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Cords Journal Interview: Kathy Damkohler

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Cords Journal Interview: Kathy Damkohler

© Photography by Christopher Galluzzo / Nasdaq, Inc.

Kathy Damkohler is the executive director of Education Through Music. Education Through Music partners with inner-city schools to provide all students with music as a core subject, and to create school communities that value the arts. ETM’s mission is to promote the use of music in schools as a means of enhancing students’ academic performance and general development.

N: Thank you for being here with us today. Let’s just start off learning a little bit about you, where you’re from. Tell us about you. 

K: Well, I was born and raised in the Bronx. I’m an educator. I’ve been the executive director of this wonderful organization for 25 years. We serve nearly 27,000 students in 48 schools, in all five boroughs for the first time. So, it’s a pretty exciting time for us.

N: What brought you to Education Through Music?

K: I’m an educator. I’ve always believed in my life that every child deserves a well-rounded education, and I cannot imagine that the arts are not a part of that experience.

N: So how did you start? What did you do before this?

K: Well, I taught for many, many years, and I think, as a teacher, using music as a part of the learning always came very natural to me. But, I had the opportunity to be a principal. I was hired to literally close a school in Mt. Vernon, New York, and it was tough. It was my first principal job—and to close a school? Mad! It’s really just a scary thing. But, what I learned when I got to the school is that the reason they were closing it is that there was a very transient population. Enrollment was going down, and 75% of the children that I was going to serve were reading below the 29th percentile. That was a catchall for every emotional and social problem you can ever imagine.

Well, fast-forward four years later: The only variable we incorporated into the school was the Education Through Music program. There were no new math books, no new reading books, a lot of changes to professional development, and showing our teachers how music could really support learning in other areas. And, President Clinton gave us a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. The children on the 29th percentile were now performing on the 70th and 80th percentile. So, it was a wonderful Cinderella story. But, I learned a lot from that experience, and what came out of that are the core beliefs of Education Through Music.

N: Was that the first Education Through Music school?

K: It was. So, I’d been with the organization as executive director, but I was also the founding principal. 

N: Did you meet the founders of Education Through Music through that experience?

K: I did. They were looking very much to pilot the program in a school. They both had lived in Westchester at the time [and] wanted very much to pilot it in a school in Westchester then bring it down to New York City. They had several schools that they were examining and interviewing. I was one of them, and I had the opportunity to get the funding. And, it really did require funding at the time because in the school that had a tremendous deficit and a lot of capital expenditures, [the administration] did not have any funding to hire additional staffing. I was able to bring in really highly trained and qualified music educators that worked along side our teachers and gave our children opportunities and experiences they would have never had. 

So, it was life changing for many reasons. It was not only life changing for the children and their families; I think it was life changing for the educators in the building and all the stakeholders in the school including myself.

N: What was the landscape like at the time?

K: Well, you know, what I learned—when Ed and Eldin, the founders, came to me and brought me this project—I think as an educator, you always are learning—I went out into the community and tried to see what education was happening in music. What I found is that most schools did not have a music teacher at the time. They had taken it out in the ‘70s, and it was never brought back. Once budget cuts are done, it’s very hard to circle around and bring it back... You know, you throw the baby out with the bathwater. What goes around comes around: that’s not necessarily [what] happens in education. So, I really did a lot of examining. I went down to the Julliard School, I went to a lot of New York City schools, I called the Department of Education.


"It’ll be nice to think that the world will become closer because of our similarities with the arts, not our differences with everything else."


What I found out [was] no one was hiring music teachers, but they were using short-term outreach enrichment programs from cultural organizations to substitute. And, I have to say in all defense, the cultural organizations had their hearts in their hands. They were smart enough to realize that if the children did not have any experiences, their audiences were going to decline. However, as an educator, I felt that just an outreach, or an experience, or an enrichment, an assembly, or an opportunity for an artist to come into a school is not really going to teach music. That’s not the way artists learned. They didn’t learn by having somebody in their school for five days. I’ve always believed that it’s not fair in any school for just a certain segment of the school population to get opportunities, and no one else gets it. Because, then you have the haves and have-nots, it’s the same thing.

The schools we were serving were very inner-city, and schools in more affluent communities were getting all these services. So, it just went against the grain to give it to a certain amount of children and not to everyone.

We brought in both a comprehensive and a sequential music program. We taught music as a core subject alongside math, science, and reading, and what we found is that what the children were learning in music were the cognitive skills: the patterning, the sequencing, the comparing, the contrasting, and all those things that help children to be great readers, great mathematicians and great lifelong learners. They were learning in different ways, and music teachers were able to introduce things and help children master concepts that they couldn’t in the traditional classroom. So, the collaboration between the teacher and the music teacher was a phenomenal experience, and, I think, contributed to the students’ performing well over the three years.

N: Are you a musician? Do you play?

K: Oh! Do I play? I have a funny story: I did. I studied piano for a little while, but I tell everyone after Fur Elise, it’s all downhill. So, there is no way that I will call myself a musician; however, I had music in my home, and I did have music in school. Today, if you don’t get it at home and you don’t get it in school, you’re just not going to get it.

