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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [1] transcript: Dr Anita Collins

AH: Hello, it’s Anita here and welcome to this month’s podcast. In this episode I’m talking with another Anita, Dr Anita Collins, educator, researcher and writer in the field of brain development and music learning. You may know Anita from her Ted Ed lesson ‘How playing an instrument benefits your brain’ and her TedX talk ‘What if every child had access to music education from birth?’. And more recently she’s starred in the Australian version of a British TV show called, ‘Don’t stop the music’. Welcome Anita, and thank you so much for agreeing to chat to me today it’s really lovely to have you here.

AC: Thank you, it’s lovely to chat to you.


AH: We’ve been talking from time to time, I think it’s for a couple of years now. It’s great to be able to share one of our conversations with the world. So before I go on to asking you about the research around brain development and music I’m always really curious to know where or perhaps how people find their passion. So can I start by just asking you how did you end up here and why is it so important to you?

AC: OK, it’s a long story and I’ll try and make it entertaining. I was training to be an orchestral musician, I’m a clarinet player, and I had that dream of being an orchestral player and I got to the end of my performance degree and it really wasn’t doing it for me that version of life was not something I was excited about. So I must admit I went with the advice of my parents and did something sensible and I went out and did an education degree and I distinctly remember that I was in the third week of this degree, it was only a one year additional degree, and I was sitting there in a lecture and I went, ‘This is exactly what I should be doing. This is exactly my place’ and I’ve never lost that feeling.

Music education is where my best work can be done and where I can push myself but also really contribute something back to children and to parents and to the greater group around the world as it turns out, which is really lovely.

When it came to music and the brain I was searching for a topic for my PhD and you get a lot of advice when you do this sort of thing and someone said to me, just do the easiest, most researched topic there is and get it done as quickly as possible. All it is is just ticking a box. And other people would say, look it’s going to be your life achievement. Essentially it’s like having another child and it has to be important to you and you have to have to really want it.

So I listened to both sets of advice and thought about it, and thought you know, I need to be passionate about things so I spent about 9 months reading everything I possibly could about anything to do with music education. Waiting for that one moment where I would find a spark and think ‘That’s it’. And it ended up happening but not in the way I thought it would.

I read this article from a person similar to myself, a neuro-musical educator in the US, and he was interviewing four neuro-scientists and he asked the question, ‘What do you think music educators should know about your field or what you found?’ And they talked and I got to the end and I was furious because I didn’t need to know any of that. There was a whole list of other things I wanted to know and I thought, ‘That’s my topic’, because I’m so passionate about the fact that they’re going in the wrong direction and I want to use my skills as a music educator to find out something for music educators. So that got me set on the path.

Strangely enough, half way through, I figured out two things. I was also doing it to answer two important questions. One was, on our presentation night, and most schools have them, and you have say the top 10 kids get up in front of everybody and they receive their awards, often academic or effort awards. And every single time, every single year group, I would watch them and go musician, musician, musician and I always get 7 or 8 of those kids, out of 10, could play a musical instrument to a very high level. And I wanted to know if that had anything to do with the fact that they played music or if they were really just smart kids and smart kids took up music.

And the second thing I wanted to know was, I was eight or nine and I still couldn’t read very well. I could pretend I was reading but I couldn’t actually read. It was made worse by the fact that my Mum was a reading teacher. So it was really horrible, and I’m the first born child, and she just couldn’t help her child to read. But someone at the age of 9 gave me a clarinet, but also I think more importantly, taught me how to read music and there was something about the process that about 6 months later I could really start to figure out words. And I think ultimately I’m trying to answer that question, did music education actually change my life? Because I would have had a whole different life if I had continued to be unable to read. And I honestly think that the reason I keep studying and learning is because I keep having to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can read. So those are the many reasons why I’m involved in the field I’m involved in.


AH: That’s such an amazing story, because it links with all the types of stuff that you’re interested in, and all the stuff that I’m interested in, particularly around children in challenging circumstances, and I’m sure we could have a whole podcast interview about young people with dyslexia and all sorts of things like that. But that’s fascinating that it’s so personal to you. So moving on to the research, I’ve heard you talk about there being three main areas where music can have an impact on brain development in children, and I think it’s really good to put it in such a tangible way. So can you tell me a little bit more about those areas?

