MUSIC: SINGING ITS OWN PRAISES

By Reagan McSwain

According to the Ministry Education, the Government of Canada has invested $150 million into a Technology and Learning Fund to improve classroom technology and help develop “21st Century skills” for students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Its aim is to provide students with “more opportunities to become technologically savvy digital citizens with tools such as tablets, notebooks, cameras, 3-D printers and software” says Gary Wheeler, Media middleman for the Ministry of Education.

Investing in new technologies so children are better equipped to function in this fast changing world only makes sense. But investing in technologies and not other subjects may, in fact, come back to bite us. Strong music programs exist in schools across Canada – with many exceptional music educators, however the ingrained emphasis of music as an integral component of a child’s education is no longer the norm in Canada. If students wish to pursue music it is more often than not something that is done outside of school.

A great debate in this digital age might be whether knowing how to read music is as important as being able to read computer coding.

Music is good for the brain and it doesn’t have to be formal instruction on an instrument. Whether it is reading sheet music, learning to play music, moving to the sound of it, or simply overhearing it – for humans engaging with music goes much deeper than the eardrum.

Brain scan studies on musicians show that the areas in the brain that are active when playing music, are also active when the musician is only listening to music. “The auditory cortex (think auditory processing or, where we process the sound) is just more robust and developed than someone who hasn’t had musical training” said Toronto-based Music Therapist, Aaron Lightstone.

Music can affect you anywhere. Maybe you’re sitting in your car stuck in the usual morning commute, turning the radio dial you recognize it almost instantly. It’s been years since you last heard it but three familiar beats later and you are transported. Or maybe you’re scurrying down a busy street when you hear something off in the distance – that song you instantly associate with being 17 years old and in your first car, or the day your family dog died. Humans react viscerally to music. Memories and emotions connect. The cranium, the part of the skull that houses the brain, is our hub for knowledge which shoots off sparks and connections in all directions and throughout the body as a whole.

Music and being musical is for everyone and is found in every culture on earth. In 2009, archaeologists found the oldest-known human-made instruments in a cave in Germany dating back 40,000 years. The flutes discovered were made of Vulturbone and Mammoth ivory. When comparing that to the fact humans have only been organizing farming and creating tools for agriculture for close to 12,000 years, it is clear how highly regarded music and intentionally creating sound, has always been to .

“If you put on rhythmic music in a room full of toddlers who have never seen a music performance and there is no cultural preconceived notions of what they are supposed to do with that, they will start to dance. It’s very innate. Music and movement are intrinsically connected,” explained Lightstone.

Music reaches and connects areas of our brains that otherwise would lack stimulation and activity.

“There may not be another stimulus that is so effective at creating these kinds of neurological connections between different brain regions… Music is a highly effective activity at driving neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain is plastic and constantly reshaping itself in response to environmental stimuli.

Music is a very powerful environmental stimulus to drive that.” said Lightstone.

“It’s a total brain workout,” says Lightstone. “Because every brain area gets involved in music making it strengthens people’s attention spans, executive functions, cognitive abilities and motor skills. And that’s just what

Music also soothes and heals. Engagement in music has been credited for reducing the risk of dementia, assisting with other forms of memory loss, and in rehabilitation when learning to walk again.

“Music doesn’t make you smarter, however it makes you a better human being and you do other things in more meaningful ways,” said Nasim Niknafs, Professor and Music Educator at the University of Toronto, faculty of Music.

“People who practice music learn a very particular kind of study habit, it’s a form of discipline. There’s a certain kind of focus that one learns andpractices and gets better at,” Lightstone adds

In a broader sense, the concept of Protest Music is infamous when it comes to immobilizing movements. “Music allows people to cope with the situations they are facing; it is an outlet. Music gives you not only joy but also hope and transformation. Interacting with other human beings who are doing the same thing and making music together is a very human thing,” said Naknifs.

“Born and raised in Iran I didn’t have music education in the way that this part of the world talks about. Music as a subject matter was non-existent,” she said. “Because of all sorts of policy and governmental matters music was always a controversial subject, so the way we learned it was underground through private studio lessons,” said Niknafs.

