Expanding music education in the community of Stillwater


Music has always been a part of the human experience. In the earliest days, it was sought out by men who made the first wind instruments from bones and drums from animal hide. Music is everywhere today, seeping out of car stereos, echoing through stadiums and playing in the background of every gathering.

This balance of pitch, rhythm and tone has the power to captivate people, send shivers down their spine, express what cannot be said and bring a sense of nostalgia in an instant. To hear someone performing a piece of music live is to hear the fruits of the hours of labor it took to learn, practice, fail and practice it more, all done to make the performance sound perfect and effortless.

The impact of music in society is owed to music education, especially in the role it plays in childhood development. Quality music education teaches children how to read, write and play music. More significantly, it teaches them valuable life skills such as autonomy, courage, critical thinking and how to work in a group at a young age.

These days, music education for children most commonly comes from school, where music classes are taught. However, access to music education is diminishing in places like Oklahoma where, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute and Quadrant Arts Education Research, more than 800 music education classes were shut down between 2014 and 2018, leaving communities struggling to develop the skills that music education provides. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, 28% of the Oklahoma student population is without any options for fine art classes.

In Stillwater, someone is working hard to ensure music education thrives in Oklahoma and across the globe. Meredith Blecha-Wells is an associate professor of cello at Oklahoma State University and the director of the university’s Community Music School, a program focused on providing childhood music education. With the experience of an extensive musical career and a passion for providing access to music education to every child, Blecha-Wells took the music outreach programs OSU already had and brought them together into one united school in 2017.

“The Community Music School came from kind of separate groups that were already established that came together under one umbrella,” she said. “For a while, we had a string academy, which is a version of the youth orchestra, we had the youth choir program, but we didn’t have the Suzuki program, so I put that in place. So those three programs are our pillars right now.”

Through the OSU Community Music School, Blecha-Wells works to fulfill the vital role of music education for the community of Stillwater and the surrounding area at a comparably low tuition rate. They offer scholarships to students, often turning to fundraising to help students in need who want a musical education. Jeffrey Loeffert, the Director of the Greenwood School of Music, which the Community Music School is housed under, said he admires Blecha-Wells’ initiative.

“The Community Music School offers a creative outlet and a learning outlet for many students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that same level of instruction,” Loeffert said. “We’re a better community because of it, and consequently a better state. We’re better equipped to serve the people of Oklahoma.”

Distinguished music professors teach the students, who are given access to OSU facilities such as the McKnight Center. Blecha-Wells’ hope is that the school will teach life skills and develop a love for music in the students. That is already the case for Brian Harrison’s fifth grade daughter. Harrison said she once had no interest in the musical arts, but then a friend introduced her to the youth choir.

“One of her friends invited her to join this choir and it’s like, ‘Heck yes, I’m going to sign her up,’” Harrison said. “Now that I’ve done that, she loves going to practice. She’s talking about wanting to be in the band or orchestra next year, and it has completely flipped her perspective on music and what it can do.”

The youth choir is the oldest part of the OSU Community Music School. Julia Haley, who is still the coordinator for the choir, started it in 1999. She said Blecha-Wells’ focus on bringing music education to underserved children is providing something essential to their development.

“I have a quote that I like to use, ‘The fact that children can make beautiful music is less significant than the fact that music can make beautiful children,’” Haley said. “Human beings all need the arts; they speak to us and teach us in different ways than some of the more academic subjects. A lot of research shows that the arts, experience in the arts, helps students achieve in all areas, in cognitive development, in physical development, everything.”

Scientific research supports this claim and provides a compelling argument for childhood music education. Early musical experience increases the literacy, memory, fine motor skills, social skills and cognitive abilities of children in comparison to those who don’t have musical experience, according to a study from the Institute of Education at the University of London.

While Blecha-Wells is helping bring better music education and the benefits it provides to the Stillwater community, she also has her sights on bringing it to the developing world through a nonprofit organization she started with her husband, the Global Pedagogy Initiative. She said the focus of this organization is to establish music education programs for communities in developing countries that don’t have access to the level of education she was able to get.

“My thought is if you can go into these areas and teach the teachers how to teach and you can give them the skills,” Blecha-Wells said, "then they can pass it on to the next generation. So, that’s kind of like my inspiration, and I’ve experienced it in a number of ways.”

Her experiences include going to countries such as Haiti, Tanzania and Colombia to bring the curriculum needed in their communities. With plans to establish satellite music schools and a system to allow her to make remote Skype calls to teach lessons regularly, Blecha-Wells is bringing something to the children of developing countries that would be otherwise unlikely for them to experience. She said she wants to expand this initiative and include the Community Music School in its growth, with plans of having OSU students provide lessons.

“I think it’d be really great if we could have satellite programs, whether that be physically or doing more stuff online with Skype and such,” Blecha-Wells said. “I think that’d be really cool; we could get into those communities that just have no access to music education. Because I talk about the developing world, but there’s so much of that in Oklahoma even; you don’t have to go far.”

Following Blecha-Wells' vision into the future, the Oklahoma State Community Music School looks to continue to expand. Although the need for more music education still exists in Oklahoma and globally, Blecha-Wells is doing everything she can to help her community.

“We’re just trying to be impactful in a way that really teaches the whole human being and teaches them these life skills,” Blecha-Wells said. “But also teaches them about compassion and gives them that sense of independence, autonomy, courage and strength. All those things that go well beyond just what we’re doing with teaching the technique.”