AC: Yes, sure. You’ve got to remember that when the research first started they were finding that music education seemed to help a huge list of things and that was almost a bad thing, because people looked at this list and asked how can one activity do so much for the brain Where we’ve moved to in the research is that it started to distil itself down into a group of categories which has become more useful. All the same things are still there but there are three main things that are running through. That may change. We may get another load of research that says, ‘You know, that thinking was not quite right, we know more now’, and that’s the very nature of research.

But the three areas that we’re sitting with now are, language development, executive function development, and social skills development.

The language development is probably the most advanced because it was one of the first that was really discovered. The other reason it’s so advanced is because language and music processing share an overlapping neural network. That means that when our brains process music and when they process language they do it using the same systems. And what’s more interesting, as we’ve gone younger and younger, we’ve started to see how music really is kind of our first language, it’s the first processing network we use to understand speech sounds. And from that we almost grow our language centre out of that knowledge of our music centre. And they kind of loop back on each other constantly and so it’s really great for children because we know that if you compliment literacy and learning and language learning with music that they will thrive. Because of the fact that it’s basically just a double workout for the brain.

The second area is executive function. This is my actual favourite of the three. I call it our ‘grown up skills’. So executive functioning is that group of skills that we spend all of our childhood learning. We’re not born with them and they’re the ones that in the end if you take away all the maths formulas, the history dates etc., they’re the ones we send our kids out into the world with. They’re things like being able to pay attention, being able to regulate our own moods, being able to understand how someone else is feeling, and to have empathy. How to have agency, meaning you can see that someone’s in trouble and you act to help them. The ability to plan, the ability to organise yourself, the ability to see consequences from something. It’s all those really grown up skills that even as grown ups we struggle to always have, but through particularly learning music in an ensemble it’s kind of like they’re all wrapped up in a beautiful bow in that one activity and they help kids to learn them very slowly but very effectively.

AH: So is that just ensemble music learning that that impact comes from?

AC: No. One of the ingredients for cognitive development, we now know, that it’s not just all music education there’s a certain version of music education which enhances cognitive development and that is one of the parts of the ingredients that I talked about. Every kid needs to have ensemble learning experiences as well as individual learning experiences and for very different reasons. But both of those combined really develop our executive function.

AH: Brilliant, and the other one was social skills.

AC: So, these social skills are not the ones we’re trying to teach kids. They’re not the pleases and thank yous, it’s not those. These are the really nuanced, innate, often non-verbal social skills. So how do you know when it’s your turn to speak in a conversation, how do you know that how someone is feeling by the shape of their body, how do you listen to someone and look at them and think, ‘I don’t really trust you’. They’re those sorts of really nuanced social skills. How do you actually work in a team and realise when it’s not your turn, and when you need to make space or leave space for somebody else. So there again, those very sought-after skills in professional life but also they’re the ones that really feed in to positive relationships, both professional and personal.


AH: That’s fantastic. That really links into my next question particularly around social skills and young people who’ve had early difficult childhood experiences. Because there is some research evidence that you talked about that is all linked to those three areas and the really powerful impact of music education on young people in challenging circumstances. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

AC: So a lot of the research has been done, and people use lots of different terms, with kids who have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, low socioeconomic backgrounds, or underserved backgrounds, whichever term you like to use. But they noticed that when music programmes went into these areas, high levels of poverty, high levels of domestic violence, they found that it really did flip the switch and they really were starting to thrive. And I wanted to understand why. And it comes down to the fact that living in challenging circumstances actually changes the brain structure and function of a young child. It actually makes it develop in a different kind of way and that way often doesn’t function as well from learning. Because it’s sort of constantly in fear or constantly in trauma, and what music learning does for that fact is help to kind-of rewire the original wiring in a way that’s a bit more positive.

And it gives them personal experiences of achievement and also particularly helps a lot of those kids who have very low language levels and very, very low, what’s called ‘inhibition control’. That’s basically the ability to not fly off the handle when you get upset. It’s about stopping for a second, take a breath and be able to manage yourself. And the kids in challenging circumstances, for a number of reasons, are not good at those two things.

Language, as we talked about, is really connected with music so as soon as they start to feel and are literally been rewired in a way that helps them communicate better then they can start to talk about their emotions.

