By Anne McIlroy, Globe and Mail, July 4, 2011
El Sistema (is) the wildly successful Venezuelan initiative that offers instruments and lessons to thousands of children, most from impoverished families.
El Sistema offshoots are sprouting up all over the world, including Canada. There is one in New Brunswick, another in the works in Winnipeg and one scheduled to start in Toronto in September. Advocates see El Sistema as a way to counter many of the negative forces in the lives of youngsters who grow up in poverty. The idea is that intense musical training improves a child’s self-confidence, concentration and motivation and that this can translate into greater academic achievement and, ultimately, a healthier, happier life.
But it is important to move beyond the anecdotal evidence about the transformative power of El Sistema, says David Alter, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. He and other researchers, who all happen to have musical backgrounds, have applied for funding to track the 55 children expected to start the Toronto program in the fall. They want to evaluate its benefits and learn if El Sistema helps some children more than others.
There is growing evidence that learning to play a musical instrument may help children do better at school, that it can improve memory and the ability to focus and may even modestly boost scores on intelligence tests. But researchers are also starting to look beyond IQ.
“People focus so much on cognitive benefits. I think there are some, but I don’t think they are as large as people would like them to be,” says Laurel Trainor, a scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton who studies music and the developing brain. “I think the social and emotional benefits are just enormous and we are just starting to comprehend that.”
Documenting those benefits will be essential for getting government funding to expand El Sistema programs, says David Visentin, a string musician and former associate dean at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He and Robert Eisenberg, a businessman, are working closely with the Toronto District School Board on a pilot project that will offer 10 hours of music a week after school to students from Parkdale Jr. and Sr. Public School.
It is and will be important to document the social and emotional benefits of any new program, in order to successfully secure long-term government funding. However, there are other examples, with funding provided by Texaco, for example, that bring music studies into schools were it had previously been removed. And there is a considerable evidence that the study of music, under the optimum conditions of support and encouragement and appropriate pacing and timing, can profoundly enrich the lives of people of all ages.
Those at the Royal Conservatory already know about these benefits. Having the neurologists and the scientific community find, document, publish and confirm those "anecdotal" reports will add considerably to the public's confidence in and activism to restore music studies to Canadian classrooms.
The Royal Conservatory already has a program in many schools that is showing signs of a similar phenomenon and any of us who had the privilege to study music in our early years will attest to its many life-long enrichments of our lives.
One of the more meaningful shifts will come when the public generally comes to accept that music, and drama and poetry and the literature of the imagination plays a crucial role in human development and demands its continual inclusion and enhancement in elementary and secondary curriculua for the long-term leaven of our community.
So we need not only the scientists who concentrate on individual development to study this program and others like it; we also need the sociologists to examine the impact of programs in music and the arts to substantiate their importance in the larger society as well. We are confident that such studies will continue to disclose, through academic research methodology, the infinite gift of the arts to those fortunate enough to have them presented in creative and inspiring teaching.