersed in the harmonies of Havana and encountered students who devote their childhood to making music.

The goal of NAfME's research delegation was to make connections with music educators and students in Cuba. Delegates also sought to strengthen the commitment of American music educators to expose U.S. schoolchildren to musical influences from other parts of the world.

“In our American music education system, we are very attuned to multicultural and global music, so we teach our students music from places like Cuba or Africa,” Benton said. “It was about reaching out and seeing what else is out there.”

The musical influences on the island varied from one class performance to the next. Choirs, ranging from elementary to high school, sang traditional Cuban folk songs, as well as classical masterworks from handwritten music scores. Another group, comprised of percussionists and singers, demonstrated the strong African influence on local music.
Although relatively isolated from the United States by political forces, the students in Cuba's music education system benefit from influences as far away as Russia, due to donations of instruments and materials by the Soviet Union. “The students learn and perform Western European classical pieces and also learn their own Cuban folk music and Afro-Cuban rhythms,” Benton said.

While sampling the best chords Cuba had to offer, Benton also explored the inner workings of the country's education system. Cuban public education stands in stark contrast to the opportunity-filled programs found in the United States. Cuban children can apply to music-focused schools at the end of second grade. They are then tested for musical aptitude and talent, and if they show promise, attend the music-focused schools through age 19. Out of 5,000 applicants to any one school, only about 50 students are chosen per year. Those not chosen attend general education schools.

All students who study at the musical institutions attend on full scholarships, which pay for tuition, books, instruments, uniforms and even private lessons. There is, however, a stipulation—students must pay back the government-backed funds by either teaching or performing for three years after graduation.

“Anywhere and all around the world, kids are kids and music is music,” Benton said. “So for those of us who have been music teachers for many years, it was just a lot of fun to see all these groups of kids making music.”