Brain Development and Music Learning with Anita Collins

About ‘Read the Episode’: Sometimes we would rather skim visually instead of listening to a podcast! That’s a great way to learn too! The transcript to episode 016 of The Crescendo Music Education Podcast is below.


Introduction

Anita Collins is an award-winning educator and writer who is internationally recognised for her work in translating the scientific research of neuroscientists and psychologists in the areas of music learning and brain development to the everyday parent and student. Anita is the author of  The Music Advantage, a book about the benefits of learning music for children from newborns to teenagers.

Anita conducts her education and advocacy work through her brand Bigger Better Brains, which provides face to face and online education to the global music education community about the application of neuromusical research.

Anita may be best known for her role as on-screen expert and campaign lead for the Don’t Stop the Music documentary that aired on ABC in late 2018 as well as her TED Ed lesson How playing an instrument benefits your brain, her and her TEDx Talk What if every child had music education from birth. In 2018, her contribution to the field of music education was recognised with the Educators Award at the inaugural Australian Women in Music awards.

Episode 016 Transcript

Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast, Episode 16.
In this episode I have a chat with Dr. Anita Collins. Now if you’re not really familiar with her work, then it’s really time to check her out, have a bit of a Google. Bigger Better Brains.

She’s an educator, author, researcher, and she works in the area of music education, and brain development. She has some really important things to say to us. So settle back and enjoy this episode with Dr. Anita Collins.


Debbie
Hello and welcome to Dr. Anita Collins for this Crescendo Music Education Podcast. Thank you for having me. So great. Look, I’m going to start. If you do not know Anita Collins everybody, you should and you will after today. This is just your short bio, your long bio is very long and impressive, but we want to get into some interesting chat so we’ll start with the bio.

Dr. Anita Collins is an award winning educator, author, and researcher in music education and brain development. She has interviewed over 100 neuro musical researchers in Canada, USA, Scandinavia, and Europe. She is a TED X speaker, and Ted Ed writer, and author of The Music Advantage. Anita is probably best known for her role as onscreen expert in the ABC successful documentary, Don’t Stop the Music, which all of us in the music education world appreciated greatly. So welcome, again. That little brief bio, would there be anything you’d like to add or elaborate on?

Dr. Anita Collins
There’s so much! I think that the work that I’m currently doing, which is most exciting is with Albert’s and the Tony Foundation, it’s a national advocacy initiative that’s looking at changing music education for every child in Australia and improving it. I think out of all of those different things that I’ve done, this is kind of the combination of making an impact in Australia and changing things for the next generation. It’s the part of my work while I do all these other things, it’s everything coming together in a collaborative way across the country and that is very, very exciting.

But also there’s no template to how you move forward to make it actually work. I’m liking working with people who aren’t music educators, and then going ‘okay, well how do we approach this particular very complex situation and how do we make changes that impact ultimately, always on the children and always on the next generation?’ So that’s where my heart is at the moment. And while I love doing all the things, and they’re very exciting, that’s the one where it’s like, no, I really want to make my mark here.

Brain Development and Music Learning

Debbie
And if you could do that, well, what a legacy. I mean, that would be amazing. I imagine there’s a lot of moving parts, like you’re dealing with governments, you’re dealing with federal, you’re dealing with different state governments, you’re dealing with systems of education, private systems, independent systems, state systems, independent businesses, and providers. And those waters must be really difficult to navigate.

Dr. Anita Collins
Yeah, I love complex things. That shows with the area that I’m interested in, which is neuroscience. It’s not a simple thing but that’s actually what attracts me, it’s really, really complex. I think what I’ve learned through my own music training is that there’s many, many different ways to get to the same place. And so much of the steps that you go through is about responding to what’s just happened, or another thing or an unlikely thing that came up or someone’s just over here so how do you continue to be as flexible as possible, while always keeping the endpoint in mind.

