ABC TV’s Don’t Stop the Music documentary series last year threw the public focus squarely onto what primary schools around Australia need to do in order to give children a full and worthwhile music education. However, as we have seen from the work of Anita Collins amongst other researchers in the field, the benefits of learning music begin from the earliest years of a child’s life. Music education therefore should begin before formal schooling begins, that is at preschool or even earlier, because this is when the young brain is acquiring critically important pathways in cognition and language development.
The difficulty that we find though is that in Australia preschool educational programs are “relatively unregulated”. Obviously these years – up to age five – precede formalised learning in this country, and all we have is The Early Years Learning Framework, which provides a set of guiding principles for what teachers may choose to do in the classroom. For music, its connections with movement (dance) and storytelling are key elements, as are its role in communication and expression. But that is it as far as the Framework is concerned. How much music preschools include in their programs, and whether they have suitably qualified staff to teach it, is up to them.
What Collins advocates is much more than this. She argues for “well-structured music learning programs delivered daily by qualified educators” for all children at preschool level.
Indeed, some think the whole approach to preschool education could be lifted in this country. Phillip O’Neill, an academic at Western Sydney University, is one. He writes in The Herald (Newcastle) that early childhood education in general needs overhauling in Australia and that focus needs to extend right back to the infant years.
“What happens in the early childhood years matters most,” he says. “Australia has never fully developed an early childhood education sector.”
O’Neill, who is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University, observes that Australia’s spending in the sector lies a disappointing “fifth from the bottom of the 36 OECD nations”, and he believes that to remedy this bachelor qualifications are needed for preschool educators, along with higher pay rates and stronger government regulation.
If the early childhood education sector were to be overhauled as he argues should happen, it stands to reason that an overhaul of music should be part of that reform. More structured music classes that integrate with language and cognitive development should be central, along the lines of what Collins advocates.
Susan Creese, primary music co-ordinator at St Peters Lutheran College, Indooroopilly QLD, describes how it can be done in an ideal scenario. Writing in Families Magazine, she says that “Exposure to high quality and play-based music education during the formative years of a child’s life prepares musical abilities through experiential activities, and provides a firm foundation for more formal music training at school where the musical elements are taught consciously.”
“Children who participate in engaging and varied foundation musical experiences in early childhood gain secure skills and knowledge that are required for further development of musical performing, reading, writing, creating and analysis.”
Creese emphasises the importance of singing, believing this has “a profound effect upon a child’s development” and that it is easily incorporated as a focus of activity in “playful and relaxed experimentation” for young children. Beat and rhythm, directed listening, and movement to both singing and recorded music, all help give a child the foundations that will help them in later life, she says.