Music in schools - bringing benefits that last

Learn Daniel's story and how his experience of music in schools helped him connect with others.

Daniel Sun had always been quiet and serious, and never spoke much in class, but the school he found himself in the year he turned eight was different. Daniel's family had recently moved from China to Christchurch.

"I couldn't understand what was going on a lot of the time." says Daniel. "When we first came to New Zealand I didn't speak English at all."

Daniel is in his early twenties now, but he remembers one day from that year clearly. He was in his Year Three classroom, and his grandmother had come to bring him lunch. A woman came into the classroom carrying a small electronic music keyboard. She greeted Daniel's teacher, and sat down with one of the other students, who started to play something on the keyboard. Daniel's grandmother nudged him. "Tell her you can play!" She whispered. 


Daniel had taken after-school keyboard classes in Beijing since he was five and a half, but he did not see how he was supposed to tell the music teacher this. His grandmother did not speak English either, but when Daniel stayed quiet, she stepped forward and waved to the teacher. She mimed playing keyboard and then pointed at Daniel. "The teacher asked me to play something for her. Then she said why don't you come and play in our music group? So I did, and I started having music lessons again."

That visiting music teacher was Judith Bell, one of Christchurch's leading music educators.  With decades of teaching experience, Judith is a passionate advocate for the the itinerant music teaching programme - a system which allows teachers like her to visit schools across New Zealand and give children like Daniel free or subsidised specialist music lessons.  

"Itinerant music teachers go from school to school as they're needed," Judith explains. "Usually they're a specialist in one or two instruments, and many of them are professional performance musicians." 

The system is funded by the government, and exactly how it works differs slightly at different age levels. Primary and intermediate schools have what is called the "out of hours" music teaching programme. At high school, the programme is called itinerant music teaching.

"Some people dislike the term, because in other countries the word 'itinerants' can mean wanders or homeless people. But historically in New Zealand, that has been the term we use."

Judith learned the value of government-funded music lessons when she was at school herself. 

"When I was five my parents gave me a Ukelele for Christmas. I still remember unwrapping it. I think I was eight when I started playing guitar, and maybe a bit older when I started piano.  But Mum and Dad could only afford lessons for a few years. I had to stop learning so that my sister could have her turn."

This was when she discovered that her intermediate school offered free lessons. 



"I was not enjoying being at intermediate, I found being a preteen a really horrible, lonely age. But then finding out I could learn a new instrument for free - any instrument, you could pick anything you wanted - that was the defining moment for me, that opened up so many opportunities.

I got into an orchestra, and by the time I got to high school I wanted to be in everything. I remember coming to school early so I could listen to all the different music groups. I took up the tuba just so I could be in the brass band. Music became a profoundly important part of my life."

Her career as a teacher crept up on her. People began asking for lessons, then a teacher asked her to do some relief teaching. After she got married and had her first baby, she started teaching preschool music classes. "Then as my children grew I started helping out in their schools, and I was doing more and more itinerant music teaching. The turning point was when my older son reached intermediate school and started a music group in his class, and he asked me to come and help take it, and the school offered me a permanent job."

She still has that job, as the director of the thriving music programme at Chisnallwood Intermediate. When she started, the school had four regular itinerant music teachers. Today they have sixteen. She has seen music make a vast and lasting difference in the lives of many children. It can be particularly valuable to children new to the country, even ones whose English is not yet fluent. 

"Of all subjects, music gives you the best ways of working without language. I now that for some children communication is a problem in the classroom, but those same children often respond with so much enthusiasm once they're able to play in a group. And if students are able to find what they're really good at, and excel at it, and if they meet other people who love the same thing, it's setting them up for happier and more successful teenage years. It makes for a healthier student and life journey."

That has been Daniel Sun's experience. He enjoyed playing in Judith's music group at his primary school so much that he ended up going to Chisnallwood Intermediate when he got older. His family was still new to the country then, and like many migrants families they had little spare income, and paying for music lessons was not easy. 

But at Chisnallwood, Daniel met Katherine Jones, a piano teacher who offered to teach him free of charge. He went on to study composition and singing at Victoria University in Wellington, and last year he won first prize in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's TODD Corporation Young Composers Awards. Today he is helping his parents run their motel business in Rotorua, and studying German. 

"I want to go over there and do some auditions for a Master's programme next year," he says. That moment in his Year Three classroom when his grandmother mimed playing the keyboard has determined the whole path of his future. "Obviously for me getting to learn music was a very big thing. As big as you can imagine."

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