By John DiConsiglio
For Ellie D’Andria, a senior in the George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences (CCAS), music has always been at the center of her life.
From first learning to play piano at 6 to leading the GW Jazz Orchestra on trombone and vocals, D’Andria can’t remember a time when she wasn’t part of a choir, an a cappella group or a marching band.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, D’Andria’s musical outlets suddenly went silent. The Jazz Orchestra canceled its performances. Venues where D’Andria had taken the stage, like D.C.’s Twins Jazz Club and Blues Alley, shuttered their doors.
“Music is such a huge part of my heart,” she said. “When I was away from it [during COVID], I realized how it infused my life with joy. I knew that somehow I had to get back to it.”
At GW, D’Andria chose not to pursue a music major. “I wanted it to remain a fun hobby that I did at the end of the day,” she said. While many subjects appealed to her—her course-load ranges from humanities to statistics to American Sign Language — she settled on a special interdisciplinary major (SIM), a program unique to CCAS that enables students to design their own course of study. D’Andria’s goals are focused on education policy which, she said, “seems like the natural intersection of my interest in human brain development and political science-institutional change work.”
But D’Andria still found a way to add music to her studies. For her capstone thesis, she created a podcast called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: A Love Letter to Music Education. Over five episodes, she interviewed neuroscientists, music therapists and education advocates to promote music education in K-12 classrooms while expressing her own musical passions. She hopes her podcast will persuade policymakers, educators and music lovers to raise their voices in support of the value of music.
“I want to show them that music is not just this frivolous educational dessert—while math and science and reading are the main courses,” said D’Andria, who plans to pursue a career as a therapist after completing a COVID-postponed study-aboard semester in Denmark. “Music can be both beautiful and useful too.”
Mastery of Multiple Disciplines
Music has been a common refrain for D’Andria’s entire family. Her mother, who sings and plays guitar, was a music major in college. Her father plays trumpet and piano, and her brothers are skilled on instruments from the oboe to the tuba. “We’re one of those annoying families that does five-part harmonies on Christmas carols,” she laughed.
In 2021, D’Andria spent a semester volunteering at a COVID testing center in her Urbana, Illinois, hometown. Through her eight-hour shifts, she’d hum her favorite Erykah Badu song and think about how to recapture the sounds she was missing. By the time she returned to Foggy Bottom, she had a plan. For her capstone project, she envisioned a podcast that combined her musical skills with her research and academic interests.
With her mentor Political Science Chair Eric Lawrence, she explored the history of public education policy. As a research assistant in Professor of Psychology Carol Sigelman’s lab, D’Andria looked at music’s cognitive links to mental health and social emotional learning.
She conferred with adviser Associate Professor of Education Policy Yas Nakib, turned to School of Media and Public Affairs Director of Strategic Initiatives Frank Sesno for interview help and asked Corcoran School of the Arts & Design Director Lauren Onkey for podcasting tips. Heather Stebbins, assistant professor of electronic computer music, taught her how to use digital broadcasting tools and program synthesizers.
“I was completely blown away by [D’Andria’s] SIMs project,” Sigelman said. “It demonstrated incredible mastery of multiple disciplines and multiple technologies, marvelous communication skills and a great stage presence.”
Each podcast episode features interviews with experts on the value of music education, including a neuroscientist and opera singer who explained the cognitive benefits of musical training and a music therapist who described the links to emotional health. In one episode, a policy expert outlined an “advocacy tool box” for promoting music education at a time when, according to the Grammy Music Education Coalition, 3.8 million pre-K-12th grade students in the United States have no access to music education.
In the final episode, D’Andria asked musicians to talk about music’s impact on their lives. D’Andria herself shared cherished musical memories, from conducting her high school marching band to singing Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World to her critically ill grandfather. “I wanted to end by talking about music as if we did not have to advocate for it,” she said. “Sometimes I want to argue that we should teach music simply because it fills us with so much joy.”