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Music for education & wellbeing podcast [39] TRANSCRIPT: Beatriz Ilari, Center for Music, Brain and Society at the University of Southern California.

AH: In this episode, I’m talking with Beatriz Ilari, who’s a Professor of Music Teaching and Learning at the Center for Music, Brain and Society at the University of Southern California,  in Los Angeles. Beatriz teaches music psychology, the sociology of music and cultural diversity in music teaching. All really fascinating subjects that I know will be of interest to people who listen to this podcast. Beatriz has carried out research to explore the links between music and child development with all ages of children, including babies, early years children and school-aged children. So I got in touch with Beatriz after finding out about a small-scale study involving students aged 11 to 14. I was particularly interested to see that she’d used an evaluation method that was new to me, called Positive Youth Development, and I thought it might be of interest to you too. But in talking with Beatriz, we actually found we also had a shared interest in how academic researchers and music educators can connect to help each other. So that’s what we’ll be sort of focusing on in our chat today. But I also wanted to mention that I recently found out that the Center that she works at is home to one of the most popular pieces of music education research on our Music Education Works website. It’s one that you might recognise if you’re a music educator, and if you follow our work on the Music Education Works website, it was all about how a child’s brain develops faster with exposure to music. So that’s putting a little bit of context around Beatrice’s work,  and after that very, very long introduction, I’m really looking forward to this chat with Beatriz. And so thank you, and welcome to the podcast.

BI: Thank you for having me. I’m honoured to be invited and excited that we’ll have a chance to talk today.

AH: Thank you. Well, you’ve done some fascinating research from looking at the role of music and sports programmes, on parents’ views of children’s social skills, to the recent one that I mentioned in the introduction. So I’m really curious to know, is there a thread that runs through your work? Is there a particular area of study that kind of drives and excites you?

BI: Yes. You know for, I want to say in the last 20 years, I’ve been doing research on the musical experiences of babies, children, and more recently adolescents and young adults. For me, I think music plays a very important role in our lives, and especially growing up. So my work is really focused on children’s responses. How do they feel? That’s what I see as an adult, but do they feel the same way? And how do they develop? So I’ve done research, starting with memory and looking at babies, eight months old, many years ago, then, you know, studying young children in nurseries and schools and in the home. I’m very interested in the home because a lot happens over there, although many parents and caregivers will say, ‘I’m not musical, I don’t do music with my children’, but they actually do. There’s a lot. So by the time children enter nurseries and preschools here in the US, we know that they already have musical baggage, if you will. And they have preferences, they have things they like, and they develop those further through music education. So the study that you mentioned on music and sports is part of the research from the Brain and Creativity Institute. It’s a longitudinal study that we have been doing for over a decade now. So the children were six when we first met them, and now they are ready to go to college. So it’s interesting, we had this amazing opportunity to follow them. And my part was the music and the social skills and the families, that was my part, and the brain sciences, of course, we’re looking at the brain and other aspects of development. So it’s really interesting to look and see, you know, why do parents keep bringing their kids to music programmes? You know, why do kids continue in the programme? What are the motivations behind it? What do they find important? What are the things that they find could be changed? Because I think all of these things inform what we do in music education.

AH: Absolutely. That does sound fascinating. We’ve reported on it on the Music Education Works website, but we are only really able to kind of touch the tip of the iceberg. We don’t look in depth at any of these research studies, we just publish them and sort of share them. So this is a great opportunity to find out more from the horse’s mouth, if you like, about the results of that. So I don’t know if you want to tell me a little bit about the key findings. I know our listeners are very interested in things that they can apply. And some research isn’t always leading to stuff that can be applied immediately. But yeah, if you can talk a little bit about that research and what the main findings were.

BI: Sure. So just to give context, when we started this project, there was a lot of attention to El Sistema here in Los Angeles.

AH: Ah, okay, yeah.