They are also experiencing emotion through music in a safe way and that’s a really important thing. And the other part is they start to learn how to be a bit more aware of their body. Not to live so much in fear, and have trauma-based reactions to things. And the reason why the research has done so well in this area is because it’s shown a profound effect on those kids’ brain development that becomes permanent. That again changes their lives and changes their life journey because you’re actually sort of changing the wiring that’s gone on for most young people in challenging circumstances and putting in place more positive wiring.


AH: And that’s really significant isn’t it in the child’s life. Because there are lots of children who have experienced early trauma and it’s the prehistoric brain that gets affected by the early trauma. There are lots of interventions that are used to address that and music is such a wonderful intervention because that’s something a child would probably choose to do. I’m particularly interested to know, is there any kind of cut-off point at which somebody is too old to have that transformational effect on their brain?

AC: Not that they’ve found so far. They found all the way through your life, so we now have studies all the way from infancy through to people in their early 20s, people in their 40s and 50s, which is a really important time for our brain, and then people into their 70s. So it has impact all the way through. Part of it has to be that it’s just not a one-off experience, not an hour of having a go at playing the guitar, it’s actually learning a musical instrument in a sequential way, a little bit every single day. And that’s the recipe for having that cognitive change and it’s not just an experience. When I look at a lot of programmes, they change these kids’ lives for a little while, but there’s no permanent change that happens for them and I think that’s how we need to look at it. We need to look at how can we help them on a much more sustainable and permanent basis.


AH: So that’s a really big kind of debate in UK music education, and when any of us music education advocates use the research we’re always really aware not to claim the benefits that come from a particular type of music education. So I’d be really interested to know from you, what is that recipe and how long does a young person have to be doing this regular, sequential music learning for an impact to take place?

AC: The current place we’re sitting with the research, it has a couple of different components to it. One is it needs to be on a musical instrument, so it needs to be outside the body and engaging their motor cortex. And some people have asked about singing, and singing is the other part we need. So we actually need singing and moving as a combination in learning an instrument. One won’t do it, you need the combination.


AH: Can I just ask about music technology, whether you count that as a musical instrument and whether it would have the same effects? There’s lots of discussion over whether music technology has the same effect as somebody learning the fundamentals of music on an iPad on GarageBand?

AC: They haven’t done as much research on it, however what they have done is showing that it doesn’t have the same impact. Kids literally need to be moving keys, moving slides and moving bows, to get those parts of the brain actually moving. So while GarageBand might be a way of creating music, and absolutely should be included where appropriate, it’s not going to benefit the cognitive development. I think what you mentioned before is important, and we need to separate the benefits for cognitive development from the benefits of musical development. And what’s more for me, I think they should coexist. I don’t think it should be an either-or, because if it’s an either-or then we’re not helping the kids out. We should actually be going, ‘We want you to develop musically and cognitively through this experience’.

AH: Yes, absolutely. So a child might learn on GarageBand because that’s the easiest thing, that’s their entry point into music, it makes them feel confident and they might learn some fundamentals of music and that might then therefore get them on to other forms of music.


AC: You asked before about the recipe. At the moment, and it’s my reading along with a few particularly British researchers who have looked at this, it has to be on an instrument and it also has to have singing and moving included in it. Now if I use my example, I’m a concert band conductor and I’m still a music teacher. In a concert band tradition, we don’t get up and move around and we don’t sing. We sit in our chairs and we have our music and we play. So the biggest change this has made from me is that if this is one of the ingredients how do I do this with my students? So I took a rehearsal this morning and they were playing and they couldn’t get it in tune. And I said, ‘Right, let’s stop. We’re all going to sing it’. My students are quite used to this now, but we all sang it and I said, ‘Right, I want you to listen to a third and make it sound like we’re all one choir’. And they got it perfectly in tune and I said, ‘I want you to mirror that on your instrument’, and they got the note perfectly in tune. And a lot of people would go, ‘Well of course they would’. But we have traditions of how we teach certain instruments and we teach certain ensembles that don’t include that. So it’s a really good piece of research to then say, ‘OK, how do we improve our practice across different things, different ensembles, and different ways of teaching’, in order to make sure that the cognitive development is being nurtured.

Another part of the recipe is reading music and that’s reading traditional notation. Notation is a sound-to-symbol system, which means we see a symbol and we create the sound for that. Now reading letters and words is exactly the same system. We do exactly the same thing which is why kids who learn music and reading music very early on, even if it’s just simple symbols, when they get to reading actual words in English, or any language, it’s actually easier for their brain because their brain goes, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before’.

