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Why music education matters

4 years ago

 

We take a look at the positive effects of music learning in two different schools.

 

A London perspective

Andrew Green reports on a school which puts music high on its educational agenda.

Music has been central to the life of the King Solomon Academy – a state Primary School – since it came into being in 2007. ‘The people who set up the school had a belief in the proven benefits of music to a child’s general education in areas like maths and literacy,’ says Head of Primary Music Sophie Sirota. ‘Here in the Edgware Road area of London, affluence sits side-by-side with deprivation. This extra strand to the education we offer is such a bonus to those from less fortunate backgrounds.’

From Year 3, all children learn violin, viola or cello via the Colourstrings method – free of charge, thanks to a vigorous fundraising programme. Tuition is received in small groups for half an hour each week, with especially talented children having the opportunity to take additional lessons. All pupils are given an instrument to practise on at home.

‘Children gain even if they’re struggling with an instrument,’ Sophie explains. ‘They can still enjoy their lessons. And there’s nothing like seeing a child persisting and then going on to success in ABRSM’s Music Medals assessments. I can think of one pupil who was extremely lacking in confidence when she was first learning the viola. But after three years she passed her Silver Music Medal and asked to join the school orchestra... which meant being able to take part in a music gala at the Barbican Centre in front of nearly 2,000 people!’

Strings

Substantial numbers of King Solomon pupils take Music Medals and are only too keen to do so, says Year 5 class teacher Sian Fullerton. ‘Very few children are nervous – they see the assessments as a chance to show off their skills. They’re well prepared, not least through having done plenty of performing. The assessments take place here, which makes it all the more stress free ... but one pupil who recently took her ABRSM Grade 1 exam away from school coped very well because she had the background of all the music making at King Solomon.’

Sophie Sirota sees music as a particular boon to children who have English as a second language. ‘My gut feeling is that things like singing and being able to read music help them a great deal. Music is a language you can learn even if your English isn’t so good … Do-Re-Mi is easy to pick up, for example.’

In addition to instrumental tuition, every child at King Solomon Academy receives an hour of musicianship training each week. This is a mixture of singing, Kodály, tonic sol-fa hand signs, exercises to develop inner hearing and so on. ‘Pupils aren’t formally assessed,’ says Sophie. ‘Individual teachers judge whether a sufficient proportion of children have grasped something and then move on. We can see the progress children are making when we watch them performing in our concerts and through the regular musical contributions made by each class to the weekly school assembly.’

That assembly begins to the sound of classical music recordings as children gather. By then, teachers may well have been playing music in their classrooms as children arrive for the new day. More than that, music is part and parcel of general class work at King Solomon, as Sian Fullerton explains. ‘We often use singing to mark transitions as children move from one activity to another. These may be standard sung rhymes, or songs we create on the spur of the moment. Maybe there’s a new idea that’s been learnt in a science lesson – we make up a rhyme and a tune to help children remember the details.’

Ensemble

Sian is certain that music can change children’s lives. ‘If you have performing skills you’ve learnt how to present yourself. You’re likely to be more confident and articulate when it comes to speaking in public. And I think a musical background makes children more patient and better at listening to instructions – they’re used to the discipline of music lessons and rehearsals.

‘So there’s a clear impact on behaviour. When you practise you need focus and dedication, and that has many benefits. For example, a couple of boys in my class have said that when they feel angry at home, music practice helps them calm down. Children with special needs often find it a great release to be able to make music.’

So what do pupils themselves have to say about the King Solomon music provision? ‘What I like best is that we get to do exams,’ says one member of the school. ‘That’s when I see how much I’ve improved.’

‘I love playing with a whole group in school assemblies,’ says another pupil. ‘That’s when I get to hear all the parts, not just my own.’ And from another of the school’s many talented young musicians: ’After I’ve been practising at home, the music is still in my head when I come to school … and that helps me to concentrate.’

Clearly, staff – and the essential army of supportive parents – get a buzz when they see pupils excel. ‘For example,’ says Sophie Sirota, ‘we recently had a pupil pass an audition for the Royal Opera House’s youth choir. And it’s great when something happens like our involvement in the Bach Choir’s outreach programme – thirty of our children singing at St John’s Smith Square, a major venue in London. Terrific!’


The view from Milan

Martin Biggs, our Representative for Milan and Head of Music at The British School of Milan - Sir James Henderson (BSM), explains how the school brings music making and learning into the lives of pupils, staff and parents.

At the BSM we believe everyone could be a potential musician so we offer the best to all our students. The school’s management and governors are fully supportive of this approach and recognise the many benefits of involving the whole school in music-making activities.

In addition to weekly instrumental lessons, choirs are a big part of school life. The school’s music groups are inclusive in spirit but with the more advanced students taking the lead. Repertoire is very varied with space for all genres from ABBA to Palestrina, and every other year we produce a major musical, involving an even wider group of students.

Singers

We don’t avoid potentially thorny issues like theory. In Year 7, our 11-year-olds all take Grade 1 Music Theory whether they are learning an instrument or not. As a result, everyone from Year 8 and above can read music and take part in our choirs. All students in Year 8 and Year 9 read and compose written music in class, while pupils taking IGCSE music also take Grade 5 Music Theory. This all helps students to develop intrinsic musical skills, which will stay with them forever.

Pupils aged 9 to 18, staff and parents take part in four major musical events each year – a carol service, an Easter choral project and two instrumental/orchestral/band concerts. These create a community spirit with everyone working towards a common goal. Everyone gets to know one another, from the youngest to the oldest students, and the students receive recognition for their musical achievements. Choirs are also a great leveller. One staff choir member commented that ‘the students – even in Year 8 - help me to follow the music’.

On an individual level, students learn how to set themselves challenges and overcome their nerves and fears. They also learn that with dedication, practice and focus they can achieve great results!


This article was originally featured in the September 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Andrew Green is a freelance writer, broadcaster, producer and reviewer.

Martin Biggs is our Representative for Milan and Head of Music at The British School of Milan - Sir James Henderson (BSM).

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