A ground breaking study at two Victorian low socio-economic schools has shown that music lessons dramatically improved the scholastic and personal wellbeing of disadvantaged children.

The studies were inspired by the El Sistema approach, which helps disadvantaged children to reach their full potential through the power of music. Recently published in Music Education Research Journal by an Australian multi-university research team, the study showed that, “exposure to formal instrument-based music learning opportunities can provide educational and numerous personal and social benefits, through improved problem solving skills, academic achievement in language and maths, self-esteem, self-regulated behaviour and social responsibility, and is particularly beneficial for students at-risk of social and educational disadvantage”.

The two participating schools had students experiencing generational poverty, current or first-generation immigrant or refugee status and were running El-Sistema inspired music programs.

The research sought to understand the potential for positive non-musical outcomes for economically and socially disadvantaged primary school students who are involved in instrumental music learning programs.

School 1 Music Program (MP) was a partnership with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. All children in the program received two years of group instrumental lessons on violin, viola or cello in small groups of 2–5 students. Due to the small number, double bass students were taught individually for 30 minutes. Lessons were scheduled once per week, varying from 30 minutes for Year 3 students to 45 minutes for Year 4–6 students.

School 2 MP was more closely based on the ‘traditional’ Venezuelan El Sistema program and was originally administered by the school in partnership with Sistema Australia. Students participated in 6 hours of music tuition a week on three days after school. The overall approach to the curriculum was a flexible one, changing on a weekly basis depending on the attendance of students.

This (music) program has high value for our school. The benefits for the children are huge, and the transformations are unbelievable! – School 1 Principal J. Cooke

Academic outcomes as tested after one year of participation

A total of ninety-two students in Years 3–6 completed research testing which included audiovisual assessments of non-verbal reasoning, verbal and mathematical ability, and psychosocial well-being.

The General Maths scores indicated that children from the MP group were more skilled than the Non-MP group in solving increasingly difficult mathematical problems at both times. On a standardised language achievement test MP students at School 1 evidenced stronger literacy (reading) skills, which improved over the 12 months, compared to the Non-MP group scores, which decreased.

MP students’ range of scores was almost one age-equivalent year stronger in both the ability to solve difficult maths problems and to perform increasingly difficult mental calculations. MP student non-verbal reasoning skills improved in the order of one age-equivalent year, whereas Non-MP student skills deteriorated in the order of 0.2 of an age equivalent year.

Approximately 60% of MP participants at School 1 reported consistently better scores on the four academic sub-tests than Non-MP participants.

MP students reported significantly greater wellbeing: they felt happier, had more purpose in life, a greater sense of belonging, and got along better with others. They seemed to have better self-control over impulsive behaviour. They also reported greater attachment to school, motivation to achieve, had a more positive identity and self-esteem, and were more likely to view school as a source of positive feelings.

100% of parents reported that kids were happier, 94% were more hopeful and positive about schoolwork and the future, and 80% reported better and more respectful behaviour at home than before the music program. – School 2 Deputy Principal P. Lishman

The study’s conclusions

Overall, results indicated that participation in these music programs “improved non-verbal (visuo-spatial) reasoning, verbal and mathematical skills, and psychosocial well-being for students, suggesting that outcomes for these students may be significantly improved through music learning opportunities”. And although the programs have only been running for a relatively short period of time, the positive results of the study are statistically significant, and point to promising positive psychosocial and academic outcomes in the longer term. The results for positively affecting disadvantage were highly encouraging.

For further reading and the full report:

Margaret S. Osborne, Gary E. McPherson, Robert Faulkner, Jane W. Davidson & Margaret S. Barrett (2015): Exploring the academic and psychosocial impact of El Sistema-inspired music programs within two low socio-economic schools, Music Education Research, DOI: 10.1080/14613808.2015.1056130

Full paper available here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14613808.2015.1056130

About the El Sistema Approach – from the report

The ethos of the El Sistema approach is to provide disadvantaged children with the means to reach their full potential through the power of music. It taps into the young child’s desire to learn a musical instrument and offers instrumental tuition to children from lower socio-economic areas who may not otherwise have access to it. The implementation of this approach is highly adaptable, drawing from the fundamental premise that children and young people are able to come together in intrinsically motivated immersive instrumental musical ensembles and choir groups.

Eight guidelines are synthesised as core values of the El Sistema approach: (1) Social development; (2) Partnership with family and community resources; (3) Free, non-selective access; (4) Ensemble-based instruction to cultivate socio-behavioural benefits of concentration, discipline, mutual respect, and collaboration; (5) Immersion through high frequency and intense meetings multiple times every week over extended periods, fostering multiyear commitment and participation; (6) Peer mentorship; (7) A common goal for participants to strive for musical excellence, and the provision of performance opportunities which foster purpose, direction to effort, and community acknowledgement of participants’ achievements; and (8) collaboration and connectivity of existing programs to support the development of new programs at urban, regional and national levels. (Tunstall, T; Booth, E)

Christopher Nicholls is the CEO of the Symphony For Life Foundation, which has the purpose of establishing El Sistema programs nationally in Australia. As of October 2016 it is working towards establishing its first programs, in Sydney’s western suburbs.

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