So one of the ingredients is reading music, another one is performing music. Now that’s for all the reasons that are not about performing to an audience. It’s all the stuff that comes around it like the nervousness just before you walk on stage. The pushing yourself to go on stage even though every bone in your body says, ‘I don’t wanna do this’. Actually overcoming that, walking on stage, sitting down, performing, dealing with whatever happens in the performance, it can be crazy things. Coming off stage really elated and excited about what we did, and also the dip that comes about 60 minutes later when the adrenaline stops flowing and you suddenly feel super-tired and like you just want to go to sleep. Going through that, not constantly, but numerous times a year is fantastic for kids because it helps them deal with that real concern about walking on, performing, and doing something that you’re scared about doing and then coming off and going, ‘Hey that was good, I want to do it again’, and the brain loves that. The brain’s reward system is going crazy when they’re performing. It’s loving it, so we need to have those two parts.

And then there are two more which are what I mentioned before, and that’s instrumental learning and ensemble learning. Instrumental learning is important. What I mean by that is having an expert teacher teaching an individual or small group. And the reason we need that is because if we just try to teach ourselves we would pick stuff we could do. We want to feel that we can do it. We look at something and then look at the next one and go, ‘Oh, that looks really hard’. So when you’ve got a teacher there’s, ‘No no, that’s the next step and I will help you get there’. And so the teacher continues to push you through the process of doing something you never knew you could do.

And then the ensemble part is for all those other executive function skills – how do you work in a team, how do you realise when you’re the most important part of the team, how do you back off when you’re not the most important part of the team? How do you support each other in a really positive way because you’re all making the performance together. You know it’s all those things that come from ensemble learning and feeling connected to each other, having that social experience where you are one. And kids particularly don’t have that very often in their daily lives so when they come together in a musical situation it’s really important.


AH: There are quite a few things I want to pick up from that. First of all how long does a music programme ideally need to last, and how often? For example, in the UK music education is in crisis and a lot of schools are cutting their music input into the curriculum. So kids might get, if they’re lucky, an hour a week, often not necessarily with an expert music teacher, not a music specialist. Occasionally they might get 10 weeks of a whole class music programme with a specialist instrumental teacher, I’m talking about primary music level now, so is that enough? When you get to secondary level in the UK you could be having just an hour every couple of weeks or even less than that. So I’m interested to know from you what’s the minimum?

AC: It’s important to preface it by saying in order to see permanent cognitive change – this is what the research says – it’s really hard. To see permanent change you would need to study a group of people throughout their entire lives. We only have 25 years of this research and we’ve only had about eight that have really started on the longitudinal studies. So we can’t say with anything definite but we can say when they have seen significant, measurable, and what they determine as permanent change. It has a lot to do with when kids do it. So at the age of around seven, and that’s not around everyone’s seventh birthday, it’s around seven. For the first seven years of a child’s life it’s their first growing of their brain, the first wiring of the brain. And we often talk about kids as being a sponge, it’s their sponge stage. And we know that at around the age of seven their brains are essentially full and they start doing this thing called ‘pruning’ which means our brain goes, ‘I’m going to chuck lots of stuff out that I don’t need’. Which is why we haven’t got a huge number of memories before the age of five or so, unless they’re very strong from a sensory point of view. It’s a really important time. Now obviously because it’s the first wiring, it’s the first and it’s the most effective time for music education because it sort of gets in and helps them to wire their brains to be really effective the first time round.

So the current standard is that if they’re between zero and seven and they’ve had two years of what is called formal music education with all of those ingredients that we talked about, then two years of continuous music education will achieve that permanent cognitive change. After the age of seven, so for example kids who haven’t done any musical activity – which is highly unlikely, but in some cases it happens – after the age of seven it increases by one year. So it goes to three years of continuous formal music education to result in permanent cognitive change. The gold standard from a really recent paper that’s come out is five to seven years. Now that doesn’t mean it’s five-to-seven years on a violin. You know if kids are starting in year five and they’ve got … I often say to Principals, 10 minutes a day, every day of the week is more powerful for cognitive development than 50 minutes on a Friday afternoon. So I know in Australia particularly we’re having quite a number of teachers who are starting their day with 10 minutes of music and they’re viewing it as a primer for their literacy education. So they’re priming their kids brains for the literacy that comes next. But it could be those kinds of activities for two or three years for some kids, followed by two years of more formal learning on an instrument – that’s your five years. So it’s not all about one instrument it’s about continuous age appropriate music education that has all those ingredients as part of it.