BI: I grew up in Latin America, where we had a lot of El Sistema programmes. So I was always curious, like, why El Sistema now? Why are we so interested, you know, in this part of the world where Latin Americans, we always looked up to Europe and North America, now people seem to be looking towards Latin America. So there was, for me, that was kind of that impetus. But at the same time, in Los Angeles, you know, and looking at music education research in the US in general, it was mainly focused on middle-class and suburban families, there was very little on urban families. And Los Angeles has a very large Latino population. You know, people coming from Mexico, from Honduras, from Guatemala, from different parts of Latin America. And they had just started or they had a brand new programme, which was El Sistema, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in town. We also had, you know, a lot of conversations about this programme. This programme, and a lot of claims that we didn’t know were supported, we wanted to see this research support some of the claims that are being made. So we reached out to the programme, and they were interested, and we thought we need a comparison group. And we thought, what do Latinos do, aside from being in a music programme, they play soccer. Soccer is very popular here. And so we reached out to soccer programmes, and also swim team programmes, because these are the activities that were similar, they’re in the same community, they are equally free. And of course, we needed a group of children who are not involved in these programmes. So we followed them initially for five years. So they were about six and seven, when they started, right before they started these sports programmes and music. And we looked at all kinds of aspects. So from, you know, there’s brain development, auditory perception, we looked for social skills. You know, there were some studies at the time saying children who are involved in music become more pro-social, they become more helpful to each other. So was that something that we would see in children in music and collective sports? Because that was also one of the claims of the programme that it changed, you know, it was a social programme. We looked at executive function skills, so the ability, you know, music’s ability to enhance working memory, cognitive flexibility, so being able to think in multiple ways. And we also looked at, of course, musical skills. What were children developing? And of course, we couldn’t have the sports kids play the violin, that would not be fair. But could we see singing? Children saying musical preferences. What are the children listening to? Does it change as a function of being in the programme? Or do they just do that in the programme, and at home, they listen to something else. So we looked at all these things. And, and I think some key findings first, we found, there were some changes to children’s brains as a consequence of being in music. So auditory areas that were more developed after three years and then after five years, based on children’s participation in music. We also found changes to executive function skills. So cognitive flexibility, working memory, we saw that also in the music kids. Now, in terms of music, obviously the music kids were ahead for some areas, particularly melodic areas more than rhythmic, which was very interesting. And we thought, why is that the case? Probably because you’re playing melodic instruments. Right? They’re playing violin. What else can I tell you? Other interesting findings? So in terms of the parents, which is the study that you’ve asked, we found that we want to trust the parents because of course, teachers see one thing and researchers, we only go in once a year, but parents are with children all the time. But we found that from, you know, the first year to the fourth and fifth year, that parents saw a reduction in aggressive behaviours in children who were in music and in sports. So that is important. Of course, it’s parental reports, and some people can always say, ‘Well, you know, parents tend to be biassed’, but it was interesting that this was such a strong result. Right. So there’s something there about music. Also, hyperactivity, parents felt that children are more controlled after participation in these programmes, both music and sports. So there must be something there because this is consistent with other research on after-school programmes. Now we’ve brought some of these kids back it’s hard to track them because some have moved, some don’t want to participate anymore. But we’re continuing to, you know, learn more from them, which is an amazing experience.

AH: Wow, that’s fantastic. And what’s the name of that study? And where are you at in that study now? Is it sort of continuing, are you continuing to follow those young people?

BI: Well, we call them the USC Music and Brain Study, because it’s housed, you know, at the Brain and Creativity Institute, and on our webpage you can find, you know, most of the papers that have been out. There are some that we’re still working on, for example, we have data on motor skills, which is very important for both music and sports, we still haven’t found the time to write it up, but it will come. So if you visit our webpage, you will find some of these papers and some information about this study, which has been fascinating.

AH: Oh, that’s amazing. And I’ll put the links in the show notes so that people can access that. The specific study that I first found you through was a study looking at using a positive youth development scale. Is that a separate study, or is that integral to this whole study that you’re talking about now?