I’m not doing it on my own and that’s the important thing. There’s a lot of people thinking about and who are excited about a complex problem. And hat’s the bit that I find really, really interesting and I want to definitely continue with them. And I don’t stop talking about it and can’t stop thinking about it all the time.

Highlights of Dr. Anita Collins’ Journey

Debbie
Yeah. Or remember there’s a whole lot of people who are ready to help, you know, you just let us know and we will jump in there because we all know it’s so important. So thank you, keep doing what you’re doing. Thanks. So….it seems a little bit glamorous and glitzy some of the things that you’ve done. You know, Ted Talk and you’ve had the Churchill scholarship and those things seems so amazingly wonderful but I imagine there’s a lot of work attached. What would you say would be the highlight or highlights of your journey in this area of music education and neuroscience?

Dr. Anita Collins
Ah, so many! I think I’m still amazed that I’ve been given opportunities. That’s the main thing, just getting an opportunity to go and do something. Yes, you got to put yourself forward for it. Yes, you’ve got to position yourself into a place where we have to have that opportunity, but then getting it and going, right! Two things. How can I make the most out of this? But also, what can I learn? So the TED talk was an interesting one, because I knew far more than many of the other participants, that was probably one other who got it and the rest of them went ‘ah, I’m just doing a talk on stage’, who knew the power of the TED brand, and who understood how influential it was in what what was happening.

So the pressure I placed on myself was enormous. But the thing I wanted to learn was, because I’d been to Ted days, and I’ve watched people get up and talk about how color wasn’t really color, it was actually the micro structures of the atoms that are sitting underneath it that make us see color. And then 20 minutes later, you’re talking to someone who lost her brother to depression, and is now a clinical psychologist working with amazing new ways of looking at drugs and therapy and it’s like, wow and you got to flip your brain back and forth. And that goes on all day, by the end of the day you’re so tired, and yet so wired, which is great.

But what I wanted to know is how the process got a person who was talking about microstructures of color, and then someone talking about mental health, to sound not the same, but to sculpt a very similar emotional message while getting across incredibly difficult concepts that the audience doesn’t have a head around. It’s like I was more interested in how did you get a person from a place of expertise and quite uniqueness up onto that stage and that red dot and then go, Okay, how did they do that? What’s the process in the middle? So I was far more interested in the process in the middle and I didn’t really care about the TED talk, because I’ve learned what I needed to learn.

And I see you have a speaking coach, and I still hear my speaking coach’s voice in my head when I’m not speaking as truthfully to myself. In terms of am I being my true self on this stage? I can hear her go. “Anita, what’s your message? What are you getting back to? What’s important to you? And what do you want these people to know?” And I hear her in my head every single time and she reminds me to come back to that center point, which is me and to speak. So that was really interesting because it now means there are very little things that I get nervous about anymore. I’ve stood on that red dot, and I’ve done the scariest thing I could ever have done.

So everything else is like, eh this is easy in comparison to that. So there’s very few nerves that go on, which is great. But also there’s always coming back to the center, always coming back to whatever truth I want to say. And not being afraid of pleasing someone else. And not being afraid of getting people in the audience to like me. found that that’s a really important thing in everything I do, including teaching. It’s been a really important thing to go, I’m going to push you really hard right now and it’s going to feel uncomfortable. You’re not going to like it but just trust me that I’m going to get you to a place you’ve never knew existed.

And when you say that to a year 8 kid and he goes “yeah, sure, Miss whatever”. I articulate that I know this is about to happen, this is what’s going to happen in your body but trust me, I’m going to take you to somewhere entirely new you never knew existed. And the look on their face when they get there and go, “Oh, I got that note”, or something is exactly the same thing as what I’ve got a music teacher in front of me with 30 years experience and they’re stuck on this thing they can’t do and I say I’m about to do something uncomfortable with you but you’re going to get to a new place that’s going to change your practice for the rest of your life.