AH: Does your Bigger Better Brains community help with that kind of thing?

AC: My Bigger Better Brains can help with the understanding of the brain science which I think is really important and I’m a really strong advocate that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all. There is how best to put all those ingredients together in your context and it would be different in the UK that it is here in Australia. I worked in a school I often visited maybe three hours away, which in Australia isn’t far, but what they need to do in their school is entirely different from what I would do in a school that was down the road from me. It’s because every school is different and every community is different.

But what we’re working with is this idea of ingredients. If these are the ingredients and this is the amount of time, how do we do it best. And you spoke about, you know, not often a music specialist, I’m working with a lot of schools who have not got any music specialist but they’re taking it on board as their responsibility as every teacher to deliver music education but they’re doing it in a very small, steady kind of way. So they’re teaching each other how to do it, they’ve got me as a mentor who’s sort of walking them through a year of doing that. So it’s not a recipe, but there are so many groups around both in the UK and in Australia who are there to provide assistance with that. We have professional development groups over here who do amazing things going into schools to help, and I’m sure you have them there too. So it’s really about the commitment of the head of the school to say, ‘I know. I’ve understood the research and I can see how it’s going to benefit our school. I’d like to put it in place – what help do I need to do that and what sort of plan do we need to do it?’. And I think honestly it takes about three years to really implement something that’s working, and how are we going to measure the effect? And that again to me is really, really important. We shouldn’t put anything into schools without also saying, how we’re going to measure the impact of what happens.


AH: That’s a really, really good point. I realise the time is moving on and I haven’t asked any of the questions that some people posted on LinkedIn and Twitter for you. First of all Ruth Jones who works for Wiltshire Music Hub and Trinity Arts Awards asks is tone deafness real or psychological? For example, the result of a child being told they can’t sing.

AC: That’s a really good question and it’s a fascinating term: tone deafness. The ability to not hear tone. I get asked this question all the time. One of the first things to talk about is that there is a condition that is the equivalent of tone deafness. It’s called ‘amusia’ and I met an amusic and he is a fascinating man. An amazing journalist and an incredibly smart man, and he said that when he hears music it sounds like a car crash. And I took that away and I went, ‘Wow, what’s his experience like of the world?’. Because every time you go out to a mall, an airport, you get put on hold on a call to your telecommunications company, you’ve got this music in your ear. So what’s life like for him? But also he was doing research on this question of can you teach an amusic how to sing? And the answer was No. He’s missing … his brain is wired in such a way that it’s actually impossible for him to learn how to sing. But in all other things he’s an incredible person, he just has this particular condition. And a lot of the time it does come from trauma. So if you’ve had a traumatic brain injury or also viruses will do it as well, but it’s very rare. It’s about somewhere between three and four per cent of the population. So when someone says to me that they’re tone deaf, I can in all confidence say, ‘No you’re not’.

But what’s most important that comes from that is that the ability to sing in tune is a learnt skill and if we think of it that way if something is a learnt skill then when we practice it, we learn it. So we have this current belief, and I know that you have the same shows in the UK, that we’ve got Australia’s Got Talent or X-Factor and all those sort of things, and we get this story given to us that these people have come out of nowhere and it’s a higher power that’s given me skill. And in many cases it’s not, these people have formal music education and they just don’t share that part of the story. Or they may have a very high predisposition for being able to sing in tune or have been around a particularly musical family. So the answer to the question is, tone deafness as a term isn’t used in the research. There is a condition which means you can’t hear the tone of music in particular but when it comes to the regular everyday thing it’s actually just practice. And I understand, I teach groups of teachers and every single one of them has someone in the class who says, ‘I was told not to sing and just move my mouth’. And it’s a traumatic thing to happen, it really, really is. And to bring those people back takes a huge amount of care so that they actually feel confident to sing. But funnily enough, it doesn’t take that long when they see that they can sing in a group and they can sing in tune that whole trauma just disappears for them. So it’s a great question and the research is telling us a lot about what that idea about tone deafness actually is.


