A musical education helps provi de children with the foundation for a happy life
If “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” according to the 19th century German-Jewish writer, Berthold Auerbach, then the opportunities for learning the cleansing process are abundant in the Czech capital.
The power of music to trigger the higher emotions in people is well-known to each of us. Less well-known, or perhaps less willingly conceded, is the fact that a musical education started early enough encourages increased cognitive development and reasoning capabilities. Not only can it provide a source of great joy and enrich people’s lives, but it can also help develop social intelligence and assist in learning other academic disciplines.
Lifestyles Magazine® asked a group of music educationalists from private institutions of learning for their views on the importance of teaching music to children.Lindsey Simondet, a native Minnesotan, is the primary school music teacher at the Prague British School (PBS). She has no doubt about the benefits of instilling a love of music in children, especially in breaking down communication barriers in an international multilingual context.“The majority of children coming into the school have English
as their third or fourth language, and so music is what instantly unifies them. It’s aesthetic before cognition, and so it gives that instant confidence that ‘I can do this’ and makes them feel a part of the group.”
“When you’re 70 or 80 you can’t play football, but you can still sing and dance and move a little bit; music is a lifelong skill.” There’s music in every subject, says Lindsey; it’s in math, English, history. It helps with cognition skills like memorization, improvisation, and having to think on the spot. “It even helps with sentence structure, especially at international schools – seeing words, hearing them, how you pronounce them and then having them played to a rhythm, melody and songs helps them with language and learning right across the board.”
“Music develops your psycho-motor skills because you’re constantly moving, you’re dancing, you’re feeling the beat. It affects your emotion, your confidence, your feeling. It definitely helps you express your feelings more.”
As the perfect demonstration of the joy music brings, a group of six and seven-year-olds trots into the classroom barely able to contain the excitement they feel at beginning their one 45-minute music lesson of the week. No sooner are they sitting in an eager semi-circle around Lindsey than hands shoot up for requested songs and immediately they launch into rapturous song in English, never mind that few of them speak it as a first language.
By the time students are in Year 9 (age 14) at PBS, they’re having to make the decision about whether to continue to pursue music as one of their GCSE options alongside their mandatory academic subjects. Welshwoman Ailsa Frazer teaches music to the 11-18-year-olds in the senior school, including preparation for GCSE examsand the International Baccalaureate. But as the students approach year 9 and then begin to struggle with the choice they have tomake, the benefits of continuing music are still clear to her. She concurs with Lindsey that it’s not just musical skills that a music education imparts.
“It reinforces other skills. It’s linked to maths, languages and lots of other subjects. Then there’s the social side of it: working in pairs, working in small groups, whole class activities, and the social skills they actually need to produce something. It can be a painful process to watch, but the arguments and compromises they have to make leads to something worthwhile. And then there’s the self-confidence aspect that comes from performing in front of people.“It also teaches them appreciation of all fine arts. I know that the majority of the students won’t continue with music after [Year 9], so you think to yourself what you want to give them, what are they going to take away with them. You naturally want them to read music, but what is more useful maybe is their broad appreciation of music because they’ll have that forever. They’ll be able to respond and comment intelligently in the future.”And even if students don’t continue with formal music studies in the classroom, they can still participate in the PBS orchestra and choir, and perform in the twice-yearly concerts held in the school’s newly opened purpose-built theatre.
Continuing music outside school
With little time to devote to music at school while children and young adults concentrate on subjects that prepare them for a professional career, there are other options for engaging in music studies outside school hours. The International School of Music and Fine Arts was established in 1998 to offer tuition in music and other arts to both Czech and foreign students in Prague. The school has no fixed location for lessons, but has over 50 teachers on its books offering private tuition in a variety of languages, including Czech, English, French, German, Spanish and Russian. Students can be of any age, but for children, tuition can be delivered either at home or on school premises after school hours. Iva Nevoralová, the school’s deputy headmistress, says the school’s philosophy is to create a world for children to be creative. Although it contracts highly educated teachers who are graduates of prestigious music academies like the Conservatoire supérieur de Paris and the Royal Academy of Music in London, the aim is not to make a carbon copy Paganini from each pupil. It is more about introducing children to the joy to be experienced through music.
For parents who want their children to learn early, ‘music ateliers’ are available for pupils as young as two where they progress rapidly learning rhythm and movement, singing, dance and drama. From the age of four they graduate to developing a greater sense of rhythm, plus melody and harmony, and also some musical theory. Finally, they start to play an instrument either individually or in a group of only two or three.
“They can do exams at the end of the year, but only if they and their parents want. If the parents simply want the children to have fun, then we create a program for that,” says Iva.
All students have an opportunity to play in family concerts, but for the best ones, the school creates special opportunities – gala concerts and concerts with orchestras. “Some students are very good musicians and take the opportunity to play in concerts, but for the majority it’s just an opportunity to love and enjoy music, and to develop skills in other fields. Music influences your brain so that you’re better in other things. In science, languages, mathematics and so on.”
The school is attempting to start Master Classes for advanced students through its relationships with great artists, either in person or via video conferencing. It’s in negotiations with other schools in Japan and Spain to involve their artists as well as students.
Specialised programs with Czech artists have already begun, including their involvement in the school’s regular public concerts. “At our November concert we invited the well-known Czech harpist Kateřina Englichova, and Vilem Veverka, who won one of the biggest international oboe competitions in the world in Japan. We will try to bring more to other concerts because it’s really an inspiration to the students. It was great with Kateřina because there were many children who’d never even seen the harp before,” Iva says.
Using our most common instrument: the voice
The International Choir of Prague has been offering tutorials in singing as part of a choir for the last two years. But the connotations one sometimes associates with choirs do not hold true: it doesn’t confine itself to one particular type of music, such as choral or hymnal or gospel. Rather, its material is as diverse as possible, and includes anything from Motown, reggae, rhythm and blues, pop, world beat, jazz, African, show music and Christmas music.
Teachers Brendan and Šárka Coleman have an infectious enthusiasm for music of almost any genre which they try to instill in their students at premises in Smichov. They started out with two choirs: a ‘developmental’ choir for 6-9-year-olds, and a ‘concert’ choir for children aged 9 upwards. After numerous entreaties from parents, an adult choir was also established, made up of expats, students and young professionals.
Teaching is by singing and rote learning, but the developmental choir also focuses sometimes on music theory and reading music, depending on the need to work on repertoire, and involves an element of dance to make choir practice more fun and to teach the children the importance of rhythm.
The choir performs two major concerts per year. Additional concerts are occasionally also held in collaboration with the International School or Music and Fine Arts. And as proof of how far the choir has advanced in such a short time, the concert choir won bronze medal competing at the Olomouc Choir Festival last year. Not bad for the first time. As for the benefits that children gain from singing, Brendan doesn’t hesitate: “There’s a window of opportunity to learn for just a short time when you’re a child. Any child can learn. It’s even possible to teach a one-and-a-half year old to sing. They have the instinct
and an innate need to learn how to express themselves. Singing teaches rhythm and pitch. It gives the ability to appreciate music and leads to a healthy, happy person. It provides the vital ingredients for a good life. There are gifted children, of course, but if you start any child early enough there’s nothing to stop them becoming great musicians. By the time a child gets to 9 or 10 without training, however, they may start to struggle with pitch and by then it’s becoming too late to learn.”