Children and youngsters can greatly benefit from making music together in a band, musical ensemble or orchestra. Among the individual benefits that collective music-making provides are: confidence, development of a sense of aesthetics, teamwork, problem-solving skills and deep focus, discipline, striving for excellence, leadership, determination, self-worth, perseverance, cooperation and coexistence, competitive spirit, and academic success.
This article was inspired by The Venezuelan System of Children and Youth Orchestras, better known as “El Sistema”. This system of youth orchestras has helped thousands of children through collective music-making practice.
Individual Benefits of Collective Music-making.
Based on my five years of participatory observations as a member of a Youth Orchestra and my years of studying orchestral practice and teaching music to children and adults, I can state that collective music-making provides multiple benefits, which begin at the individual level and are disseminated to families and communities.
The individual level includes the spiritual, moral, intellectual, and affective development of youngsters involved in collective musical practice, which helps them to develop their full potential. Among the individual benefits that collective music-making provides are: confidence, development of a sense of aesthetics, teamwork, problem-solving skills and deep focus, discipline, striving for excellence, leadership, determination, self-worth, perseverance, cooperation and coexistence, competitive spirit, and academic success.
Children and teenagers gain self-confidence through the making of music. They feel that they are important members of a group, the orchestra. Teachers and conductors pay great attention to them, making them feel that they are creating something important and beautiful by working together. They confront musical challenges, work toward hard-to-achieve goals, and exhibit their newly gained confidence during their performances.
The young musicians also develop a sense of aesthetic beauty through sensual experiences starting in their early years. They listen to and play exquisite music, they touch and feel beautiful instruments, they practice and play surrounded by the wonderful architecture of world-class theaters and concert halls, and they even develop their own aesthetic through the act of dressing to perform.
Music empowers. First, one looks for excellence in the music played, and then one looks for excellence in everything else. That is the magic of the arts. The arts transform individuals’ sense of beauty; then, after they have seen the intrinsic value of the arts, they are not satisfied with anything less.
The orchestral structure provides an excellent ground within which to learn to work as a team player. The orchestra is an example of how to live properly in a democratic society. In the orchestra, everybody has a specific function and collaborates with everyone else to achieve a common goal. The young musicians learn that to make good music, they have to listen to each other and work as a team.
The orchestra or musical ensemble is the ideal micro-democratic society. Through the orchestral practice, children and youth learn that the contribution of each member is directly related to the general orchestral outcome. In the orchestra, they need to listen to each other and work as a well-tuned instrument. In this way, the orchestra is comparable to a piano, with every member equivalent to a key and where every key is fundamental to the successful functioning of the whole instrument.
Problem-Solving Skills and Deep Focus
The making of music is an excellent way of learning problem-solving skills and achieving deep focus. Children learn how to approach new situations, by learning new pieces of music. Musicians learn to see the big picture, the small components, and the possible obstacles, and to think about how to deal with the music technically and stylistically. They learn to apply problem-solving skills, which they can later apply to solving any kind of problem because they have learned how to think. They have also learned how to concentrate because they have to focus for long periods during rehearsals and practices. This capacity to focus deeply and concentrate also helps them in doing other, non-musical activities.
The young members of the orchestra need to follow disciplinary rules, as in any other professional orchestra. They learn to listen to the conductor’s instructions, and they learn to conduct themselves as professionals in concert halls, in hotels, and on airplanes during tours. They learn etiquette and protocol for a variety of situations. They learn time management, punctuality and how to follow schedules. In general, they are exposed to situations that demand that they control their individual impulses in order to achieve a common group goal.
Striving for Excellence
Part of the experience of playing in a musical ensemble involves close contact with professional musicians and instructors. These contacts inspire the children to strive for excellence. They can also go to concerts to see professional musicians playing and they often choose role-models or idols, whose careers they follow and whom they admire. Nobody aspires to be mediocre; the young musicians learn that they can excel if they work hard, as others have done before them. They learn to be self-motivated and pursue excellence for its own rewards.
The most advanced young musicians are given the leadership roles within the orchestra. They occupy the section leader posts in the orchestra and learn to be responsible for their sections. They have to establish common techniques and styles for specific situations. They model the leadership qualities and techniques of the more experienced musicians and adult leaders. They learn to provide encouragement, positive criticism, praise, advice, and to lead by example.