BI: No, this was a separate study. The study on positive youth development came through the schools and it’s a smaller population than the longitudinal one. But in this case, it was like, as I like to call it, a ‘snapshot study’. It was just an opportunity right in the middle of COVID, when an organisation that had sold more guitars than in their entire history. They had this partnership with our school district here in Los Angeles, and so they were distributing instruments for children who wanted to [play them]. We’re still in lockdown, so this organisation, you know, reached out to me and said, ‘Beatrice, you know, we have partnered with the Los Angeles School District, and we have this programme for children, because we’re very worried that children have been on lockdown’. And just for context, Los Angeles, our schools were in lockdown for over a year, right? In some cases, two years. So children are at home, there’s not a lot of music education happening, the teachers were doing what they could with the online teaching modality. In some cases, the children didn’t have access to the internet. So the school district was trying to cater to this population. And this is when this organisation said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do a programme that’s online, first, come first serve all free’. But it’s teaching popular music. So this is not like the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles is classical music. This one is, you know, whoever wants to sign up, they just need to sign up on our website, there were flyers, you know, eflyers that were circulated to the families. And they did something very interesting, which was they hired the music teachers from the district, teaching artists, and they trained them in their teaching approach. And what they did was they would offer online classes for children, they were all in middle school. So between 11 and 14, from across the district, the district has over 70 middle schools. So it was, I think, one of the few times when children from the wealthy neighbourhoods and in the poor neighbourhoods were actually together on Zoom. So let’s say you chose the ukulele, there was a lesson on Saturday, they were all together on Zoom with a school teacher from the district. So they had access to a learning app as well, and they were, you know, learning music, they’re very engaged. So they reached out and said, ‘Oh, we want to do a study’. And my first thought was, well, there’s so much conversation about wellbeing, does it really make sense to look at cognition at this point? Or would it make more sense to actually ask, you know, how are the kids doing? And what’s music doing for them, if anything? So that was the origin of the study. So we, after gaining permissions from all the different parties, we had a survey, and we used this scale of positive youth development, which is, you know, a philosophy, it’s also an approach to teaching and communities. And it’s also developmental theory. And what I like about it is that it focuses on the positive things that we can, and we should be developing in young people. So instead of looking at, ‘Oh, teenagers are a problem, we have to be careful with delinquency, and we have to be thinking’, it shifts the narrative to say, what are the things that are important for us to help people develop that will make them thrive, and contribute to their communities? So that’s where positive youth development comes in. And the other thing I like about it is that it’s a theory that comes from the ground up. So although you have all these scientists and scholars talking, describing this theory, they actually sought out teachers, practitioners and communities who were working with young people to develop it and asked, ‘What do we need to develop? What are the things that you see that are positive about young people?’. So I think it’s an extraordinary framework.

AH: That’s really interesting, and I think you know, it may be something that listeners to this podcast might want to explore. So I’ll repeat it again, it’s the positive youth development scale. It might be useful. I know that there are so many different wellbeing scales that are used, but when working with young people, it might be really valuable to explore something that’s been developed with practitioners, and I’m guessing young people as well. I wasn’t going to ask much about the findings of the research, because I know that we’ve discussed that at this stage, there aren’t actually sort of actionable findings or findings that can necessarily be used in advocacy for music education. But do you want to just sort of summarise or highlight bits from the research, some of the findings from the research?

BI: Sure. So you know, aside from positive youth development, we also asked kids to complete a very short scale, that’s called Hopeful Future Expectations. Because at the height of COVID, there was this conversation that this is a lost generation and the kids are so you know, their future is doomed, and the kids are not hopeful. So I was curious, like, how are kids faring in that, and also their connections to school? Because we saw a lot of kids drop out of school during COVID. So how are they connecting? So, and of course we asked  them about their musical preferences, how much they liked their programme, all the good stuff about music education. So some of the things that we found, so for positive youth development, and of course, this was a new programme that had been going on for almost a year when we were able to go into the schools and collect our data. But we found a couple of interesting things. For example, one was that younger students in general, the sixth graders, were the ones who had higher scores in general than the eighth graders. And we, of course, we wondered, was that because they were now in person in school, they’re not being, you know, schooled through Zoom? Maybe that’s what it was. But one finding that I think is important, it’s not music education but it’s really important, is that our study was one of the few in positive youth development that also included questions about gender. So not just the binary like, ‘Are you a boy or are you a girl?’, but you know, how do you identify yourself? And what we found was that the non-binary students in general scored lower in overall positive youth development and in connection than girls, and also lower in confidence and connection than boys. And this is something that mirrors a lot of research that we’re seeing on, you know, gender, and schooling in adolescence, so how we need to really pay attention to these students. And from the perspective of music education, we know that music programmes are sometimes a space where non-binary students feel at home, and they have the teacher who’s supportive of them, of their musicality, and all of that. So I think, you know, although it’s not a music education finding, it’s something important for us to keep in mind as we’re working with teenagers. The other thing that was very interesting is that, you know, kids who participated in extracurricular programmes in schools, they were the ones who had higher scores for school connectedness. And this included music programmes like the programme that we were studying. So the more activities that you have in schools, even if you’re not, you don’t consider yourself an academic kid, and you say, you know, ‘I don’t like school’. But having these other activities may be a good way to connect to schools. And in terms of music, specifically, what we found was kids who had started before age eight, and some of them were in this new programme somewhere, some were in just regular music programmes, or having lessons outside of school, they were the ones who scored higher for hopeful future expectations. So this is something that gave us a lot of pause, you know, what is it about music? You know, is it because you’re in touch with your emotions? Is it because you find ways to regulate your mood to think about other ways of being in the world? And that’s one of the questions that we’re exploring right now. So these are, you know, in a nutshell, I think these were the main findings from this study.

