Guy Sebastian mentors students at Armidale's Challis Primary School as part of a pilot music program featured in the documentary series Don't Stop The Music.
Guy Sebastian mentors students at Armidale's Challis Primary School as part of a pilot music program featured in the documentary series Don't Stop The Music. ABC-TV

The instrumental tool turning Aussie school around

AS A nation, it seems we've forgotten the power of music when it comes to children and their schooling.

Despite the proven benefits of music education, most schools don't have the resources for a music program in their curriculum and 63% of primary schools in Australia offer no classroom music.

But a new art music program hopes to change that.

The three-part documentary series Don't Stop The Music, part of the ABC's Aus Music Month, follows the journey of a primary school from an underprivileged area of Perth embarking on a music program, and the transformative effects it has on the students, teachers and families involved.

Featured in the series is Dr Anita Collins, an award-winning educator, researcher and writer in the field of brain development and music learning.

Guy Sebastian and Dr Anita Collins feature in the documentary TV series Don't Stop The Music.
Guy Sebastian and Dr Anita Collins feature in the documentary TV series Don't Stop The Music. ABC-TV

"We've had 25 years of degradation of where music sits in a child's development," she tells The Guide.

"It's not just the kids. Their parents haven't had a strong, ongoing musical education so the don't know how good it is."

This program isn't about music as a career or discovering the next classical wunderkind. It's about using music to develop and enhance learning.

"Music learning is a fundamental part of learning languages. It develops all the neurological paths we need," Dr Collins says.

"It develops different parts of the brain at different times, so think of it like an exercise program for different parts of your body.

"We know that from ages zero to seven music is absolutely central to kids learning how to speak and read language. Then from seven to 14 it develops executive functions like paying attention and social skills.

"Then after that it's about good decision making in adolescence. Music is beneficial all the way through childhood and into adulthood. There's not a bad time to start a musical instrument."

Cameras follows a group of Year 4 students at Challis Primary School in Armadale as they are given their first-ever instruments.

"The first one we see straight away is a new confidence and joy," she says.

Challis students Jaxon and David with their new trombones in a scene from the TV documentary Don't Stop the Music.
Challis students Jaxon and David with their new trombones in a scene from the TV documentary Don't Stop the Music. ABC-TV

"Then the initial excitement wears off and the kids go 'this is hard work'. That's absolutely the time to keep them going. If we let them stop when it becomes hard then they're going to think they can just leave things when they get hard."

The goal of the program is for the students to perform in an end-of-term concert at the Perth Concert Hall.

Australian singer Guy Sebastian also came on board to help mentor the students and their music teacher ahead of the big night.

"Because of the performance and venue, they were given the opportunity to rise to that occasion. For some of these kids, rising is not in their vocabulary," Dr Collins says.

"It's the first time most of them have been put under that sort of pressure. There was a boy I was comforting before he went on stage and it was like he melted. I'm not sure how we got him on stage but as soon as he walked on stage he rocked it.

"It's so visceral and experiential, they will remember it."

The results of the program speak for themselves. There was an immediate drop in truancy and recent Naplan scores show many students have risen to the mean or above in just one year.

"It's quite an extraordinary change," she says. "The community has come to understand the power of it. The program's still going and I don't think it will stop now. It's transformed the school."

In tandem with the series, the ABC, the Salvation Army and Musica Viva will launch a national appeal, encouraging people to donate unused or unwanted musical instruments that can be provided to school music programs.

It's one important step, Dr Collins says, towards a massive overhaul of the way music is valued in Australian schools and households.

"There's not one silver bullet to fix it," she says.

"It's about bringing together people from public and private, government and non-government. We've tried for about 15 years to improve music education, and all the ways we've tried haven't worked. This program hopefully will get a lot of people asking a lot of questions like 'What's going on at my school? How can I help?' That way we might see systemic change."

Don't Stop the Music premieres on Sunday, November 11 at 7.40pm on ABC-TV.


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