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Denying children the chance to enjoy their natural musicality – whatever their ability – can have a huge impact, says Dr Ben Schögler
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I’ve spent the past decade travelling the world telling people about my business, Skoogmusic. A big part of that process – and an extremely enjoyable aspect of the job – is the amount of time I get to spend talking to people in education.
This stretches from teachers working across a huge range of curriculums, cultures and countries to Apple Distinguished Educators showing us all how pioneering technology can pave the way for new ways of learning.
No matter who I talk to, inevitably the conversation turns to the big questions: how important is music in education? Why is it important and how does it support learning? How can schools best offer music to children at the different stages of their school journey?
These questions are at the foundation of everything I have done in my career. Music, or to be more specific, human communicative musicality (bear with me!) is a natural human competence.
It underpins and supports our social, cognitive and physical development from before birth. And the genius of children is that, in the majority of cases, when left to their own devices, music is something that they will do on their own, without any need for it to be enforced by teachers or tuition.
When children are left to get on with it, it’s amazing to see just how naturally musical they are. And most importantly for those working in education, research shows that this natural musicality helps them to learn and grow.
With this in mind, I believe that the job of educators is to make music as accessible as possible for all children, supporting the incredible natural musicality of childhood.
For me, this means breaking down many of the barriers that currently exist with the use of traditional acoustic technologies.
Theory books, tricky techniques and lessons to master a traditional musical instrument have their place, but I believe that all children should be making music, every day, in a much more fun and creative way. This challenge is where I have focused my energy for many years.
I’m a keen musician myself, and also a developmental psychologist. In 2006 I was lucky enough to be part of a research project at the University of Edinburgh.
The goal of the research was to address the accessibility issue head on, and challenge the fact that no musical instruments existed that were specifically designed for children with physical or learning disabilities.
We found that technology was the key to overcoming barriers, and a few years later we created a prototype ‘Skoog’ – a tactile musical cube that anyone can play.
For anyone in education tasked with integrating music into the classroom, the focus has to be on making it fun. We need to switch our attention from set music classes to daily musical play.
For primary children in particular, the greatest benefits from music come when they are having a laugh – silly songs, exploring new sounds, playing with friends, cranking up the tunes, doing daft dances, playing together. It’s a joyful experience.
When I meet teachers, particularly those working with younger children, I always talk to them about musical play and creating an environment in class where children can simply start making music by themselves.
Create a safe space to play, musically speaking, and children will do just that. I don’t think formal music lessons, separate from the day-to-day buzz of the classroom bring the most benefit.
Instead, we need to let children’s own spontaneous, naturally occurring musical culture take over. That wonderful ability that children have to forget themselves and get lost in the moment will come to the fore and they’ll soon be singing, dancing and making up tunes, rhymes, rhythms and lyrics.
All the research shows us that this spontaneous music of childhood acts as scaffolding that we lean on to help us make our way in the world, and in particular it supports how we interact with others.
The benefits for children are huge. If they are cut off from this and their ability to freely enjoy their natural musicality is blocked or denied, for any number of reasons, the impact can be huge.
A lot of my work has focused on young people with disabilities, and what happens when they are unable to engage in this kind of musical play. If you can’t control your body, voice or breathing, or find social interaction stressful, then you might find joining in with music making in any form pretty difficult.
The work I’ve done in this area – opening up these important and enjoyable channels to children who have previously been excluded from music making – has been hugely rewarding. Helping these children make their own music, using new technology, is an incredible process – and a glorious noise!
Ultimately, what I’ve discovered is that there isn’t much difference between this process for children with a disability, and for those who don’t have one.
The results may be more pronounced for the former, but we’ve seen time and time again that if you put music back into your curriculum, there is a dramatic result. Music making helps children develop, and we should all be working to make it a fun, accessible and achievable part of their day-to-day lives in school.
As someone working in the world of music tech, this may be a predictable opinion, but I think that technology can be a great place to start. Advances in digital technology are revolutionising the way that children learn.
They can now access fun ways of making and playing with sound. This means that children, and their teachers, can engage more in musical play, rooted in and augmenting the way that we all naturally learn.
For today’s tech-savvy children, interactive, connected devices can really bring music making to life and give them so much fun and enjoyment. Whatever their level, background or ability, technology levels the playing field and facilitates the sheer joy and excitement of exploring, creating and sharing new sounds.
I advocate repositioning music as a core shared activity and a part of the learning journey. Too often, children have a weekly music class or instrument tuition, or perhaps a choir that runs over a term as an extracurricular activity.
But given the benefits for children’s development, it’s time that musical play became part of our daily teaching tool kit.
Musical play doesn’t just support learning. It is learning. Engaging in musical play is worth doing for its own sake. When we have fun, we learn. We call it ‘playing music’ for a reason. It should be fun and possible for everyone to join in.
Dr Ben Schögler is the founder and CEO of Skoogmusic (@skoogmusic). Become a Skooghero and gain access to a free professional learning programme for using Skoog in the classroom.
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