How Music Can Change Education

I had the extreme pleasure of attending the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas last week which truly was a wonderful experience. I was not only able to hear some inspiring speakers and learn a lot, but also met some extraordinary people who are dedicated to education as well as the overall health and well being of our children.

After attending a few panel discussions as well as the keynote by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, I sensed four main themes within the conference narrative, each being monumental to the evolution of American public education:
1.) We need to completely shift our current model of education.
2.) The role technology plays in education just sped up
3.) Social and emotional learning
4.) The overall state of our children’s mental health

I agree that our whole concept of education needs to be reconsidered. We can’t go back to the way school was in the before times. Our children (and us) are just beginning to emerge from a global humanitarian crisis that’s wreaked havoc on the planet in a multitude of ways. In terms of education, it showed us all (very quickly) the massive role technology can have in schools. It also showed us how the social piece of education, and learning, is just as⏤if not more⏤important as the academic piece. We were also forced to see the fragile state of our children’s collective emotional and mental well being.

Another area of education to consider is the increasing developmental diversity amongst our students. As technology continues to evolve, everything is going to speed up. This means the understanding of and treatments for childhood disabilities are going to continue to improve which means more children with special needs are going to make it past developmental markers and attend public schools.

So what⏤and when⏤is going to change? What types of shifts are we willing implement that will begin to move our education system towards the future?

I believe there is one thing in our education system that is able to address all of the emerging needs within the dynamic student populations we must now serve. The incredible part is that this thing has been a part of our education system since its inception, but it has been severely underused. This thing is Music.

Yes, I’m a music educator so perhaps I’m a bit biased. How ever, I do know that through my experiences with the incredibly dynamic kids I work with, music has an extraordinary effect on them. The technological advance that has allowed other areas of medical, scientific and academic research to make strides has also allowed strides in research specific to how music not only effects our brains, but our entire physiological system. I believe that if we start the education revolution by changing the definition of music education in our schools, we can then begin to make changes to everything else.

Consider that most public schools now have in-house occupational, speech, physical, and perhaps behavioral therapists on staff in order to assist with their in-district special education services. Our schools must now provide therapies for the dynamic students that now make up our school populations. A University of Connecticut paper published in 2013 speaks about the effectiveness of music and movement based interventions within these student populations. The researchers begin by saying:
This paper is a call to clinicians to diversify autism interventions and to promote the use of embodied music-based approaches to facilitate multisystem development.” They continue: “Musical training impacts various forms of development including communication, social-emotional, and motor development in children with [Autism Spectrum Disorders] and other developmental disorders as well as typically developing children.”

Right now 14% of the American public school population are students who require special education services. That’s roughly 7.3 million kids. In addition, it’s no secret that our children and young people are struggling severely with mental health issues. In fact, one staggering statistic I heard at SXSW EDU predicted that by September of 2022 almost 50% of American teens will have a mental health diagnosis. This issue alone has caused such alarm that the Surgeon General of the United States released a report titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health”.

The last three years have not only affected the academic development of our kids, but also their social and emotional. The pandemic has also had an impact on their developing sense of self⏤which I believe is one of, if not the, key component of education. Music can help with all of these aspects of education, but in order for that to occur we must first begin to look past music as just an extracurricular activity. We need to see it as the untapped resource it truly is.

I studied a method of teaching music called Dalcroze Eurhythmics at The Juilliard School in Manhattan. I’ll spare you a dissertation describing Eurhythmics (although you can read about it more in my book), but know it is a three pronged system that uses physical movement, singing/speaking, and improvisation. We Dalcroze teachers are taught to approach the teaching of music from a highly creative and dynamic perspective. It is this training that (I believe) allows me to be effective with the dynamic student populations I work with. I also believe that this training could allow all teachers (not just music) to be highly creative and effective. I also believe that every public school should have a Eurhythmics teacher on staff (in addition to band, chorus, orchestra, and general music teachers) who could go into classrooms and use their training to help teachers organize their students and pitch in with classroom management strategies. They could also go into occupational, speech and physical therapy sessions to enhance protocols. They could also be available to sit one on one with students who are having difficult experiences at home or within their personal lives. Mind you, I say this as someone who teaches in a district that exclusively serves disabled and at-risk students.

I use my Eurhythmics training to teach very traditional and also very non-traditional music classes. I have to be able to do this. I have multiple classes where more than half the students are non-verbal, and also have classes where the students have sensory processing delays. But when I apply non-traditional, Eurhythmics based methods of teaching, many of my students are able to participate in ways they do not throughout the day. Eurhythmics techniques allow me a certain dynamic range to do this. I have seen non-verbal kids make vowel sounds or speak for the first time in music class. I’ve had classes of at-risk students, many who come to school from residential mental health facilities, quietly ask “Can we just sing today?”. It is both humbling and eye opening to see how music — using a Eurhythmics approach — is able to accommodate so many diverse learners.

If we were to place Eurhythmics teachers in our schools, I believe it will allow other teachers to see their creative capacities as well. By working together through a dynamic art form like music, and using Eurhythmics based strategies, classroom teachers will not only see the benefits but also begin to view their own work through a creative lens. I believe this is imperative in the evolution of education. Teaching has always been a dynamic and creative profession but today’s teachers need to be more creative and more dynamic.

How much do I believe in this? So much so that I started my own non-profit rooted in the work. Through Education Flow, I am applying for funding that will allow me to bring Eurhythmics based research projects into public schools so that I can measure how students, and their teachers, respond. It is my goal to show the effectiveness of not just Eurhythmics but an entirely redefined music education. I truly believe that through Eurhythmics — and music — we will evolve into our new model of education.

Now is the time to do this. We are existing in a period where the world is changing daily. Bringing Eurhythmics and music to the forefront of education will help our kids, and teachers, begin to see how we can all work together in this amazing period of change.

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Patrick Cerria

Patrick Cerria

Husband-Father-Musician-Educator-Dalcroze Eurhythmics Teacher-Author-Yoga Practitioner-Crohn’s Warrior-Teaches Disabled & At-Risk Children-Believes In Humanity.