And when I get there, it’s the same look, we’re all kids, we’re all kids on the inside and we all need to make that point. I think that process was very important for me to then get to go on the TV and be interviewed and do everything that comes with a documentary, which is so much more than you see on the television, to do radio interviews, I think I did 50 in two weeks or something, you know, to do all these things and just go you know what, I can do this, this is fine.

So that from a professional point of view, an advocacy point of view, was a really formative experience. I think visiting the researchers who are admire so much and just finding out they’re just people and they’re not demigods was really really vital as well but also helps me placing myself in a position of knowing a lot. And being able to share a lot, even with them, was really important too.

So I think every single experience no matter what, whether it’s writing a report and being able to knock something out myself or speaking to a group of kindy year 2 teachers who were so unengaged and so not wanting to be there, you know. It’ll take me through anything that I need to do, because it’s like, no, if I keep learning from everything I do, which is I think what we as teachers are trying to instill in our students as well, that life is a learning journey. And we’re on it, we’re just a little bit further along than you guys are, and come along, and let me show you some new stuff. Then you’ll go and learn from someone else.

So those are just thoughts, things that popped into my head, I think, amazing things. Then the one that was very visceral was being one of the trainers for the Olympic marching band in 2000 which is forever ago now but being in the stadium as one of those I took on 500 Kids, which was amazing, but being there, and hearing 120,000 people yell and clap for you. And there was this, I can still feel it anytime I describe it, which is this vibration in my body. It’s like every single cell and bit of blood and bit of everything was vibrating.

And for someone who understands the sensory experience of music and a sensory experience of social gathering. It was one of those things which forms me as a person to go this is how big, this is how big dreams can get and they’re way bigger than I ever thought they could or should be. Every time I need to dream bigger than I think I should, I go back to that feeling and go, it’s okay.

Brain Development and Music Learning

Debbie
We need to dream big. Yeah. I think all of us need to dream bigger, too. I think, what have you got to lose? You know, the old shoot for the stars, you might get to the moon?

Dr. Anita Collins
Yeah, I think so but I know for me, I have to always acknowledge the fear that’s in the person that’s in front of me, and what’s holding them back and be that person just like a teacher is who goes, ‘I believe in you, even if you don’t’ and then helping them reach that new place. So yeah, dreaming big is good. Except it’s really scary.

Debbie
Yes and the lifelong learner type thing we often say as educators. Yes. Yes. We’re a lifelong learner. But you’ve got to actually live it, haven’t you?

Dr. Anita Collins
Yeah, and that’s hard!

The Most Influential Person in Your Life

Debbie
Yeah, I did one of those online quizzes that talked about your priorities in life and I came up as a lifelong learner was the first one, I thought, well, that might be why I keep jumping into new adventures and going ‘I can do this’. That’s really important. It’s really important. I love it. So people…now I’ve known you for a little while, I’ve heard a few of your talks. We’ve met briefly, but I don’t know a lot about your journey, and your earlier journey in your life. Who would you say have been the most influential people in your life?

Dr. Anita Collins
I think, yeah, a lot of teachers and I didn’t ever see myself being a teacher. There was a really weird way that I came into it, which was saying ‘I’m gonna be a classical performer rank and file orchestra. No problem. That’s my life journey’. And then I got to the third year out of my four year degree and went ‘No, this is absolutely not me’.

Debbie
So what were you playing? What was your main instrument?

Dr. Anita Collins
Clarinet. I was a classically trained clarinet player. I think it was because it was this interesting situation where I was very good. I was very good and got into university and studied with Alan Vivian, all those sorts of, you know, very, very, very amazing people. It was kind of like, well, of course, this is your trajectory, this is where you’re going and to sit down and go, I am so much more interested in so many other things that I can’t dedicate myself to this thing solely told me that it wasn’t the journey for me.

But then you go, I don’t know what else I’m gonna do. Like, where do I go? So I had to finish my degree because I’m stubborn, and got to the end and I said, “good, excellent, we’re done”. And my parents said to me, how about doing a teaching degree which was only a year at that stage and you can just be a teacher until you figure out what to do?