AH: Really interesting. Lots of interesting things in there. So I haven’t come across any music education research that is identifying findings around non-binary young people so that’s really sort of helpful that somebody’s started to explore that. Also really interesting about school connectedness and music. I think we probably all know that, but it’s really interesting to have that backed up by research. That’s really interesting stuff Beatrice, thank you for outlining that research. And what’s that research called? So that listeners can find it.

BI: So this is a study on Musical Participation and Positive Youth Development in Middle School. So this is an open access paper, so anyone can just type the title, or if you write ‘Beatriz Ilari positive youth development’, it will probably pop up.

AH: That’s great. And it’s great that it’s open access because sometimes that’s a little bit of a barrier. Research like yours can be hugely useful to music educators, not just in advocacy, but in actually sort of feeding into the way they deliver their work. And that’s not just teachers in schools, it’s people like youth and community musicians and policymakers. So it’s just so important that people can get access to this research. And it feels to me that there’s also potential there for partnerships for research and evaluation, which could also attract funding. And that does happen in some areas, and I’ve become more aware over the years and it’s the reason that I started the Music Education Works website. But those connections aren’t really happening as much as they could. So we’d started chatting about that before for the podcast hadn’t we and I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts about that, about knowledge exchange and partnerships between researchers and practitioners.

BI: Yeah. I think this is so central to our field, right? It’s so important because as an academic myself and a former teacher, I feel it’s easy for me to feel very disconnected from the school. I mean, I have two kids in school, so that’s kind of my connection at the moment. But I, you know, the children I used to teach, they’re all adults now. So, and music is so dynamic, there’s a lot happening in classrooms that are dynamic. So there’s so much going on. So I think this is really important that we make those connections. I think one of the challenges that I see is that academics are sometimes too, and I include myself in that group, are sometimes so locked in the things we need to do. And it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m writing about schools, but I’m not really going into school’. So we need to make that effort, I think, as academics and stay connected in as many ways as possible. I think, on the other hand, you know, sometimes teachers feel that, ‘Oh, you know, I’m not an academic, I don’t do that’. But teachers have so much knowledge, and they are there with the children. They can tell us, you know, if I wanted to study, for example, musical preferences, if I ask teachers, they will tell me, this is what they’re talking about, this is what they’re listening to, right. So they have this knowledge that’s so precious. And so I think these connections need to happen. It’s hard to make them happen, but one way that we have done in LA, we have in our university a community engagement programme, that sends a lot of our students, you know, into the schools. So that’s one way that we have been, and we need to have connections with teachers and principals to be able to do that. So that’s one way that, you know, we’ve kept in, and of course we’ve built partnerships over the years. So we do see little bits and pieces of projects where teachers say, ‘Well, I want to be part of that, how can I help’. And same thing with academics saying, you know, ‘We need you. We can only do this  if you’re a part of this, this project’. Even with the positive youth development, the person who was in charge was a music teacher who actually reached out, so it was really special to have that. It’s not me seeking out, but it’s also them saying we want to partner up, what shall we do? So I think that’s one way. There are publications, but I think that’s a more indirect way, you know, academics writing for teachers, and so on. But I think it’s really the person to person that matters the most. So I would encourage, you know, listeners, reach out to universities, you know, see people who you’d rather work with, you know, try and if they don’t respond, there’s always somebody else. What I can say is that there are people who are willing to collaborate. Sometimes what it takes as the first step is reaching out and then seeing what happens.

AH: Yeah, and that’s something that should be on all of our ‘to do’ lists really, to explore those partnerships in all sorts of ways. A lot of the listeners of this podcast are actually maybe not school teachers, but they work with schools in music education, they might be music education organisations, like community music organisations, working with young people, all ages, actually, but also people who are in music education hubs, or music services, which is a sort of structure over here that is sort of facilitating partnerships between schools and anybody really involved in music and young people. And they seem ripe for partnering with higher education but I think it’s just that because it’s not a requirement of the funding, it’s not central to their work, it’s just at the bottom of their ‘to do’ list. So I suppose what you’re saying is just put some feelers out. Look at the universities that have departments that are exploring neuroscience, music, education, wellbeing and reach out to somebody in there. Is there a directory of people with specific research interests that people could look up?

