By Suzanna Hoffman
As a teacher for over ten years, and battling the system, I walked out of the general primary school setting. I was bored of testing kids, overloaded with learning programs and could see that our current system was still aligned with our old view on Education. This was the outdated perspective of building up our economy for the industrial revolution. Aka training mini robots to memorise facts and follow rules or as we know it generally speaking, sitting in small offices for long hours, doing repetitive tasks to make more money for larger corporations. This way of thinking and doing is old and does not reflect our current societal needs. And the lack of value towards the arts in schools today is disheartening, but the more I delved into the topic, I found that this may be due to the fact that teachers are unaware of the importance of music on child development and this is a reflection of the lack of training in tertiary educational studies. As a past Melbourne Uni student, I can vouch for this statement, as I never came across these understandings to assist my teaching practices.
After leaving full time teaching, I began working casually as a CRT, and what landed me after 12 months, a contract job as the music, performing and media arts coordinator at a school with lots of resources and no program. Finally, I got to use my knowledge, experience, innovation and creativity and love for performing arts into designing my very own music and performing arts program. And teach my own way, incorporating performing arts and values education. (Please note, this school had a variety of students with behavioural and learning difficulties, hence the values education in my planning).
On the first day of my new role, I had the preps, now refered to as ‘Foundation’ students, and for this age group the general focus is keeping a steady beat and listening to and responding to different sounds and music styles. Within seconds of my first lesson, the ‘keeping the steady beat’ game, seemed to point out, which students struggled in other ways in their life or schooling. Whether it was instinct, or notable observations of students looking confused or around the room to seek assistance, or the students staring at random objects as if they were in ‘fairy land’. This classic game or sections of my lessons became a game for me as well. I would predict, based on students’ who were struggled in my music classroom, particularly at keeping a steady beat, which students were struggling academically or socially at school. And what do you know?, after careful observation, assessments, discussions with fellow colleagues and classroom visitations, every time, I was spot on!
After 12 months teaching performing arts, I came to the conclusion that it’s the arts that helps all students, particularly those who struggle academically, socially or are emotionally damaged through childhood trauma and living disadvantages.
My classroom in a school that has many behavioural issues became the safe and fun space of the school, where students felt they could try new things, find themselves and not be judged. Music became encouraged throughout the school and parents began attending our school assemblies finally to see some engaging performances by the children. Our school became known in the local community as the school choir performed at local community centres such as elderly homes. Parents of the school began sharing their music abilities and knowledge and even a parent artist painted a music mural on the school wall. With music being celebrated in the school, the students and community seemed to shift into a more collective and engaging environment. Students’ with music abilities were finally applauded by their peers and now musicians were just as ‘cool’ as the sports kids. Many students who academically and socially struggled at this school, were encouraged by me to take up music outside of the classroom, one student even chose to improve his reading so he could start to read lyrics of songs to play. This particular student was noted by all staff members as a ‘problem student’, who was very low academically, socially and behaviourally since he was in Foundation. He was now graduating from Year 6 and about to start high school. It wasn’t until his final year of primary school, where he was introduced to music, which set him up on a new pathway for his life, giving him the confidence and drive he needed to proceed.
Due to my introduction to music education, I began my masters in Education (Leadership & Management) and decided to research music education and its relationship to behaviour, classroom climate and school culture as part of my course. This led to my investigation through multiple articles and research into the impact of music on human development and the brain. WOW, was I blown away!
And of course it all made so much sense, especially now that I had first hand experience in teaching music and performing arts and could see the impact and benefits it had on students individually, the school culture and the school community as a whole.
Before I outline some of the benefits of music and child brain development, I want to point out that in no way did I ever intend on teaching music, nor did I know much on the topic or play, however I grew up dating musicians and was always jealous of people who could play an instrument or had the confidence to sing. I somehow always sensed that people who could play music, were somewhat more intelligent than others.
After much research, I now hold a very high value on music, and surround myself in music, including picking up the piano lessons for the first time. Learning new skills as an adult is also crucial in keeping the brain active, preventing ageing and sickness. This concept is also referred to as ‘brain plasticity’, please look it up if you haven’t already or refer to this great book by Norman Doige MD ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’. This book explains how our brains constantly change and heal themselves, and by continuing to learn and challenge ourselves daily we can live longer, healthier, happier lives. However this is a blog post for another time, in the mean time, do some personal research on the topic!