And then I still remember it was third week of university and I was in some god boring lecture and I sat there going…but I literally expected the ceiling to open and ahhhhh, this light come on and this is exactly what you should be doing. You should be a teacher. So it very much feels like a vocation to me not a profession or not even a job, not even close.

I would do this and not get paid but part of that journey was a whole bunch of people that came beforehand who were really either absolutely exceptional teachers or the absolute opposite. The people who I still remember the name of and still model how I teach and treat every student whether they’re a grown up student or a younger student, I still base it on never been like those people who were so influential from a negative point of view in the education space. It should be I have great teachers and nothing else but I often think that when you have a super negative experience, it informs you more about what not to do and the power you have to make someone feel a certain way about their ability, about their learning, about everything.

So I think there’s a couple of teachers, my first grade teacher who was the one who first saw that I had a reading problem, but didn’t call it a reading problem. She just said, ‘you just come in every single day, how about today, and you sit there and you read for me’. She did this even when I was out of her new group. I was getting older and older, and I’d still come in and read to her. I wasn’t reading, I was making it up, I was looking at a book and I was making up what was as exciting as it sounds and she would just let me go. She had a belief, I think, she never articulated to me, but that I would get it, it just was going to take more time than the regular kids.

That’s what it took. I had a wonderful conductor in my first concert band who because in the ICT, we have a system where you have the school concert bands, and then you can audition for a sort of select Concert Band, and it was a conductor in there. I still hear myself saying his phrases all the time. He was funny. He was either American or Canadian, I can’t remember but it was funny. He understood how to hold everyone’s attention but he also understood how to teach musical concepts in a really, really good way. He was fantastic.

Then there were many other teachers, my history teacher in college was amazing, mainly because she went no, think about it more. No, think about it more. No, don’t think the obvious answer, think about it more to the point where you just thought, ‘Oh, my God, I give up’. And then you go, Oh, this is what you meant, isn’t it? She was influential in that respect as well. I think I’m now at the point where everyone I meet is influential. I try as hard as I can to keep that door open. I have something to learn from everybody, no matter how short or long how important or seemingly unimportant the interaction is. I think that they’re the people that every person is important to me now.

And when I find myself disregarding a person, it’s like, no, no, hang on, you’ve got something to learn. So that’s where I sit with it at the moment but yeah, teachers who modeled not only ways of learning but ways of being were very, very influential, and I think they are for every child as they grow.

For What Are You Most Grateful?

Debbie
Absolutely, such a great philosophy. I love that everybody is influential. And it’s true. It is so true. That’s wonderful, which leads us to gratitude, which was sort of touched on, sounds like the same question almost, isn’t it? But if you had to sort of say specifically.

Dr. Anita Collins
I think the one that pops to mind. And I’ve often said this is I’m very grateful for the Churchill fellowship experience, because it’s a wild experience. It really is. Because you put in this plan, and you say what to go and do this thing and this is why I’m the right person to do it and this is why it’s the right time for me to do it. It’s that same simple. Are you the right person? And is this the right time? And is it the right project? But I was amazed with the experience that you go through to get to that point where they decide that you are all of those three things at once.

That this is the beautiful moment in time, where this person who’s already been doing amazing things, and has always been excelling and working really hard, could be thrown right into the stratosphere through being put out of their comfort zone. And to go and do something that they want to do. Like how often are we given permission to go and learn something and experience something just for us? And then the Churchhill trust believes in us enough to go, we know that if we enrich you as an Australian, you’re gonna come back and enrich Australia.

Debbie
That’s amazing.

Dr. Anita Collins
It’s amazing and when I met all the other people, I went, ‘Oh, now I get it’. The things they were doing were extraordinary. And you always sit there going, ‘my thing is not so important’. Which is weird, you always have your moment of dread where you’ve got this plan, and then they say ‘yes’, and you go ‘oh my god, now I have to do this’, because it’s literally a dream list. I use the phrase before but it’s the first experience where I was taught that my dreams were not big enough.