AH: Oh, that’s lovely, and that’s a lovely answer that gives hope to a lot of people who think they can’t sing. The next question is from Olly Tumner, who is director of a percussion workshop company called, The Beat Goes On. He says, ‘I’m frequently told by workshop participants that drumming make them feel good’. Can you shed some light on what actually happens to the body and brain while drumming? I know it’s a big question, and then Mark Broad, who’s a writer, editor, music leader and director at Middlemarch, asked, ‘I believe there’s research that supports the idea that rhythm work can help stimulate the development of literacy. If so what’s the latest please, and where should I look?’. I think I’ll probably add these bits to the show notes because that’s quite a big topic.

AC: I’ll start with the first one, which is the feeling good one. Yes absolutely, we all know that feeling that it does feel really good. And let’s take ourselves back to the very start of humans and the start of human society. It was very common to have the use of drums or something that made a drum sound about having circles where we all clapped in rhythm, we sang songs because that’s how we shared stories. And this very literally primal part of ourselves that is connected to rhythm and drumming, and rhythm is an incredibly heavily researched area at the moment because it’s revealing extraordinary things about the brain. And the reason is if you think about the brain as a really synchronised thing, and we have these days when we’re on fire. Everything is in sync and people talk about these amazing days and it’s really when your brain is actually syncing together really, really well. And we also do it in groups. It’s why music festivals will always survive because the idea of jumping up and down and singing with 50,000 other people makes us feel fantastic. So it has a way of drawing us together which is really good as well as helping to sync our brains. And one of the best things that we’re seeing is that they also followed the heartbeats and a whole bunch of other measures in the body about arousal – some thing’s like heat, sweat, blood pressure, all those sorts of things. And then they’ve had them in drumming circles and they’ve actually found, and they’ve done it with all sorts of things like singers, they found that our bodies literally sync together. Our heartbeats start to align and we start to have really similar arousal measures and that’s why we feel together because our bodies literally are pumping together. So rhythm is amazing, it’s an incredible thing, and we’ve always had it and now we’re just starting to understand why it’s so amazing for our brains and why we love it so much.

AH: That’s brilliant, and I think I’ll just add some of the research that you sent to me in the show notes to answer these questions properly because it’s a big topic as you say and fascinating.

AC: I know, so literacy – so what they’ve noticed is, they’ve been trying to connect the fact that when we see little kids, one of the things they’re constantly trying to do, and we’re encouraging them to do it, is clap their hands together. Which is actually quite hard for little ones to do, to do it in beat. It’s first of all getting their hands to come together at the same time and then the other part is to actually be controlled enough to measure and maintain yourself in the beat. Now they noticed that kids who have a really good control of beat also tend to be really good at reading and they’ve been trying figure out why. And the answer is that being able to keep a beat on the outside of your body, so on a drum or by clapping, is kind of behavioral, an outward behavioral thing, a demonstration, a piece of evidence of the fact that all the necessary wiring that needs to be wired together in their brains for reading is ready. So if a child can keep a beat while clapping it means that those brains are ready to start reading.

Now one of the best pieces of research, I love it, looked at kids between the age of three and four and it looked at those who could keep a beat, and those who really struggled to keep a beat. And I think it was only for about 16 beats but for a 3-4 year old that’s quite hard. Those kids who could keep the beat, they tracked them through and followed them into school and then looked at their reading level. So if they could keep a beat, they were more than likely to have a normal reading development once they hit school. Conversely, those kids who couldn’t keep a beat, many of them displayed a delay in starting their reading or there were some significant issues in their reading as they went through. Now know why I love this research is because if we can do that between the age of three and four we’ve got time between the age of four and five to actually do lots of rhythm activities with those kids to really, really help that wiring to happen. And as a kindie teacher I would love to know that I have a class full of kids in front of me who are cognitively ready to read.

AH: Absolutely, and it also gives confidence to those non-specialist classroom teachers so if they’re simply doing some body percussion, some clapping, stuff like that, that can have a significant impact on the child.

AC: Absolutely. It’s the best place to start.

AH: That’s fantastic. And where is that research? Can you just name the university.

AC: Yes, it’s Northwestern University and it’s called the Brainvolts laboratory.


AH: Ah yes, Nina Kraus. They’ve got a great website and it’s all indexed, so I’ll add the links. The next question is from Alison Harmer who is an early years music specialist and she says, ‘What I’d like to know is’, and this is a great question because while we’ve been talking I’ve been thinking, ‘I really ought to touch on this’, ‘is there any neuroscientific research that has been carried out among very young children that’s been replicated enough times so that we know it’s reliable, which provides findings that can be practically applied to how we actually teach music?’.

