Category Archives: early years

Music that made me (part one): Early years

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” – Victor Hugo. 

Humans are a musical species. Throughout our history we have created such beautiful sounds which are simultaneously abstract and intimate. You could say we are the music we listen to. If that’s true, then that first music we absorb as children must play a large part in informing our futures, a least to some extent. If nothing else, it helps form your musical tastes for the future! 

As I sit here typing this, ‘Deacon Blues’ by Steely Dan ha started playing on the radio. I’m instantly transported back to a younger version of myself, still as moved by this song as I was the first time it fell upon my ears. (if you don’t know it, here’s a live version you can enjoy by clicking here).

As musicians & composers, we should be both mindful & appreciative of this. With that in mind, here is my very own early music

Using that term, I’m excluding nursery rhymes and songs from school. I was also planning to leaving aside hymns & church music. But the more I thought about it, the less it made sense to do so. This was a huge part of my formative years. To ignore the music of my church and community growing up would mean I was only presenting to you half of the music that made the man sat here typing this right now.

I was raised by a family of regular churchgoers in a close Catholic community in the north of England. Music was a large part of our times attending Mass or in Church-related events, and without a doubt my favourite ingredient of the Christiam experience.

Folk & Celtic Music

My community had a strong Celtic connection, with regular social events, often ceilidhs featuring additional Northumbrian dancing. If you’re unfamiliar with these traditional Irish & Scottish dances, here’s a classic, the Gay Gordons (Yes, that was a part of my childhood!)

There were also more reflective songs, performed by certain members of the parish. These included several traditional Irish songs, such as ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Molly Malone’.

My interest in folk music stems directly from hearing so much of it as a child. As a professional guitar player, I’m often called upon to play these tunes. Here is my own version of ‘Danny Boy’ (called  Londonderry Air here) from my Vimeo site.

…and here’s the traditional Notthumbrian tune Waters Of Tyne

Hymns

While there was no one particular hymn that stood out, I quickly discovered which melodies, chord sequences, and – crucially – their relation to each other, I preferred to listen to and sing along with. Some, especially Christmas Carols, managed to embody powerful music with a soft sweetness many classical composers have struggled to attain. Obvious (non-Christmassy) examples include ‘Abide With Me’ and of course, Jerusalem.

‘Jerusalem’ gets bonus points for being thought of as such a patriotic ode to England here in the UK. This is despite the fact that the words are taken from William Blake’s thoroughly sarcastic prom, mocking the mediaeval belief that Jesus visited these lands as a teenager with Joseph of Arimathea. However, the music by Sir Hubert Parry is sublime. In particular, the downwards harmonic movement towards the end of the second line in both verses never fails to raise goosebumps on my arms!

Finally…

This is just one part of my life, but the music here still stirs memories of growing up, and the sense of community spirit we had. My father is still a regular at my old church, and like me, his favourite part of the experience is the music – the singing together, and belonging.

But that’s not the whole story…

Coming up next: the other side of my early years. Specifically, the albums I first heard as a child. Until then, stay happy and keep making music xx

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New community music centre now open in Cumbria

Some of you may know I am involved with a few community music therapy projects in the north-west of England. Now think it’s time you met ‘me gaffer’, and had a wee peek at the new £2million centre which has recently opened its doors in Penrith, Cumbria.

Annie, Michael & the whole team at Sunbeams Music Trust have been working tirelessly for several years, and not just in fundraising for their brand new centre. Sunbeams Music Trust now provides community music across the region. Their ‘Music for Life’ & ‘Music for Dignity’ projects reach children and adults in schools, day centres, care homes & much more, bringing music (and improved wellbeing) to so many people who need & enjoy it. But there is always more work to be done and more communities & people to reach out to. This new centre will go some way to meeting that obvious need.

Featuring a large performance room, state-of-the-art digital recording studio and small music & therapy rooms, the new centre comes well equipped to meet the needs of the charity. A well-equipped kitchen & boardroom means they can also raise much needed revenue through conferencing & hosting events. The recording studio is also directly linked up to the performance hall, meaning the centre can also serve as a commercial studio capable of recording anything up & including a small orchestra!

Guitars laid out in ‘Lily’s Room’, at the Sunbeams Centre, Cumbria.

My only contribution to the new centre so far has been laying out the guitars on the floor (as above, however the remnants of which can also be briefly glimpsed in the video, via the link below). However, I hope to start leading a few of the projects there from 2017 and truth be told, I can’t wait! The new centre is, in a word, AWESOME!