And I needed to dream bigger and take it all the way back to the Churchill trust in Australia has invested in me to dream big, so I’ve got to pay it back. So I have a very strong sense of paying back and that gratitude for what they gave me to start with and everything I do is to thank them for that trust, but also there’s something very special in the water that they go, ‘You’re ready. You’re right’.

And they were right every single time like about 90 or near close to 100 people get one every year. And of all that know, I met all of them in my particular year group, but they’re all exactly the same. They’re all exact. How do they do that? That’s amazing. How do you pick these people, and I’m sure a lot of its criteria, and then a huge amount of its gut, but then they go, you’re the right person at the right time with the right project.

And we believe in you to come back and enrich Australia. And that’s something that’s very rare, and we should absolutely cherish, but also give back for what they gave initially.

Debbie
Yeah, well, we’re very pleased you’re giving back because hopefully in music education, we get to benefit from all of that as well. So yeah, that’s interesting. I’d love to ask about a couple of the other recipients.

Dr. Anita Collins
Now that’s a big story…

Nuggets of Fabulous

Debbie
I know. That sounds like a huge bottle of wine story. So we get on to what I’ve lovingly called nuggets are fabulous. You work with adults now mainly? Or do you still work with kids?

Dr. Anita Collins
No, I still work with kids. It’s a weird thing, I still work with kids through the adult, if that makes sense. So like last week, I visited a whole bunch of schools where I’ve trained the teachers, but now I’m getting to see how it leaves out in the school. And then I go back to the teachers and it enriches what I can do with them. So the connection is not separated. And it needs to always look at the the end recipient, which is the student.

Debbie
Yes. Always, always. So I just figure that you would have a lot of good little ideas of things that help you out when you’re working with adults or kids. So it could be anything little tricks, or tips or concepts or mindsets or resources or anything that you think might be useful to pass on to other music teachers.

Dr. Anita Collins
Oh, my goodness. I’ll just start talking and see what pops out. I think the one I use a lot is always start with the person is. I know that sounds strange. But I think as teachers, often we can go you should be here as opposed to stopping and going, where are you? Where are you with your musical knowledge? Where are you as a learner? Where are you in your greatest fears? Where are you?

So I end up talking and asking a lot of questions and observing a heap and then going ‘right, I think I know where you are. Which means I can then adjust how I teach, what I say, anything I do. Even if it’s silence to go I’ve got nothing to add, you are totally on the right track or ‘okay, this is the one thing I don’t know, how do you say those things. So I spent a lot more time using all of the faculties that I feel music has taught me to pick up all of the different information about someone to figure out where they are.

That’s just not a music teacher. That would be anyone if I met a stockbroker who was talking to me about music education, it’s like, ‘Where are you? Where do you sit? What was your music training? What did you think? Did you love your piano? Did you hate piano? Did you ever?’ Well, I asked all these questions and people just end up chatting to me, which is great, because in the end, what I’m actually doing is gathering information so that I can come in with the next thing they might need to know.

So I think start where someone is rather than expect where someone should be is one of my biggest ones. Don’t talk so much is another one I’ve had to learn.

Debbie
Yeah, that’s a bit of an issue for many teachers.

Dr. Anita Collins
Yeah, yeah. Because we are so good at picking what should come next. Our prediction ability, which again is a musical thing that’s developed, is so good that we can pick the end of someone’s sentence, we can pick what they’re going to say.

And I had a student yell at me once, because I asked a question. And then I left a beat for them to answer and they didn’t answer. And then I started talking, he said, “Miss, shut up. I need thinking time”. Okay, fine. I need to wait three beats or four beats and I just need to watch them and see what happens. So I think I know that is weird, but talking less, and I often recalibrate myself by taking a silent rehearsal.