AC: Yes there has been. So we’ve now reached that stage we’ve gone right down into babyhood with kids and doing musical activities. In many cases we’ve done the musical activities more to understand how their brain is developing not so much to understand, ‘Is this technique of teaching music better than this technique?’. So we can’t go from, ‘This one’s better than this one for cognitive development’, and again I would argue it’s contextual and we need to look at the kids in front of us. But they have looked at the power of rhythm and actually working with kids to be able to clap to a rhythm, to be able to use really small instrument and actually keep a beat. To be able to hear when the sound stops and when the sound starts. To be able to hear a lot of very in-tune singing so they start to develop their concept of in-tuneness which actually starts to help them with language. And being exposed to lots and lots of different sounds, but not all at once. So understanding that kids need to hear lots of different sounds around them but they need to be able to identify what instrument they come from. They need to play with different sounds.

Whenever I read all of these things, I do sit there and go, ‘You know what, Orff and Kodaly really knew what they were doing. And I think we have to acknowledge that music educators and music education methods have spent far longer than neuroscientific researchers in actually going through trial and error with hundreds and thousands and millions of young children to figure out the best way to teach music. And I often sit there and wonder, ‘Are we our own personal group of neuroscientists but we’ve been working with the child and a lot of the things that I see in the research I go, ‘Well that’s in Kodaly’, and we’ve got music literacy, and we’ve got Orff playing with sounds and singing all the time and the use of movement in a rhythmic kind of way. And you know, it’s all built up in those methodologies so a lot of the time I don’t think there’s a better or worse way. It’s about in many cases reinforcing many of the great things that music educators already do.

AH: Absolutely. I think sometimes that happens with research, sometimes that evidence is in front of us but we just want more and more and it’s important to have that research evidence obviously, but those music educators have been doing it for years. So is there a piece of research that you’d point Ali to, or a collection of pieces of research that you’d point Ali to in terms of that replicated enough so that it’s reliable?

AC: I would point her in the direction of the University of Toronto and the infant lab. It’s got a longer name than that but there’s an infant lab that’s lead by a lady called Sandra Trehub, and she has a lot of researchers in there, but they have really been at the forefront of all that work. And the other one I would suggest is the McMaster University lab that’s led by Laurel Trainor. And they’re the two, and they’re quite close to each other physically – I went from one to the other half a day – and they have infant labs in both of those. And they really have done the longitudinal work about infants and young children and their development. [SCROLL DOWN ON THE PODCAST PAGE TO SEE THE LINKS]


AH: That’s fantastic, brilliant. So we probably need to wrap up soon so I’ve just got a couple more questions for you. One is, all along these discussions we’ve been heading towards ‘how we use the research’ and from my point of view in terms of advocacy and that’s something that you’ve talked to me quite a bit about over the years and now it’s your mission to help people to use the research intelligently. Can you tell me a little bit more about the online resource that you’ve started developing?

AC: Yes, sure. Look, I’ve been so fascinated by how we use this research in and advocacy kind of way, and I’ve been fascinated from the point of view of, and I come from an Australian perspective, and have worked in England, of which bits of research really hook which particular people and why. And the fact that also when we present lists and lists and lists of research and findings and stuff like that, they just seem to fall on deaf ears. So why is that? I think it’s because one, they’re not specific enough in a lot of cases and sometimes you just can’t put a percentage on something and that’s totally OK. And that’s where the breadth of knowledge and the breadth of research really helps. But I struck upon this idea, which is an idea I’m really excited about but also I now have an online community that’s really starting to work with me with that idea, is the idea that we need to educate our communities in order to advocate.

So a lot of the time we have the experience when suddenly we get that awful email or phone call, or someone stops us in the hallway, and says, ‘Oh look, we’re doing the budget and it doesn’t look like we’ve got money for your programme next year’. And suddenly we go to into a panic, and it’s like pulling as much information off the internet as we possibly can to try and make a case. Now I don’t think that works. I don’t think it works for us and I don’t think it works for the people who are making the decisions. Because I like to view those people as being not against music education but just ill-informed. So when it comes to informing them, that I as a music educator am the expert, so how can I educate them continuously about the benefits of music education? So either we never get to that point where we get that horrible email or terrible phone call, or we get to have a discussion with them about saying you know when they come and tell you, ‘We’re really struggling with the budget. We know the value of your programme, but we’re really having a difficult time. How can we work together?’.