Sunbeams runs entirely on donations & charity funding. If you haven’t yet chosen a charity to donate to for Christmas, or raise money for throughout 2017, please give Sunbeams some serious consideration.

Fundraiding information can be found on Sunbeam’s donation page.

Thanks, guys! xx

…And here’s the recent feature on the new Sunbeams Centre, courtesy of ITV News.

Music & Wellbeing (Part 6): Music Therapy & Educational Wellbeing

Music and educational wellbeing

So far, we have investigated the value of music in physical and mental wellbeing. As previously discussed, a better education leads to greater feelings of wellbeing, particularly in later stages of life (Merriam & Kee, 2014). With that in mind, if we are to consider the value of music on our physical and mental wellbeing, we must also discern its role in our education.

There have been recent arguments for the evaluation of wellbeing in the school system, examining what good practice is already in place, and also discussing ways to implement further measures (Aggleton, Dennison & Warwick, 2010). A recent study by McFerran & Rickson (2014) also highlighted the positive effect of music and music therapy in educational wellbeing. Both of the above studies allude to the wider benefits in the community and later on in the child’s life, once they reach adulthood. In this chapter, I aim to examine current thinking on the effects of music on improvements in children’s learning.

The act of participating in musical activities, or playing musical instrument, is seen by many to be of great importance to children’s development (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013; Swanwick, 1988, 1994;). As well as teaching self-discipline and providing feelings of achievement, it acts as ‘a powerful therapy for all sorts of childhood conditions. It develops body, brain and soul in balance’ (Ben-Tovim, 1979, pp. 15-16). Music has been considered to share many similarities with language throughout our history (Thaut, 2005, p. 171). It has long been used as a method of communicating new ideas and concepts to children in a classroom environment (Welch, 2005, p. 254; Barrett, 2005). The use of music in teaching pre-school children acts as both an ‘aid in language development while promoting musical development at the same time’ (Wiggins, 2007, p. 55). Recent studies, such as those carried out by Rickard et al (2010) noticed significant improvements in the verbal memory of primary school children who had spent time studying and playing music.

Such improvements, however, stop a little short of the now famous ‘Mozart effect’. This term is derived from an experiment in which students who listened to at least ten minutes of Mozart’s music performed better in special awareness tests (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993, quoted in North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). The popularity of these studies allowing the idea that certain genres of music can increase intelligence has since filtered into popular assumption. However, the theory that listening to music increases intelligence quotient (IQ), excluding any other factors or stimuli, is in itself a ‘massive oversimplification and overgeneralisation of the original scientific findings’ (North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). I agree that there are too many additional factors to be considered when taking into account music as stimulation for learning. I find it unreasonable to rely on an almost magical ‘Mozart Effect’ for better results in a classroom environment. I believe music needs to be employed intelligently as a communicative and participative tool in teaching practice. Student engagement will be increased through activities they regard as ‘fun’ and consequently topics can be digested more effectively. In my opinion, the musical method should stimulate creativity in the children, and better equip them for future learning in other subjects (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013).

While Wiggins (2007) conducted her research in the United States of America, there is an emerging global consensus to collaborate her view surrounding music as an effective tool in teaching. A similar study undertaken in Australia investigated the effects of shared music activities in pre-school children at ages 2-3 years old. The researchers then successfully linked these to a positive range of skills by the time the subjects reached ages 4-5 years old. The children demonstrated higher abilities in ‘vocabulary, numeracy, attentional and emotional regulation, and prosocial skills’. (Williams et al, 2015). The children in these tests proved to be more developed in terms of numeracy, literacy and prosocial skills, than children who had not partaken in shared music activities at a young age; more, even, than children who had participated in shared reading activities at the same age as part of the same research (Williams et al, 2015). This builds upon previous research in Germany, which suggests the level of skills such as numeracy in children may be largely down to the home environment of the child, not to mention other factors such as the educational level of the mother (Anders et al, 2012). Williams et al (2015) use the studies of Anders et al (2012) as one of the bases for their own research. While the German studies are not music-specific, they do not preclude the theories on which the Australian study was conducted. Similar investigations on older children by Hille & Schupp (2015) demonstrated not only an improvement in school performance, but greater conscientiousness and improved social awareness.