I go to them and sometimes I make up a story, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ve lost my voice and I need to take a silent rehearsal. Today, we’re just going to have a rehearsal where you follow my gestures, and we figure out what we need to do. Sometimes I say, I can sing it, but I won’t speak. I won’t describe anything and they’re the best rehearsals in the world, because the kids are just watching what you’re gonna do next, what’s happening? What’s she doing with this thing versus this thing? What does she mean? What am I meant to say what happens? And they really, really wide awake, their brains really, really wide awake, because they have to follow nonverbal cues.

And our students today are less apt at following them than I feel like they’ve ever been before. But it also stops me and says, If I only have a song or gesture, what am I trying to say? And that stops me from explaining and helps me to go back to listening. So those are some, I could go on, there’s heaps but yeah, those are two of the things that I keep coming back to and grounding myself to go, stop, this is a learning experience, you know, what can you do?

Brain Development and Music Learning

Debbie
They are great. The ‘start where the person is’ and the silent rehearsal, gee, we could use that because there’s a lot of sore throat days when you’re in the classroom all day every day, you know. It’s a good idea.

Dr. Anita Collins
When people walked into my rehearsal, sometimes they go, what’s going on here? Because I will do crazy things bodily, in order to explain what I want. But someone walks in going, ‘ah, well, hang on a second. Putting something off kilter can sometimes help you find something very new.

Debbie
Yes, yes and get something unique in the music. Yeah, I love it. And you know, I have noticed the whole time you’ve been talking, you will often go back to what music has taught you, you will often say that in everything that you’ve talked about, you talk about what music has taught you.

Dr. Anita Collins
Yeah, there is a concept called Teaching Artistry, which is older now. I really want it to come back but it’s a wonderful concept that when you reach that Zen moment in your teaching, it becomes an art form. And it embodies all of that artistic stuff, where there’s flexibility that’s changed this rubato there’s accelerando, there’s moments of silence versus moments of resonance, you know, all those sorts of things.

And I feel that very much in my body, when I’ve got all my students, adults or children, in the palm of my hand, it’s a musical moment in my head, like I hear it. But I also feel it all the way through my body, which is a really strange thing, because they’re concepts that I would never have felt confident 10 years ago to express out loud, because people go, ‘you’re crazy’.

I can now articulate, I now understand what music learning has done to my brain and my body to help me be aware of those moments and to catch them because they’re a millisecond long, but to catch them when they happen and go enjoy this for this millisecond, it’s gone, right? And we’re going on so but it’s that moment. And I feel like the embodiment of the artistry makes me a better teacher. So I feel more in flow more of the time, which is a nice place to be.

Debbie
Absolutely. That’s the nice place to be. There are probably many of us who feel something like that, but not able to put it into words. When you just know, this is just right or it’s just good. Yeah, but we’re not able to put it quite in the same words that you are. I’m going to look up Teaching Artistry right now when we are finished but it also reinforces why every child needs music education.

Dr. Anita Collins
They can be reconnected with this sensory perceptual processing. We are sensory beings and our education, the way we teach a lot of the time forgets that fact. We think we’re these walking bubbly little brains with a body attached, and that we’re only educating the brain but we actually need to educate through the senses to the brain. So a certain music always does that.

So I feel like it strengthens a connection but allows for, again, not to let those things fly by but to catch them in the moment when they’re there. Know what they are. Don’t need to name them, don’t need to describe them just know that that’s that thing. And often are rewarding network will go, I want to do that, again. No matter where you do it. You could be skiing, you could be writing an essay, you could be doing anything. You’re trying to find that moment again.

Debbie
Love it. So before we go on, I meant to ask you earlier, tell us just a little bit about Bigger Better Brains.

Dr. Anita Collins
My baby, my brain child.

Debbie
Well, I’ve booked in to do it and then we got flooded out. Then I couldn’t do the rescheduled one because I was doing the whole conference in Adelaide. So I will confess I’m sorry, I haven’t done the BBB course yet. So tell us a little about Bigger Better Brains. And obviously, we’ll put links in the show notes so people can get in and have a look but in your own words, give us a little summary.

