By John DiConsiglio
For Ellie D’Andria, a senior at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences (CCAS), music has always been at the center of her life.
From learning the piano at the age of six 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, a cappella group or marching band.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, D’Andria’s music businesses suddenly went silent. The Jazz Orchestra canceled its performances. Venues where D’Andria had taken the stage, such as DC’s Twins Jazz Club and Blues Alley, closed their doors.
“Music is such a big part of my heart,” she said. “When I was away from it [during COVID], I found how it filled my life with joy. I knew I had to get back to that somehow.”
At GW, D’Andria chose not to pursue a music degree. “I wanted it to be a fun hobby at the end of the day,” she said. While many subjects appealed to her – her courses range from liberal arts to statistics to American Sign Language – she decided to pursue a Specialty Interdisciplinary Major (SIM), a unique CCAS program that allows students to design their own course of study. D’Andria’s goals center on educational policy, which she said “seems like the natural intersection of my interest in human brain development and political science and institutional change work.”
But D’Andria still found a way to add music to her studies. For her 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 advance music education in K-12 classrooms while expressing her own musical passions. She hopes her podcast will persuade policymakers, educators, and music lovers to speak out for the value of music.
“I want to show them that music isn’t just this frivolous educational dessert — while math and science and reading are majors,” said D’Andria, who plans to pursue a career in therapy after completing college that has been postponed by COVID. Semester abroad in Denmark. “Music can be both beautiful and useful.”
Mastery of multiple disciplines
Music was a common chorus for D’Andria’s entire family. Her mother, who sings and plays guitar, studied music in college. Her father plays the trumpet and piano, and her brothers play instruments ranging from the oboe to the tuba. “We’re one of those annoying families that play Christmas carols with five-part harmonies,” she laughed.
In 2021, D’Andria spent a semester volunteering at a COVID testing center in her hometown of Urbana, Illinois. During her eight-hour shift, she would hum her favorite Erykah Badu song and think of ways to recapture the missing sounds. When she returned to Foggy Bottom, she had a plan. For her graduation project, she envisioned a podcast that would combine her musical skills with her research and academic interests.
With her mentor Eric Lawrence, Chair of Political Science, she researched the history of public education policy. As a research associate in the lab of psychology professor Carol Sigelman, D’Andria studied the cognitive links of music to mental health and social emotional learning.
She consulted with Advisor Associate Professor of Education Policy Yas Nakib, turned to School of Media and Public Affairs Director of Strategic Initiatives Frank Sesno for help with interviews, and asked Corcoran School of the Arts & Design Director Lauren Onkey for podcasting tips. Heather Stebbins, assistant professor of computer electronic music, taught her how to use digital transmission tools and program synthesizers.
“I was totally blown away by [D’Andria’s] SIMs project,” Sigelman said. “It showed incredible mastery of multiple disciplines and multiple technologies, excellent communication skills and great stage presence.”
Each podcast episode features interviews with experts on the value of music education, including a neuroscientist and opera singer who discussed the cognitive benefits of music education and a music therapist who discussed how it links to emotional health. In one episode, a policy expert outlined an “advocacy toolbox” to advance music education at a time when 3.8 million pre-12th grade students in the United States lack access to music education, according to the Grammy Music Education Coalition.
In the last episode, D’Andria asked musicians to talk about the impact music has had on their lives. D’Andria herself shared treasured musical memories, from leading her high school marching band to singing Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World to her terminally ill grandfather. “I wanted to end up talking about music, like we don’t have to commit to it,” she said. “Sometimes I want to argue that we should teach music simply because it brings us so much joy.”