How Arts Education Shaped My Life
When I was six years old, I started playing piano because my mom wanted me to take piano lessons. I liked playing the piano, but I didn’t really like taking lessons. Maybe it was because I wanted to play after school, not practice piano. Things changed, however, in fourth grade when I was 10 and got my first saxophone.
I was at Whitworth Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. My band teacher, Mr. Bloom, taught us how to play all of the instruments. Every Friday, for 10-15 minutes, I’d get a saxophone lesson. I never minded practicing the saxophone.
I liked everything about the saxophone. I even remember the first time I saw one. I was watching The Ed Sullivan Show with my mom, and someone in the house band stood up and played a saxophone solo. I liked the shape of the saxophone. I liked the act of putting it together, putting the reed in the mouthpiece. I liked the keys and how they worked with my fingers. There was something about the saxophone that just made perfect sense to me.
I didn’t make the high school jazz band in my freshman year; I wasn’t good enough. So I practiced hard over the summer and came back and was first chair in my junior year of high school. Music taught me my first life lesson early: work hard at something you want and you can do it. I continued to play saxophone all through high school and college. In fact, it was my high school band teacher who helped me get my first gig—he knew somebody who was putting together Barry White’s orchestra for a few dates and he recommended me. I was only 17 when I played my first professional gig with the Barry White Love Unlimited Orchestra.
In college, I studied accounting, but I played in the jazz band all four years. I thought that being a professional musician would be a very cool thing to do, but I wasn’t sure it was going to pan out. What I did know was that I was at least going to try. And again, it was a music educator who helped me. My band director at college was the main contractor for all the professional shows that would come in through Seattle in the mid and late 1970s. Thanks to him, I played with Sammy Davis, Jr., Liberace, Peggy Lee, and even the Ringling Bros. Circus. By the time I graduated I already had a good reputation as a professional musician.
Even though I’ve been playing the saxophone for most of my life at this point, I’m a guy that still practices three hours a day. I discovered early on that the more I practiced the better I got. And the better I got, the more fun I had with the instrument. That’s a life lesson that applies to much more than just playing music. In school, I got straight As and I know that came from learning discipline, consistency, and tenacity by working on the saxophone. I’ve applied those same skills as an adult to everything from learning to play golf to learning how to cook a steak to figuring out the rhythms as I explore different genres of music, like Bossa Nova.
I think that music education is one of those things that people might say, “Well, we don’t need that. That’s just extra.” But, the fact is that art education—whether it’s music or visual arts or theater or other art forms—teaches skills that are not being taught almost anywhere else. There are a lot of online resources and study aids to help you get good grades these days, but one cannot be a good musician without working hard. And for many kids, whose families don’t have the resources to get them private music lessons, school is the only opportunity they have to encounter an art form that may literally change their lives. I know I certainly wouldn’t be a musician if I hadn’t been able to take band class in school. It was my band teachers that made this career happen for me.
I think that opportunity to encounter and engage with music all those years in school would have been life-changing even if I had become Kenny G, the accountant. Your brain has to work fast to play all those notes in the right order and you have to work as a team with the other musicians. So as a young musician, you’re learning teamwork and you’re learning how good it feels to be really good at something, which in turns teaches you about dedication, about always being open to learning, about not giving up.
When you’re first learning an instrument, you can easily get discouraged because it just doesn’t sound good. I try to encourage young people, to let them know that it’s not going to be so rewarding right off the bat, especially if, like me, you’re playing a wind instrument. To sound good right off the bat that requires practice. But later, after you’ve put in the time to figure out how to make your instrument work, that’s a powerful feeling of satisfaction. That lesson in persistence and practice that you learned while mastering an instrument, you can apply it to whatever field you end up in—accounting or plumbing or teaching or whatever career out there interests you.
Giving kids the opportunity to develop a relationship with the arts ultimately benefits the entire community. We’re all in this community together. It seems like a slam dunk that music education is going to help our kids develop into better young adults. Just like having a community pool or a neighborhood playground, arts education can help keep kids off the streets. It gives then less idle time to get into trouble. It gives them all the skills I’ve already mentioned—discipline, focus, persistence—to help them succeed as adults. Life knocks all of us down occasionally, sure, but learning to play the saxophone when I was a kid taught me everything I needed to know to overcome, to have the determination to get right back up. Who doesn’t want that for our future?
Grammy Award-winner Kenny G is a world-renowned instrumentalist, whose recordings routinely topped the charts during the 1980s and '90s due to his distinctive sound. A staple on adult contemporary and smooth jazz radio stations, he has recorded 23 albums over the course of his career, most notably Breathless, which made him a household name.