And that’s my ideal for changing the narrative because I know when I work with kids, you do the same thing over and over again and they kind of get used to it. But as soon as you change your tack, as soon as you do something different they suddenly go ‘Oh, something’s different’ or ‘What’s happening? I’ll listen again’. So what I’m hoping this will do, and it’s different for every group, I definitely have a different approach to principles or heads of school. They need their statistics, they need to know how they’re going to justify it to their communities and to their boards about why they want to introduce the music programme. So I head down that direction. Whereas working with parents it’s more like ‘What’s better for your child in the long run? Where does music sit for them, and how will it benefit them as a human being in the future?, rather than a career in music sort of thing.

So we have a group called the Bigger Better Brains community on Facebook and we’ve now got a website which provides ongoing, professional learning every single month straight into your inbox. So you can do professional readings, we create these fact cards that you can put in newsletters or share on social media, we’ve got lots of videos and the idea is that keeps it in the eye of the school leader or the parents or whatever. It’s a sort of education by stealth where we’re just providing them with the information to which they can make up their own minds but we’re doing it consistently and our mantra is ‘We educate to advocate’.


AH: That’s fantastic and it’s little bite size pieces of information, and I’ve been in there and it’s very digestible because there are lots of videos, lots of myth busting cards, things that all these pieces of received wisdom that get distributed around and sometimes you question it and ask, ‘Is that really right?’, or ‘Is that really the right way to express that?’. So there are some really great resources in there. Finally, this may be tricky but I really like people to come away with a bit of a takeaway from these conversations. Do you think you could give us three pieces of practical advice or pieces of research, or anything else that people can use or put into practice straightaway in advocating for music education?

AC: I think the first thing is ‘Dream big and not be afraid’, basically. A lot of the time we try and protect our education programmes and we just want to hold on to what we’ve got. And I think a lot of the time we compromise what we’re doing because that’s the best I can get. I think we need to set a course for ourselves in whatever school or whatever area were in and say, ‘No, I actually want a three-year programme for my students or I want to have every kid involved not just the kids who need extension or anything like that’. So I think setting a vision for ourselves is important.

The second thing I would say is, in order to live out that vision who’s mind do you need to change? And how? And that’s not necessarily only one person. In some cases it’s the parent body. I see my parents in my school as my students as well. It’s my job to educate them and to help them understand what’s happening for their child and exactly, very specifically, what their role is in what they do. It could be the principal, sometimes I don’t know about in the UK, but in Australia sometimes the person with the power isn’t the principal, it’s the deputy principal or deputy head of school. They hold the strings so how do you start to have a conversation and meaningful advocacy conversation with them? And sometimes that can be an interesting experience.

But then the last thing is I think, the best advocates in the world are our students. We are fascinated by brains, they are fascinated by learning and the one thing I’ve been surprised by, very happily, is that my kids have developed a language and continue to develop that language about ‘What’s my brain doing today? What’s it learning? What’s it struggling with? If I feel really frustrated about this, what’s actually happening inside my head?’ and ‘Why is that a good thing? Why do I not need to run away from that or be fearful of that?’. I think in the end they’re the ones who have the off-handed comment to the head of school, they’re the ones who at home can say, ‘Don’t disturb me mum. I’m doing my practice, my brain’s growing right now’. It’s all those sorts of giving them language but also giving them a similar kind of fascination with how their brain is learning. Because if anything I want to send my students out into the world understanding how they learned, how it feels, how it sounds, how it looks, and also to understand when that learning is sometimes frustrating and why that’s a good thing.


AH: That’s brilliant I’m so pleased you’ve ended on the young person because they’re the best advocates for this and also it’s just really great when they’re informed about their learning and able to talk about that, so that’s fantastic. Thank you Anita, I’ve absolutely loved talking to you as always, and I really appreciate what you’re doing for all of us involved in music education and the young people we work with.

If you want to hear more from Anita there’s a great video of a recent interview with Anita by an Australian radio station and I’ll share the link for that in the show notes. I’ll also share details of Anita’s Bigger Better Brains online training resource, and her TED talks. Thank you for listening everybody and make sure to subscribe so you get to hear about future episodes.

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