Children who participate in an orchestra or musical ensemble learn individual responsibility, set high standards for themselves, and develop work ethic. Through hours of rehearsals, weeks of touring and seminars, and countless performances, young musicians discover the connection between hard work and success. This knowledge and experiences can be applied to any career choice they make in life.
From the moment they are accepted into the musical ensemble, the young musicians become part of the orchestra family. They feel important, valuable, and secure in their surroundings. They are not fearful of failure because failure does not threaten their sense of competence and self-worth. They also begin to experience a connection to the larger society. In this way, many children from the lower social classes have the opportunity to feel that they are respectable citizens who have achieved a place of importance in society and because of this they are less likely to be lost to drugs and other social vices. Thus, inclusion and acceptance create a strong sense of self-worth, which motivates them to succeed. They identify themselves as professional musicians and conduct themselves accordingly. According to Woolfork (2004), when students are fully participating, motivation comes from identity and identity comes from legitimate participation. A positive cycle is created.
It is very understandable that any child who deeply learns from experience that practice creates the skills needed to excel will strive to achieve the level of performance that is expected from her or him. This happens in music as in any other activity that requires practice to succeed. Through endless practice they see themselves getting better.
Young musicians learn early that excellence is not achieved without serious effort and practice. Hence, they become mastery-oriented students who focus on mastering goals in order to increase their skills and abilities.
Cooperation and Coexistence
Young musicians from different socio-economic backgrounds, of various ages, and with a wide range of capabilities, learn tolerance, flexibility, and cooperative coexistence through the different situations in which they are involved during their time in the orchestra. There is not a culture of blame; rather individuals strive for their personal best, competing with themselves as with others. They learn, practice, and travel together, and often establish long-lasting friendships with their orchestral or choir peers.
The nature of orchestral practice requires the cooperation of all performers. This condition establishes the relationships needed among the individuals, musicians, the orchestra sections, and the orchestra as a whole. In addition, there are relations between the soloist and the orchestra, and the orchestra and the conductor. All these cooperative experiences provide awareness of the different roles that musicians play in the orchestra, and ultimately condition their behavior in other social situations.
Competition is part of human nature. Ultimately, the young musicians will have to compete for top jobs and money, but the orchestra provides the special time and place in which they can learn to compete without negative consequences. In the arts, music is one of the few subject areas where individuals needs are subjugated to the collective. Musical elements such as rhythm and, more specifically, harmony, impose physical requirements on individuals. There can not be multiple perceptions of rhythm, style, or harmony in an orchestra. Individuals express themselves and convey a musical message, but within the parameters of a collective understanding of the musical elements of a particular piece.
Healthy competition is similar to playing a game, and can make practice and learning more fun. A spirit of competition is present in collective musical practice, as in any other activity in which excellence is rewarded. The youth orchestra provides an opportunity in which individuals compete while simultaneously cooperating (i.e. healthy competition). Motivated by this spirit of healthy competition, musicians who are part of the orchestra feel free to make mistakes and challenge themselves, thereby testing their limits within a safe environment.
The young musicians’ attitudes minimize the traditional problems of performance anxiety. It has been proved that those who have started from an early age performing with strong emotional encouragement from their parents [instructors and/or peers] tend to suffer less from the stage frightening phenomenon.
(Frederiksen and Lavatelli cited in Goode, p.42). The children who participate in the Orchestra see performance as an approved and encouraged activity, which is also fun, and so they progress in their artistic careers with a confident attitude. As young musicians they focus on the music in a childlike manner, with total trust, sincerity and lack of worry.
A positive connection between regular school studies and orchestra practice as experienced in The Venezuelan System of Orchestras (El Sistema) has been established. The System demands from youngsters an optimum academic performance in school in order to get into its music studies. Children find themselves obligated to appropriately plan their activities to maximize their available time in order to succeed academically and musically. Youngsters who are part of the System show significant improvement in their capacities for attention, concentration, and assimilation of mathematics. They are permanently encouraged by their friends and teachers to continue with their studies.
The benefits of music have often been studied, and multiple studies have shown that the study of music is not only beneficial in itself, but it also aids math, reading and science learning, as Halpern (1985, 1999) asserts (cited by Jensen 2000). Music is “an effective vehicle for conscious and subconscious transmission of information” (p. 247).
To Jensen (2000), some of the learning benefits attributed to music are: relaxation and stress reduction; fostering of creativity through brain-wave activation; stimulation of imagination and thinking; and the stimulation of motor skills, speaking, and vocabulary. In addition, music study serves to focus and align group energy, and thereby reduce discipline problems.