N: Fast forward back to today—what do you see as the state of music education today? What are your feelings about it? What’s next?

K:  Well, look, I think education plays an extremely critical role in a student’s success and life and career. For us, we use music as a catalyst to come in school and stay in school. Children in the inner city have lots of baggage when they come into school, and we want them to be present. You know, there’s an old saying: as educators, we’ll always say, “You have to be present to learn,” and any hook that you can get these children to want to come to school—music becomes a great hook. It’s the time of the day where the children can be creative. They can explore. They can learn things. They become a team. They collaborate with other people. They are trying out instruments. There’s movement. There’s direction. It’s an enjoyable part of the day, and that enjoyment transfers into the other classrooms.

So, fast forward to after I left as principal at the school—and 18 years ago: We were serving maybe 250 students. Today, we’re serving 27,000 students in 48 schools. So, every child in those 48 schools gets music education. 

N: As we were talking about earlier, I always like to think about music education and the long-term benefits of music education. What are your thoughts on that, what do you think music education particularly can do for a young child and their future. 

K: Well, I have to say Education through Music is not star search. We didn't start this program because we were looking for the next Isaac Stern, the next Joshua Bell, or the next Renée Fleming. We did it because we wanted children to have a well-rounded education, and if, by chance, those children have  opportunities to become great artists, how wonderful. I mean, we’ve opened up a whole world for them that they may not have known if it were not for us.

But, I think education should be well rounded. Our motto is to have children successful in school and successful in life no matter what their career would be. We hope that they will be great audiences someday, they will love music for the rest of their life, they will appreciate it, and they’ll also have a variety of repertoire. [We hope that] they will be exposed to all kinds of music, not only the music that they hear in their homes and that they will have a broader understanding.

N: Today is the one-year anniversary of Charlie Hebdo. Obviously, many other things have happened since and before. We think about the world and what can actually maybe bring us together one day. We always talk about music being this cross-cultural tool and crossing all boundaries, crossing all languages. What are your feelings and thoughts on that?

K: You know, when you say that, I, in my mind, I keep thinking of that old commercial from Coca Cola “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and the effect it had. If you go back and look that up on YouTube, you’ll see that it crossed all borders, all boundaries. Music does bring… It brings children together beautifully. You know, our inner city schools in New York are not the same now. The diversity! Our Muslim children and our Jewish children work together in our classroom with our Hispanic children and our Caucasian children. It’s the melting pot that we were created on. Some of our schools have 80-100 different languages our children come from, and many of them do not speak English the first year. But, they learn it in music, and they collaborate together with music, and they feel a sense of partnership with music. So, if we can remember that and we can base [ourselves] on it—it’ll be nice to think that the world will become closer because of our similarities with the arts, not our differences with everything else.

N: So, you work with children every day. As we talked about this morning, you were visiting schools. Obviously, that communication and those communities that you visit and work with every day are important for you. Do you have any tidbits or stories that you can tell us? something interesting?

K: There’s not a day that you don’t hear a story that—that doesn’t bring you to tears. On a personal note, I remember, just recently, I happened to be shopping in a grocery store—The school that I worked in is not too far from where I live now—I was grocery shopping on a Sunday walking through the aisles, and this young man, a tall, dark-skinned young man runs towards me, arms flying, and I literally—I just stopped—and he says, “Mrs. Damkohler!” He says, “it’s Devon!” I looked and I realized he had the same cute baby face that he had 20 years ago, and he said to me, “How are you?”

I said, “What are you doing? Is this your job?”

He says, “No! I just work here. I’m in college.” He says, “I’m getting my doctorate!”

I said, “You’re kidding! Your doctorate?”

He says, “Yes! And, I still play the cello.”

This was a side job for him! He just works on the weekends to get extra money. And, I have to tell you something about him: I did change the name because when he was in school, one of the teachers noticed that he had the same shirt on for several days, and it was getting dirtier, and dirtier, and dirtier. Finally, she came to me, and I said, “No, just ask him. He’s a good kid. Just say to him, ‘Is everything ok that’s going on?” And, he told us that he was living in the car, that they had lost everything, and he was homeless.

So, the transition from this homeless child to a doctorate!

N: It’s incredible.

K: Yeah! The interesting thing is that he truly says that it was the music that saved him. He’s not a concert artist, but it did help him. It helped him. It absolutely helped him. For him, I think there was more to it. I think his brain just changed. I think music is brain-food for some kids. But, I think for this particular child, it gave him a sense of peace, and a sense of belonging, and a sense of feeling, that he could accomplish things that he couldn’t anywhere else in his life when he was alone in the corner of his house—because he didn’t have an extra room—in the corner just playing his cello.

N: Thank you very much!

K: You’re welcome!


For more on Education Through Music visit them at www.etmonline.org and don't forget to support them by purchasing your Cords for Music jewelry today






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