So what about children with special educational needs? ‘Special educational needs’ (SEN) is a term which encompasses a wide variety of physical and mental circumstances which might impede learning, experienced both within and outside of the educational system. In the classroom environment, examples of SEN include children with speech, sight or hearing impairments, dyslexia, dyspraxia, delayed cognition, Down’s syndrome and those on the Autistic spectrum (ASD). Studies carried out by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) have shown that the use of music during lessons improves concentration in children on the autistic spectrum. The data returned by their research showed significantly less propensity on the child’s part to diverge into off-task behaviours. They showed higher levels of concentration when music was used as part of the learning process. They reasoned that ‘music can act as an extra auditory stimulus providing additional environmental structure, thus prompting children with ASD to stay on task.’ (Dieringer & Porretta, 2013, p. 8). Dieringer & Porretta (2013) also conclude that looking into this area of study further could lead to improvements in other aspects of life for children with ASD, not least enhanced inclusiveness with other children.

While Dieringer and Porretta (2013) demonstrate in their study that off-task behaviours are reduced when music is used, they argue that further research needs to be conducted into whether or not ‘improved performance or learning actually took place’ (2013, p. 9). However, similar research by Gerrity (2013) focused specifically on improved learning in children with autism during music lessons. The findings of this research conclude that improvements in musical ability and understanding did in fact occur.

What is interesting about the studies carried out by Gerrity (2013), and those undertaken by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) is that they both focus on children with varying levels of autism inside the regular public school system. However, research by (Sandiford, Mainess, & Daher, 2013) has shown how music is of enormous help to teachers in specialist schools for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), including the most severe cases of autism. My caveat to this would be that such improvements depend on a number of interlinking circumstances. This is similar to the findings of Anders et al (2012). These include, amongst other factors; teaching style; available resources (learning support and funding, for example); environment (at home and school); and parental support.

REFERENCES

Anders, Y., Rossbach, H., Weinert, S., Ebert, S., Kuger, S., Lehrl, S., Von Maurice, J. (2012) ‘Home and preschool learning environments and their relations to the development of early numeracy skills’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 27, pp. 231–244. Available From http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.08.003.

Barrett, M. (2005) ‘Musical communication and children’s communities of musical practice’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 261-280.

Ben-Tovim, A. (1979) Children and music. Great Britain: A. & C. Black Ltd.

Dieringer, S. & Porretta, D. (2013) ‘Using music to decrease off-task behaviours in young children with autism spectrum disorders’, Palaestra, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 7-9.

Dennison, C., Warwick, I. & Aggleton, P. (2010) ‘Evaluating health and well-being in schools’, in Aggleton, P., Dennison, C. & Warwick, I. (eds.) Promoting health and well-being through schools. United States & Canada: Routledge.

Gerrity, K. (2013) ‘Conditions that facilitate music learning among students with special needs: a mixed-methods inquiry’, Journal of research in music education, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 144-159. Available from: 10.1177/0022429413485428.

Hille, A., & Schupp, J. (2015) ‘How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills’, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 44, pp. 56-82. Available from: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2014.10.007.

McFerran, K. & Rickson, D. (2014) ‘Community music therapy in schools: Realigning with the needs of contemporary students, staff and systems.’ International Journal of Community Music, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 75. Available from: 10.1386/ijcm.7.1.75_1.

Merriam, S., & Kee, Y. (2014) ‘Promoting Community Wellbeing: The Case for Lifelong Learning for Older Adults’, Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 128-144. Available from: 10.1177/0741713613513633.

Rickard, N., Vasquez, J., Murphy, F., Gill, A., & Toukhsati, S. (2010) ‘Benefits of a Classroom Based Instrumental Music Program on Verbal Memory of Primary School Children: A Longitudinal Study’, Australian Journal of Music Education, No. 1, pp. 36-47.

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008) The social and applied psychology of music. United States: Oxford University Press.

Sandiford, G., Mainess, K., & Daher, N. (2013) ‘A Pilot Study on the Efficacy of Melodic Based Communication Therapy for Eliciting Speech in Nonverbal Children with Autism’, Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1298-1307. Available from: 10.1007/s10803-012-1672-z.

Scripp, L., Ulibarri, D., & Flax, R. (2013) ‘Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning’, Arts Education Policy Review, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 54-102. Available from: 10.1080/10632913.2013.769825.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, mind, and education. USA & Canada: Routledge.

Thaut, M. (2005) ‘Rhythm, human temporality, and brain function’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (Eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 171-191.

Welch, G. (2005) ‘Singing as communication’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D.J. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 239-259.

Wiggins, D. (2007) ‘Pre-K Music and the Emergent Reader: Promoting Literacy in a Music-Enhanced Environment’, Early Childhood Education Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 55-64. Available from: 10.1007/s10643-007-0167-6.

Williams, K., Barrett, M., Welch, G., Abad, V., & Broughton, M. (2015) ‘Associations between early shared music activities in the home and later child outcomes: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 31, pp. 113-124. Available from: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.01.004.