Anyway, back to the point, The funniest thing about my teaching and learning journey thus far, is that my mother is classically music trained and has been teaching primary music for over 35 years. Growing up, she tried to get me to play an instrument (piano), but I was too busy outside shooting my netball or riding my bike. I did however grow up being sung to and listening to lots of different kinds of music. And with a mother as a teacher, grew up helping her with her lessons and performances and involving myself as a child at school in school performing arts, even joining competitive calisthenics outside of school up until year 11. Never would I have though to be teaching music or having such a strong passion in music, however with this new understanding of just how music and dance play an important role not only on humans as individuals cognitively, socially and emotionally but has brought together humans for celebrations across cultures for thousand of years. It truly is a universal language, and something that can change the mood of a person or event immediately! And now we have science and research to prove it!
Another great book to check out is Anita Collins ‘The Music Advantage’, she basically went around the world in science labs and did the hard work for us in this field of music education and brain research. She wrote a book designed for parents and teachers who don’t necessarily care for the scientific stuff.
So now back to music and child development. It is interesting to note here that children are born with perfect hearing. The first of all their senses and this is how from day one coming into this world that they learn about the world around them and understand themselves.
To get a deep insight to how music really impacts the brain, human development and social abilities, it helps to understand a little bit of the basics of science. We now theorise and understand that the world is made of, we are all made of energy and everything sits or moves on particular frequencies. Music is just another type of energy that can be used to change the current energy of the person physically and mentally even the surrounding environment. They have even done experiments of playing different sounds and music to plants, and it is astonishing to see how these certain sounds can affect the plants growth. If you would like to understand this concept a little more look into CYMATICS or check out this cool video on youtube.
During my research I came across some interesting points. The first was how when music is played or being played, all parts of the brain are activated. This does not occur with any other stimuli to the brain.
The second was how music is embedded into our memory. This makes sense as I can still recite random songs I learned at very young ages or songs I haven’t heard of in years. I recently saw a video on Facebook of an old woman who was ex ballet dancer, at the age of 95 she could hardly move due to stroke and old age, and when they played music to her from Swan Lake, her body began to move with the music as if it was a medical miracle. Music therapy has now been approved in the medical world to help many types of illnesses, particularly patients with brain trauma or mental illness.
As a teacher both classroom and music, I have experimented with music in my classroom in numerous ways. When kids sing together, you get to see this most magical energy and cohesion in the classroom, as if for that entire song, all students are family and share so much love and gratitude for one another and forget any issues or dramas incurred during the day.
When different songs are played in the classroom, depending on its frequency, the classroom energy and behaviour seems to reflect the beat and rhythm or theme of the song. From my experience, Kids love calm music with no lyrics being played during assessment or long writing sessions. This helps them to relax while they complete their work.
On a personal level, I know when I’m sad, need to cry or require cheering up, music has always been there, something that has helped me connect to others and myself in many ways. Growing up as music has played a very important role in my social life, choosing music events and shows and meeting different like-minded people. Music is always played at celebrations and going to events where friends gather and collectively make music is such an incredible and enjoyable experience.
On a cultural level, music around the world holds such a high importance to different cultures and traditions. Music and Dance globally are seen in marriages, festivals and celebrations of all kinds. Music and dance traditionally was even used in warrior times to help defend or scare their opponent in battle.
On a spiritual level, music and dance is used in forms of mediations and healing practices. Sound healing has also come into mainstream healing techniques. Music helps to release emotions. There is now a lot of research to support emotional trauma relating to illness, and that trapped emotions cause many of our physical problems or sicknesses. When emotions are released in a safe way, this is healing to the body and mind, and music is a fantastic, quick and easy way to do so.
On a brain chemical level, music seems to activate areas of the brain responsible for the release of hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, particular when music involves groups of people. These are what we know as the happy feelings in the brain and body, same feeling you get after exercise, eating sugar or winning!
The Arts is a way of expression, and mental health and well-being seem to be the popular topic of discussion amongst educational and political professionals as it hold a huge impact on society today. Music is shown to improve and support mental health in many ways, and we all know the famous David Bowie, he used and the arts allowed him to be his true ‘crazy’ self or should I say selves, like him, many famous artists used music or the arts to help them individually but also helped others to connect to how they felt in those struggling times.
On my final note, I recently watched a movie about how can art stop a bullet, this movie demonstrated the power of art in changing the world. Can’t music do the same? How many songs do you know that have helped change the world, or have such beautiful meaning and that are shared around the world. Bands like The Beatles are said to be more popular than Jesus, Their songs like ‘All you need is love’ spread right through the world and is still loved and appreciated by many generations. A simple yet moving song, given the right context, can help create a more peaceful loving world.
The following are more examples of the impacts of music on child development.
Ways you can incorporate music/arts into your child’s life…
So now you know just how important music is for your child and even yourself, please share this with your peers and get this information out to schools and teachers, if they don’t know already.
As a wise man once said…
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.- Plato
Suzanna Hoffman is the Head of Performing Arts at one of our local schools. Suzanna's journey to music teaching is incredibly interesting and really brings how how important, music, dance and singing is to all people.