BI: I do know here in the US there’s something called the Sound Health Network. It’s much more about health. But if you go in, there’s a list of people and lots of educators as well, so these are people who put their names there because they’re willing to collaborate. That’s one. In the UK, there’s a group that I think is doing brilliant work, which is called the Musical Cares Network.

AH: Oh, I’ve never heard of them, that’s interesting.

BI: They have some excellent videos and resources. I think it’s called the International Musical Cares Network. So they invited us, you know, and they’re practitioners, they’re music therapists or community musicians or academics. And it’s interesting, they also have a lot of resources. And they are also a good group to connect with, and, you know, thinking of musical care as this umbrella term and the many possibilities of research collaborations that can come out of it. But I think collaboration is key. And I think, as you said, the funding piece is complicated, isn’t it. But we’re beginning to see at least here in the US some foundations and groups that are actually asking for research that is collaborative. That need to have a community component, and an academic component, which I think is great, because that’s how it should be. So we’re not in our, you know, the ivory tower there thinking that we know it all. We don’t. We need to be connected.

AH: Absolutely. And I’m sort of spotting some funding opportunities over here. So I think the Centre for Cultural Value has developed a programme where academics connect with grassroots practitioners in culture. And that could involve music education. And there’s funding behind that. And I think the Arts and Humanities Research Council as well is another place where funding could come from, for these sort of partnerships. So there’s lots of possibilities out there. That’s been really helpful, Beatriz, thank you. And we’re kind of coming to the end of our time. So I wanted to ask you to maybe just share, either sum up or share three practical pieces of advice for music educators?

BI: Yeah, sure. So the first one is, you know, when I discovered positive youth development, I thought, wow, why haven’t we looked at this earlier, especially if we are working with teenagers, right, it’s such a valuable framework. So I would encourage teachers to take a look at this framework. So the idea behind positive youth development is that adolescents, you know, can contribute and young people can contribute to society. And there are a few things that we want to develop in them, you know, and they call them the five C’s, which is competence, confidence, connection, character, caring and compassion. And according to this theory, when you develop these five C’s, you might develop a sixth one, which is contribution. So I think, you know, this theory is, for me, is so powerful that even when I’m teaching college students, I think about it all the time. Yes, I’m teaching music, yes, we’re working on you know, this theory, or this author or this reading, but how can I develop these aspects in their lives, with the hope that they will take some of this information and run with it, and, you know, contribute to their own society. So I would encourage teachers to take a look at that. And again, what’s cool about this theory is that it’s not just a questionnaire. It’s also a philosophy and it’s also a way of thinking about community when you’re thinking about education. The second thing that I think is important is for us to listen to our students. And there’s always this conversation in music education about, you know, should we be totally student centred?, should we be totally curriculum centred? I personally think that there’s a sweet spot in between the two, because yes, there are curricular things we need to cover, but there’s also the students who are in front of us and their ways of engaging with music are changing with the technology they have and the world that we live in. So to listen to them, and to be comfortable with it, right, because at least for me, I’m from a generation that was trained in a specific way to be a music educator. And the students that are in front of me are from a very different generation, and they learn music and participate in music in very different ways. And the third thing is just a shout out to the work of Gert Biesta, who’s a philosopher from the Netherlands, an educational philosopher, and he talks a lot about world centred education. So I think one of the claims, as I understand it, is that, you know, we can’t be again, totally curricular centred, and we can’t be totally student centred. We have to really think about how students can contribute to the world. So this fits in very well with positive youth development as well. Because sometimes what I see, and I don’t know in the UK, but here sometimes I see that there’s a disconnect between what happens in school and then what happens in college. And for young people to navigate all of that is very complicated. Sometimes schools get very busy, not just with music education, but testing and things that they have to do. And then I often wonder, okay, how does that connect to what we do in the real world as adults? So thinking about these questions, how can we move the needle a little bit, and especially in our field, in music education, so we are educating kids for the world, and the musical world, that’s out there.

AH: So true. That’s a really brilliant point. There was a really important piece of research done a few years ago by Youth Music, a foundation funding youth music projects in the UK. The report was called The Sound of the Next Generation, and it talked to young people across the UK to find out about their musical passions and interests. And not surprisingly, it did find that there was a disconnect between what they absolutely loved and enjoyed at home or listened to, and what they’re able to pursue and explore in school. So yeah, definitely, I think music educators are becoming more aware of that. That’s a lot to think about, thank you, and I think you’ve given encouragement to a lot of people to potentially look at university partners to start those really rich and potentially helpful, very helpful conversations. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, Beatriz, and very best of luck with all your research and your partnership working. Thank you.

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