Innovation in music education is only the first step in changing the game

| November 26, 2014

No reader of this journal requires further proof, from me or anyone else, of the value of music in education. Listing the intrinsic and extrinsic value of an arts-rich education here would surely be preaching to the converted. Yet, despite all the evidence and advocacy of the past 30 years and more, approximately 80% of Australian children still do not receive a music education program that is rich in its resources, broad in its scope, and lasting in its impact, taught by people who are equipped with specialist knowledge. So, how do we collectively introduce a game-changer into this picture?

At Musica Viva, we have a bird’s-eye view of the potential obstacles. Since commencing Musica Viva In Schools (MVIS) in 1981, we have enriched the lives of over 7 million children across Australia, hopefully inspiring them to be more engaged in listening to, creating and performing music in their lives. We are the largest private provider of music education program in Australian classrooms, with a diverse program across the country, including in regional and remote areas. Last year, MVIS musicians travelled over 120,000 kilometres to deliver music education programs to over 260,000 students through 1,700 concerts, workshops and residencies as well as providing direct training for over 2000 teachers p.a. as well as a further 8000 teachers p.a. involved less directly.

We pride ourselves on providing broad, high quality music education programs for primary and secondary students which range from live performance to digital learning, through to extended residencies, intensive workshops, accessible resources and live interactive videoconferencing events. Our musicians cover a wide range of music genres, from operatic performance groups to rap, Indonesian, African and Latin American ensembles, exposing students to over 100 unique instruments from the viola de gamba to the trombone, harp and waterphone.

With this level of national coverage, we have heard most reasons why schools would/could not introduce a rigorous music education program: money, time, focus, internal capacity, to name but a few. Our national research work a few years ago indicated two big factors that would sway classroom teachers to engage more consistently with music. Teachers were clamouring for digitally sophisticated resources to engage students on their own terms more readily, and access to a deeper exploration of Australian Indigenous culture. We set ourselves the challenge of addressing the identified gaps, partnering with relevant organisations whenever possible.

Musica Viva Education Innovation 2Quick forward a few years to 2012, most notably with the support of Rio Tinto and DEEWR, and Musica Viva unveiled digital resources for interactive whiteboards, linked to our live music program. These new resources were automatically provided to anyone who booked MVIS, as well as providing them with the training to implement these resources in the classroom. Suddenly children had interactive digital music lessons, filled with fun-to-use activities to develop deeper musical understanding, plus high quality video material to familiarise the children with music styles as diverse as Balkan folk, Indonesian gamelan, early Western music and contemporary multi-media.

Earlier this year The Guardian UK, with the help of the British Council’s Creative Economy team, scanned the globe for projects that use digital technologies in new and inspiring ways, and listed ten of their favourites in the world. Musica Viva’s interactive whiteboard resources project was selected as one of them, and the only Australian project, as you can read here.

But that is changing the game for those students engaged with Musica Viva In Schools. What about the rest of the children? For many years, we have built our programs on the premise that empowering the classroom teacher is the only sure-fire way to introduce real change in school music education, as most other interventions are necessarily short-lived. The one-to-many approach has to have the greatest potential impact. In 2014, our fully accredited professional development program in every state and territory was transitioned to deliver digital teacher professional development. This change has enabled teachers to access professional development without the time or distance constraints of the past. Where previously some teachers, particularly those in regional areas, had to travel long distances to attend workshops, they can now access quality live interactive seminars at the click of a button, and review it as often as they like. The teacher resources and online seminars are available at for all schools that book the MVIS Live Performance Plus program.

The next game-changing step surely has to be pre-service intervention, and ongoing mentorship of classroom teachers, giving the tools to deliver quality music education throughout the year. Some moves are underway in this regard, but we need to address this issue before it becomes an even greater problem than it is now, as identified years ago in the (then) Music Council’s research, which confirmed how little music tuition was provided during the course of tertiary teacher training. Surely we can collectively arrange the means to start addressing this, offering a variety of options for implementation in 2015, before any more years slip by!

Musica Viva Education Innovation 3On top of that, we need to attack the issue from another direction, and make music education a universally sought-after program by children and parents alike. The next stage of Musica Viva’s digital development will provide student-centred resources, tailored to specific age and ability levels for students from Foundation through to Year 8. They will be equipped with complementary lesson plans, assessment tools and classroom activities which can be tailored for use by both generalist and specialist music teachers. Importantly, the parents can be active partners in the learning.

Musica Viva has spent many years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars creating these platforms and programs in music education. I’m fervently hoping, in a country with as small a population as Australia, that we resist the temptation for each of us to re-invent the wheel. How powerful would it be if, instead, we collaborate to provide the means by which content from other arts and language organisations/artists can be transferred onto these existing platforms to accelerating the pace of change. Time is running out, and no one has endless resources. We are already exploring partnerships that will achieve the ends we are all seeking – that the next generation of Australians will receive far better arts education as a right, not as an optional extra available only to the privileged.

The capacity of these new resources to achieve significant results in multiple disciplines has become most apparent in the project addressing the other glaring gap in available resources for classrooms:  Aboriginal culture. A creative partnership including NAISDA Dance College, elders from Elcho Island in North-East Arnhem Land (Yolngu tribe) and Musica Viva, again with funding from Rio Tinto and a variety of private and public supporters, has culminated in the hugely successful Dätiwuy Dreaming. The program includes:

  • professional development for all participating teachers
  • digital teaching resource with interactive student activities, mp3s, video, curriculum links (including literacy in both English and Yolngu language, social studies, history, dance, and of course music)
  • Instructional videos supporting teachers with the cultural protocols in exploring an Aboriginal culture

Musica Viva Education Innovation 4Following the obvious potential of this program to preserve and activate Yolngu language and culture, Musica Viva is keen to explore the possibility of expanding this model to create digital resources to upskill teachers to deliver a Creative Arts curriculum as well as a means of capturing and sharing the cultural heritage of the diverse language groups of Australia’s many Aboriginal nations.

There is scope to use Musica Viva’s digital resources as a launch pad for presenting and preserving cultural and language content for Australia’s Indigenous people and for other cultures around the world.

And the next step? Musica Viva is currently exploring other avenues for distributing its content more widely, which should be available early in 2015.

So those game-changers we’re seeking? We’re already making great progress with innovative ways of bringing music alive for children in school through both live and digital programs; with professional development for teachers to engage their classes throughout the year, using music as a platform to explore other subject areas as well as music’s own innate qualities; with Aboriginal cultural studies, offering exploration of the subject area that is respectful and rigorous; and increasingly, with student-centred resources that engage whole families, inexorably leading them to push for more music education in their local schools. After that? Hopefully, exponential change.

If you’re interested in being part of this concerted effort forward, we are interested in hearing from you. This problem is too big for any one organisation to tackle, so let’s make the only competition the one to get music and arts into the lives of more children.

Musica VivaPhotos: Musica Viva

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