Iran censors all “western music” on the basis that it “does not conform to Islamic Doctrines.” Public music performances, are routinely cancelled without warning or reason. “We would hang out in lines for two days to get a ticket…we had a lot of fun with it. It itself became a celebration – just being in line and getting to know other people who just want to be there. It’s a com munity. I would go to any performances that were happening regardless of the genre or style of music,” said Niknafs.

She bursts into laughter, thinking back to her initial reaction to a culture with free access to music. “The first time I left Iran I went to the U.K. and one of my moments of culture shock was ‘not everyone goes to every performance? They pick and choose?!”

“At the same time it was kind of a a blessing in disguise, I think. Since we didn’t have that much access to it, I really appreciate music education.” Every other week her parents would take her back and forth eight hours to take piano lessons.

As an act of resistance, families often harbor a household instrument and pass down valuable lessons on how to play. “Music is such a cultural thing in Iran, it is always happening underground at weddings and parties and every person is involved in music in someway.” explained Niknafs.

Now, with technology those without instruments can still create music.

“While working at a juvenile detention center we were not allowed to bring in acoustic instruments so we had to be resourceful.” said Niknafs. “Technology is very nice in this situation because there are lots of free apps and software that we could use and also because there isn’t a huge learning curve for students. They can create music instantly so it’s immediate gratification.

“They get hooked and we can create challenges for them to work through ….Having students create something gives them ownership, and they become even more responsible toward the music they are creating,” said Niknafs.

“There are lots of studies that show benefits to music fostering the ability to take direction and to lead. Those are good life skills for kids to develop,” said Greg Newsome, a digital composer and lecturer in the Music Technology and Digital Media program at the University of Toronto.

Newsome agreed that technology has transformed public access to music making programs. “There has been a massive democratization of creativity – which is a good thing. It’s not super expensive to get a musical instrument anymore. Most people have a computer and you can just buy or download wonderful musical instruments that have already been created in the form of samplers or synthesizers. The instrument to me is irrelevant. Students can make sound in many different ways. You can even turn them loose with controllers that are connected to certain sounds and as a group create something together.” said Newsome.

“When I was in a band in high school I didn’t do any strictly creative stuff, we weren’t creating per se, we were reproducing and there’s nothing wrong with that but kids like to create things, so why not let them? People are creative and they want to be able to create things. There’s a desire to incorporate technology into their creative work,” said Newsome.

Niknafs points out that acoustic instruments themselves were a new technology at the time they were developed.

“Even for my acoustic work I definitely use a computer [technology], said Newsome. “I do calculations to create musical structures within programming languages.”

The computer doesn’t make any decisions for me but I use it to save timeand crunch numbers. I can do it by hand but it’s tedious. If suddenly technology didn’t exist, I could happily re-turn to pen and paper but it would longer and be a bit more work.”

With so much evidence pointing to the benefits of engaging in music, it seems shocking that it is not some thing school aged children in Canada are tapping into more regularly.

“Budgetary matters are huge. Normally we don’t have money as music educators but there are all sorts of free and open software available” said Niknafs.

With new technology-funding in schools, music teachers may in fact be able to mesh both music and technology in the classroom allowing children to engage in musi education more feasibly.

“It comes down to a matter of money which is too bad, said Newsome.

“Despite the free software you do need the hardware. You’d need computers for everybody, if they all don’t have computers it’s hard to hold a class. If school boards can afford technology rather than actual physical instruments then I think it’s a good way to remain connected to music.”

Author, educator and host of education TED Talks, Ken Robinson speaks on the idea that in the education system there is a hierarchy of subjects. Math and Science are at the top which are seen as the most important, next is Language, then Social Sciences and finally the Arts. And then within the arts there is a hierarchy: music, visual arts and then drama.

This model of education is based on what was needed in the industrial revolution – the factory system. The school subjects we engage in and are having children focus on are meant to prepare people as factory workers. Fast-forward to today; it’s the 21st Century. The world is changing so fast we don’t know what world we are preparing future generations for.

Robinson argues that the most important skills become critical thinking skills and the ability to think creatively. In which case, we need to flip this whole hierarchy on its head because the most important lessons in how to think flexibly and creatively come from the Arts. The arts, are the most important elements in a modern education system.

As Lightstone laments, “We are really short changing children and the education system in general when we remove these opportunities,” said Lightstone.

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