We all love a good news story where something, whether it be a spoken word competition, visual art display, or a music program has transformed a school. It makes us believe in the power of music and arts to transform a community. If you are a music or arts educator reading this, it may also be that it is nice to see someone else recognize the power in what you do for the students at your school.
The program documented in the linked article is great! Every child in Year 7 (12/13 years of age) gets a violin, viola or flute to learn. The headteacher at the school says “The school is unrecognizable from where it was in 2014. We are celebrating the best results the school has ever had.” This is often the non-musical justification for a music program and in the current age of economically rationalize education, we as music educators often feel we need this in order to get through to the policymakers and system leaders.
But then the article goes onto quote a representative of the trust that funds the program, and here is where the real message lives. “The main goal of the Trust, White tells The Times, is not to produce top-class musicians. Children learned to co-operate, concentrate, sit still, and cherished their instruments so much that if a fight broke out in the playground, they would carefully put them down first before joining in,” the paper quotes her as saying.
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This is where the power of the story is. It is not simply that music learning has transformed a school and its student; it is HOW it has done it. The reason this is important is that, if you have never been part of the music learning experience, you have no point of reference to know how music has transformed the students and the school, just a simple understanding that it has.
If we take this description one step further, we can give examples of not just HOW but WHEN and WHY music learning has transformed these students and their school.
- Co-operation – when students learning music in a group they have to share a common pulse, listen to each other’s parts, identify when something is going wrong and take personal responsibility within the group to fixing that problem. These are the foundational skills of co-operation across any task. Still, I would add, musically trained students need to do it sensitively, they have to accept others’ mistakes, remain verbally and non-verbally supportive and accept all of this within themselves when their contribution has not helped the group. These are not just foundational skills for co-operation, but skills based in compassion and humanity, not just learned skills that are checking off a list title “good co-operation skills”.
- Concentration (and within this would be sitting still) – when students learn music in a group, concentration levels not only need to be high and consistent, students need to learn how to pull themselves back from a distracted state. Over a 60-minute rehearsal, we can all mind-wander, fidget, and lose focus, but in a music learning environment, students need to activate their attention back to what is happening in the rehearsal. This is one of the most important skills for working independently in a way that keeps students on track and finishing their homework or projects.
- Cherish their instruments – while the description Truda White, the music teacher at the school, gave for cherishing their instruments brings a little humour to what she has said, there is a much deeper point that she is making. Looking after something important to you brings growth in responsibility, commitment, and personal choices, all of which are again deeply human skills that these students will take into their adulthood for their pets, their children, their work, and their families. The act of caring for something over a long period of time assists the development of skills that will impact far beyond the classroom or the rehearsal space.
So while good news stories are good, let’s start providing the press with the HOW, WHEN, and WHY and see if we can educate them about the impact of music learning on every student’s brain development.