The Many Gifts of Music

Written by Scott Williams

A rich musical environment can improve all aspects of your child’s life.

The Many Gifts of Music

Once a week after school, Jessica Randle has a choir rehearsal. Jamie Chen and Kylie Shapiro both have band practice. Monica Fischer has piano lessons. So do thousands of other kids across Ontario.

Kids being kids, they would sometimes prefer just to hang out. And why not? How many of these kids are going to make a career out of their music?

That’s not the point, says James Klodnicki, Program Facilitator for the Arts, Health and Physical Education, Durham District School Board. “The goal of music is ultimately… to make you a better person, to make you an incredibly contributing member of society, and to give you the skills to be successful in that society.”

Music can do all that?

It’s an investment in your child’s future, says Steve Russell, Instructional Leadership Consultant for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. “If you want your kids to be successful in school,” says Russell, “then they need to be exposed to music as early as possible, and as much as possible.”

James Klodnicki explains that the benefits of music extend far beyond learning how to hold a tune or play an instrument. “Music is one of these subject areas that incorporates the concepts and the basic elements of every single other subject area, and encapsulates it in one incredible whole body/whole mind learning experience.”

That’s quite a claim, but a growing body of research bears this out. “We know that kids learn through multiple intelligences,” continues Klodnicki. “These ‘intelligences’ include spatial/visual, bodily/kinesthetic, linguistic/verbal, logical/mathematical, interpersonal/intrapersonal, musical/rhythmic, and environmental. … Making music allows kids to access every single one of them.”

That’s why kids who are active in music often show leadership in other areas, such as sports and academics.

Academically speaking, musical kids are better at science, math and language, and have higher SAT scores.

How music helps kids develop

On a day-to-day level, music can help your child develop attributes that improve all aspects of his or her life, now and in the future. Here’s a sampling.

Confidence: “It’s most apparent in shy kids,” says Dr. Mark Sirett, a music educator and founder of the internationally recognized Cantabile Choirs of Kingston. “They often start out very reserved, but in a very short time make friends and go on to develop the poise of a true performer.”

Precision, discipline and focus: making music requires tremendous mental and physical coordination. “Precision, discipline and focus are traits we develop naturally as we grow,” says Sirett, “but the more you work at it, the better you become, and of course the greater the reward.”

Patience, persistence and problem-solving: learning a new skill requires repetition, and repetition means practising. Along the way, your child will encounter problems – “Why can’t I get this one part right?” – and learn how to resolve them before proceeding.

Fine motor skills: “It begins with very young children using beat and rhythm and moving the body to the music at the same time,” explains Steve Russell, “so that they develop a whole kind of physical/emotional/musical connection.” Once students have made this connection, they begin to understand the rhythms of language and syllables. This helps them with listening, which transfers to reading, writing and spatial awareness.

Healthy physical and mental habits: “To sing or play an instrument well,” says Mark Sirett, “you have to maintain good posture. But children also develop healthy mental habits, such as time management and self-reliance. They learn to put aside time for practising, get to rehearsals on time, and to bring everything they need with them.”

Memory: “The younger a child can begin learning music,” says Sirett, “the greater the benefit for their short- and long-term memory.”

Creativity and self-expression: whether making music individually or in a group, there’s lots of opportunity to interpret mood and feeling.
Cultural understanding: “Choirs and bands often perform a lot of world music,” says Sirett, “which may include teaching the kids about the culture that the music comes from – the language, the social environment, the geography, maybe a bit of history. It makes them more receptive to difference.”

Social skills: “You can’t be a prima donna in a choir or a band,” says Sirett. “Well actually, you can, but your time in the group will be short lived.” Instead, explains James Klodnicki, “group members tend to foster a ‘positive interdependence.’ Every person understands his or her role in the group’s overall success.”

Bringing music into your child’s life

According to experts, the sooner you can expose your child to music, the better. Here are a few suggestions from Steve Russell, Mark Sirett and James Klodnicki on how to create a rich musical environment for your kids.

Weave it into the day. Have sing-alongs in the car. At home, put on a children’s music CD instead of the TV. Ask your child to tell you about what he or she is listening to –  which parts he or she likes best, how it makes them feel. “I sang my daughters to sleep every night from the time they were babies until they were in school,” says Steve Russell. “First we read a little story, and then Daddy sang a lullaby. Many of them had exactly the same tune…”

Make your own music. “We had sing-alongs around the piano,” says Mark Sirett. No instruments at hand? “A margarine tub or a jar with beans is all you need,” suggests Russell.

Explore music in your community. James Klodnicki and his wife take their kids to concerts, the symphony and the ballet, “which is a visual treat but also a very rich musical experience.”

Seek out opportunities to make music. Take advantage of school-run programs. Private lessons are also available in almost every town. Alternatively, check out group learning opportunities, such as community bands and choirs.

Attend lessons, rehearsals and concerts. “Attending a rehearsal gives you an appreciation of what the child is learning, which you can reinforce at home,” says Sirett. “You don’t have to be a musician yourself. It’s enough to understand how much practice is required, and help build the kind of structure that the child needs to progress.”

How you can support music in your school and community

Many schools in Ontario – but not all – offer excellent opportunities for a musical education. A 2005 national survey conducted by the Coalition for Music Education in Canada revealed that schools across Canada desperately need funding to keep up with the demand for music programs. Ontario reported the largest drop in government funding.

Ontario’s investment in education has increased substantially since then, and a new survey being conducted this year will provide a more up-to-date picture. In the meantime, coalition Executive Director Ingrid Whyte points out that, while policy and curriculum are set by the government, music programs vary from board to board “and very definitely school to school.” The upshot: “parents can play a powerful role if they engage with their school and ensure their administration understands how important these programs are for their kids.”

In other words, get involved. Here’s how.

  • Talk to your child’s teacher or principal. “Ask if there will be a school choir, band, or musical,” says Mark Sirett.
  • Join or form a parent council, so that you can explore school needs and set strategies.
  • Lend a hand. “Parent assistance is gold,” says James Klodnicki, “but even better is a parent who says, not just ‘How can I help,’ but… ‘I can help you by running the ticket booth…. organizing the ushers… … printing the programs, etc.’”
  • Become an advocate for school and community education in music. Check out the Coalition for Music Education in Canada’s free download, Grassroots Advocacy Guide. Click on “Resources” at www.weallneedmusic.ca.
  • Help promote the coalition's Music Monday, a national event in which thousands of students, musicians, parents and community members celebrate the gift of music, on the same day at the same time.
  • Above all, says Ingrid Whyte, take nothing for granted. “Parents really are key to bringing more music in our kids’ lives… I don’t think we can ever take our eye off the ball in terms of the need to promote the value of these things, because there are just so many pressures in the system to take it away. We just have to keep on ensuring that people understand how important it is for the development of our children.”
  • Photo credit::

    Gerri Weatherbee

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About the Author

Scott Williams

Scott Williams is a freelance editor and writer; scottwilliams@bell.net.

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