Why kids need classical music for emotional growth and wellbeing

When I founded The Voices Foundation in 1992, community and schools singing was in a dire state. Community singing was in sharp decline and singing in schools was woefully patchy and badly taught. I had recently returned from my Winston Churchill Fellowship travels to Eastern Europe, mid-west America and Canada, observing singing cultures around the world (I had lived in Asia and Central America) and studying systems of voice-based music education. My ‘thunderbolt’ moment was in Hungary, where music education, at that time, was viewed as an indispensable part of a child’s holistic development.
Five things were striking about the Hungarians’ approach:

  1. Systematic music pedagogy was ingrained at every level of schooling (ages 0 to 14) and teacher-training.
  2. It was evenly applied across all schools with a clear methodology and consistent quality.
  3. Music was understood to be of fundamental importance in education, from birth to puberty, as an indispensable part of a child’s overall development.
  4. There was no sigma that music belongs in the domain of the ‘talented.’
  5. Singing is the ideal medium through which musicianship skills can be acquired in all children, if there is rigorous methodology and teacher training.

So, since the early 1990’s we have worked hard to bring serious, class-based musicianship training to all children in Primary schools, through the singing voice, by enskilling the Primary teachers. And we’ve worked at normalising community singing for the ‘uninitiated’. There are now more registered choirs in the UK than there are fish and chip shops!

I’ve always been interested in child psychology and the role of music in improving the lives of all people, particularly the vulnerable, though music. As I work in this area over the decades, I learn more and more about why the ‘right’ music training and music-making is the source of a more ‘balanced’ and healthy individual.

It is important to put the value of ‘music’ in three categories: ‘making‘ music; music ‘education‘ for all (classroom) and listening to ‘great’ music.

Each of these categories are immensely complex and I have developed theories in all three. Of course I can only scratch the surface during my life time, but we have a great deal of powerful anecdotal evidence and some supportive ‘science’.

Much has been said about the health benefits (physical, societal and emotional) of singing: endorphin-release; posture & breathing; working in community toward a shared goal; a safe forum for the musically ‘uninitiated’; racial integration; cultural identity. The Press caught onto this in the early ’90s (I was invited to write an extensive piece in the Telegraph about the ‘health benefits of singing’) and since, there has been a tidal wave of resurgence of singing through all sectors (witness Gareth Malone; Last a Choir Standing etc.). Singing, thanks to the Government’s £40 million for singing in Primary Schools (surely unprecedented internationally) is now pretty much ubiquitous in our Primary schools again. I have also founded The London Youth Choir: five choirs from age 8 to 21, representing all 32 London Boroughs and multi communities. This was motivated by the need to bring disparate communities together.

But we have a long way to go to persuade the Establishment that music is not a recreational frill, but fundamental to the health, wellbeing, balance and tolerance of our young people.

Instrumental learning is also essential. Again, there is much evidence of the benefits of intensive training to a high level at a young age, of learning an instrument. The utilitarian value of music education is also much-touted (the obvious benefits are to mathematical and linguistic development), but the true value of music is its intrinsic value. I believe we have multi intelligences, of which music is one. We must develop musical intelligence as we develop the others or we risk imbalance as human beings.

There have been some useful advancements in neuro science to support our claims. But there is a tendency to bandwagon on poor science, so the over-reliance of these studies can be a problem. But we do know that singing if a left-brain activity, whereas speech is right-brained. Also that the left brain hemisphere grows faster than the right up to the age of 7 (huge implications for early-years pedagogy). The former could account for why stroke victims can be re-educated to speech via singing and why stammerers don’t stammer when they are singing.

This brings me to listening to music.

I founded Vocal Futures six years ago to investigate the value of 16 to 22s attending live (high quality) Classical concerts and to find out why this demographic has fallen as a percentage of concert attendees dramatically in the last 30 years. Please take a look at our site for more details of this research:

My real motivation for this area of research is this: the cultural diet of most 16s to 22s is dire; to experience the greatest artistic achievements of mankind in live performance can help young people (who are just old enough) to form their ideas about how they relate, independent of consensus, to the world; to develop their ‘complete’ personality. There is no greater challenge to our minds and souls than great Art. And aesthetic awareness humanises us. The value of learning to listen, in all its dimensions, is very great. It is vital to ‘dumb up’ for children, not to dumb down.

In this vein, I have committed, in this new Golden Age of choral music, to commission 100 great composers to write 100 ‘reflections’ in 100 Renaissance choral masterpieces with my new, professional ensemble, ORA. In this way, we hope to create a canon for the twenty first century that nourishes forthcoming generations.

So, to conclude, keeping great ‘classical’* music alive, feeding it and renewing it; giving our young a good music education from birth; engaging in the rigour of instrumental learning; making music at all ages are all inextricably and indispensably valuable to the health of future generations in our increasingly confusing and unbalancing world.

*all ‘good quality’ music in all genres (pop, jazz, folk, world) has a place in education and in our lives. The point is to develop the discernment and allow access to the greatest ‘aesthetic’ achievements of mankind

ORA’s debut album Upheld by Stillness, Renaissance Gems and their Reflections is available now. Download now – iTunes | Amazon

Suzi Digby

Susan Digby (Lady Eatwell) OBE, or Suzi as she is known to her friends, is a conductor, choir master and music educator. She regularly gives lectures and presentations on all aspects of the choral world, adjudicates choir competitions and gives workshops and team building sessions internationally.

She was a judge on the highly successful BBC TV series Last Choir Standing - a competition for Britain's favourite choir, which attracted 10 million UK fans and many more world wide and she has judged The Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, the BBC Choir of the Year and BBC Chorister of the Year competitions, as well as contributing regularly on BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM.
Suzi Digby
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