Musique aux enfants: More than music

Sometimes I am deeply moved by the goodness of humanity.

Kent Nagano, chief conductor our symphony orchestra (MSO), has instigated one of my all-time favourite educational programs. In one of the neediest areas of Montreal, where the long-term prospects for our youngest citizens are very poor, he has set up a pilot project. Its main purpose is to see if music can be of help to pre-schoolers to evolve in ways that go beyond the norms of the community they live in.

 

Many of the participants were under-developed in the beginning, and continue to be. Musical talent was not a criteria, so no one in the program was chosen for his or her ability to play music. The parents, for their part, just wanted them to get a fair shot at success.

Each child would get three hours of music training per day, divided equally between piano, violin and singing. From a sociological perspective, the question arises as to whether all of this music training will affect their mental development. What, for instance, will be its effect on their language skills, socialization, mathematical abilities and so on…?

All studies on the subject of learning music tell us that there is intensive brain activity going on when one starts to play.

Not too long ago, a group of these young students visited our premises and performed pieces they had been learning during the program. What struck me the most was the degree of concentration they displayed, and all the brain connecting skills exercised when they were playing. Rhythm, melody, two handed co-ordination, short and long term memory, spatial orientation, ear and eye to finger co-ordination, and the pleasure of accomplishment were but a few things that drew my attention, and I’m sure that sociologists and parents could mention a few more.

As sad as it seems, there is one nagging question that needs be asked, one with important social implications: Is it not more cost effective to spend money on very young citizens or is it better to wait later and do remedial work, when they may really need help?

It is something of a sad reflection on our society that questions like these have to be raised. Pardon the pun, it is almost a no-brainer to invest in their early education rather than having to do so when they are older. In that way, we allow people to get a better headstart, and the long-term outcomes will be be far greater for them and society. Yet, what may seem obvious, needs to be proven by scientific studies, which give us the necessary means to demand more from those in charge of our education system. But the sad fact today is that music education programs have pretty well been eliminated from school curriculums.

I have heard anecdotal evidence from the Musique aux enfants teachers about the state in which students arrive at school: Few know either English or French, have no social skills at all and lag seriously behind their schoolmates. After a few months, or as much as a year and a half later, they were much happier and better adjusted, even catching up with youngsters from more privileged neighbourhoods.

I can only imagine the effect on immigrant families who see their offspring being taken care of so well, and welcomed into our society. No one would be left unmoved!

What must be made clear, however, is the goal of the program. As far as I am concerned, it has nothing to do with music. Mind you, if by some chance, some of the participants happen to become musicians, that would be a small bonus.

It also had the good fortune of visiting beforehand the school where these children are taught. I came out very impressed. It seemed like such an obvious thing to do, but this kind of training is pretty well unique in our society. What a shame that not more is done, and what a waste, too.

Congratulations are very much in order here, both to Kent Nagano and all those involved in the program. It was our privilege to record these five-year-old youngsters playing their piano piece at year’s end. We only wish them and their families all the best

Oliver Esmonde-White

Please stay tuned for further instalments in weeks to come, with first hand accounts from the parties involved, and a possible video clip or two.

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