The magic of music

The Victoria Conservatory of Music brings benefits of musical education to families of all income levels

Jordan Vermes grew up with the enormous advantage of having music in his life.

The Vermes family is far from wealthy. They live in Sooke and have four children, aged 6, 10, 17 and Jordan is 21. But the family was willing to sacrifice for violin lessons at the Victoria Conservatory of Music when Jordan was six.

Five years ago, Jordan’s father was in a serious car accident and now receives disability benefits. Jordan’s mom returned to college and now works as a unit clerk at Victoria General Hospital.

But music lessons never stopped for Jordan nor his 17-year-old sister.
Meanwhile, despite the family challenges, not to mention the normal teenage upheavals, school work was never a problem for Jordan. He completed high school with honours. Next month, he will be at the University of Toronto to complete a bachelor’s degree in music.

“He’s always learned so quickly,” said his mother, Stefannie Vermes. “He memorizes things so easily and I think that had a lot to do with learning and memorizing music.”

“Going through some difficult times and stuff, music has always been kind of an anchor for Jordan,” she said. “It kept him grounded.”

Stefannie agrees it has been a family sacrifice to get music lessons for Jordan and his sister, who is also musically gifted and another accelerated student.

But it was worth it, says Stefannie, who is determined the two youngest kids, both boys, will also get music lessons.

“It’s been a bit of a sacrifice,” said Stefannie. “But it has helped them, they are more confident, more mature, they handle situations well.

“I definitely think music has had a lot to do with all that.”

The Vermes family is a good example of what educators have long believed and what neuroscience is starting to prove with  empirical evidence.

Learning music provides benefits extending into other elements of a child’s life, whether it’s other school work, or emotional and other challenges.

A recent study, presented to the American Psychological Association this month, revealed data to show disadvantaged children who participated in musical training, like learning to play an instrument or to sing, strengthened their reading and language skills.

The study was based on working with hundreds of kids in Chicago and Los Angeles public schools. It compared test results from children who received musical training with children who had none.

During the first year, reading/language test scores from the ones who received no music declined while those with music instruction remained constant.

Researcher Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, said the results are unique because the benefits can be traced directly to the music education.

Prior studies on the benefits of music education have always involved affluent or middle-class kids whose parents could afford music lessons. And those children have other background elements known to be beneficial, regardless of any music training.

But her study shows learning to play music can narrow education gaps between rich and poor.

“Musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap,” Kraus said.

These results are no surprise to Johanne Brodeur, head of both the children’s music and music therapy departments at the Victoria Conservatory of Music.

Brodeur explained learning to do anything involves the creation of neural pathways in the brain.

But consider learning to play an instrument like the piano and then consider playing it alongside other musicians in a band or orchestra.

The piano player’s eyes follow the musical note symbols, already memorized, and written on a page. Those visual signals get related to the brain, which then signals the fingers to touch the required keys.

Meanwhile, ears are taking in the music from the entire band and the brain is differentiating between that whole sound while focusing on the individual’s own piano playing.

Throughout, the player has to engage the brain’s numeric capacities to count and keep track of the required beats. Sometimes, the brain has to invoke division to play multiple notes within one single beat.

“You have to work on all these neural connections,” said Brodeur. “You practise auditory and visual skills, tracking, memory, sequencing, patterns, focus, discrimination.

“All these things influence everything else we do, from speech, to language to writing and math and science.”

Brodeur said further evidence about how learning music benefits other, seemingly unrelated areas of the brain are revealed in the treatment of head injuries that have impaired a patient’s ability to speak. These patients are often taught to sing what they want to say to reclaim their speech.

“Learning music creates these pathways in the brain that will also reinforce other brain activities,” she said.

“Music takes place in so many areas of the brain and that’s why it is so powerful.”

Recently, the Victoria Conservatory of Music was involved in a pilot project to teach elementary school kids at one of Victoria’s most challenged schools, George Jay Elementary.

It’s a school where the Education Ministry’s own system of scoring, based on things like socio-economic backgrounds, identifies 95-98 per cent of the students as “vulnerable.”

Last year, the Victoria conservatory introduced a computer-based music course into George Jay to run alongside regular, ukulele music classes established by the Victoria School District.

George Jay principal Leslie Lee said that during the past year everyone at the school noticed a distinct improvement. It’s tough to prove with hard numbers but the kids’ behaviour, concentration and marks all appeared to improve.

Lee wouldn’t go so far as to give sole credit to the music lessons. After all, everyone at the school, from teachers to parents and kids, have been working hard to lift up George Jay.

“So, have we seen an improvement in our kids? Yes,” she said. “Can I prove it right away with quantifiable data? No.

“It could be a combination of things, but we certainly believe music has supported it.”

She also said the days of music classes have become the students’ favourite at George Jay. Many are now taking extra instruction outside of class times. Some have even asked their parents for music lessons.

“Who knows, maybe in this group is a potential musician and will be inspired to become great,” said Lee. “Usually you would only find it in families who are more able to afford it, more upwardly mobile.”

Officials at the district level are also committed to seeing music remains a significant aspect of the curriculum, not to turn out musicians, but to make better students.

“[Music education] makes you a better learner,” said Pat Duncan, Victoria School District assistant superintendent.

“There are many, many relationships between knowing music and self-regulation, the ability to stay focused, task-centred,” said Duncan. “It’s very powerful.”

He said the district has developed one of the largest and strongest arrays of music programs in all B.C. It starts in kindergarten, runs through primary school and ramps up in middle and high school.

“We have many students who take part in music and our numbers are very large,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jordan Vermes is preparing to leave for Toronto. He’s busy trying to sell his violin, appraised at $17,000, to raise the $12,000 for a viola.

He switched from violin to viola about three years ago, largely because his instructor told him viola players are more rare than violinists. But he also believes he is better at the viola.

The toughest part of making the switch was telling his parents. Jordan said he felt guilty after they had sacrificed so much for him to learn violin. But his mom was supportive.

Now, when he talks about things like school, learning, focus and his marks or accomplishments, it always relates to learning music.

“Music just brings a new perspective into everything else,” said Jordan.

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