Educating and Advocating for Brain Development and Music Learning

Dr. Anita Collins
So Bigger Better Brains is my vehicle, my work, to take the research about neuroscience, what’s happening in the brain, helping every you know all of those things, and being able to put it in such a way that music teachers and many, many other educators, policymakers, politicians, school leaders, parents, can start to see for themselves the connection between how music improves brain development, because it’s not a clear connection for most people.

Here’s a person learning music, what on earth does that have to do with the brain? They see the thing on the outside and they go, ‘Oh, it’s learning that skill’. And we don’t always associate how much it’s changing the brain and that’s the thing. It’s changing so much and it’s changing it positively and permanently.

So my work is to help music teachers understand that research to start with. Secondly is to provide things you can use in your own context to actually explain it to other people so giving that confidence and authenticity to here’s the research, yes, Bigger Better Brains has prepared it but here I’m speaking to it because I’m the authority in the space.

There’s no use for us, you know, going into your school wherever it might be, and saying music’s good for these reasons, because we’ll leave and it will fall flat. But if a music teacher or any teacher, year 4 teacher, geography teacher is talking about it consistently about what they’re excited about learning about it, in the staff room, or at assembly when you’re standing up the back waiting for something.

All those incidental places, they’re the times where you can start sharing A. what you’re learning and excited about but B. what it might mean for the students. And you’ll come to a course, I’m absolutely positive.

No more floods in Queensland. The course is one way of doing it, it’s a very powerful personal experience and I love taking them and I’m totally exhausted by the end of each one but it’s like that was so worth it. We produce all these other things. So things you know you can present in school with, it’s something we’ve prepared for you. So you feel really confident. We’re just about to release all of our new things for students so as to start getting students talking about what’s happening in their brain so that teachers can talk about it as well.

And hopefully, so students can go home and say, Hey, Mom, Dad, this is what my brain did today. And we can start that conversation at home. So in its simplest form, it’s a way of getting the research, which is living in academic land, down to the educators who actually need it, and finding out anyway, that we can do that.

Debbie
Yeah, so needed. So needed. Wonderful. Thank you. And you’ve actually also answered a little about the other thing I want to talk about, which was all about advocacy. We just seem to be having to fight harder and harder for the existence of music education.

And I certainly am not pretending I know anywhere near the amount of research that you do. But just the bits that I’ve read, it seems overwhelmingly that music has been proven to be so beneficial in so many ways. I don’t see how anybody could justify cutting it. I don’t get it.

Dr. Anita Collins
That’s what fascinates me, though, with being presented all of these very compelling research, why do music programs continue to shrink? contract? You know, everything gets moved into the afternoon, because we can’t take up core learning time, you know, they can’t learn an instrument for more than six months, because we need to give it to someone else. Like, that’s what fascinates me, why is that we have this and yet, this is the reaction?

Debbie
Yes, and what’s the answer to that Anita?

Dr. Anita Collins
The answer is, just sitting in between all of those are a whole bunch of very, very deeply held, not even articulable things. There’s a whole bunch of things in the middle that are meaning presented with strong evidence, they still cannot put that into action. So my area of interest is what’s sitting in the middle and so it’s not dissimilar, I’d say, to fake news and Trump. There’s a bit in the middle, you present all this information about, you know, how, you know, recordings and all sorts things about how it behaves, but that the gap in the middle is if more people vote for him. So what happened?

So for me music education, there’s a whole bunch of very deep beliefs about who should learn it and why they should learn it. So the two ones I use are kids who are talented and kids who are interested. So the problems with that are, talent for what? This means we should only learn music if we’re going to be a concert pianist. That’s the direct connection. When you start talking to people they go, ‘Well, that’s the only reason you would learn music’. And it’s like, I’ve got you, you don’t understand all this other stuff so let me help educate you about this other stuff.

The interest part should be we shouldn’t make a kid do anything that they don’t like doing? Which is weird, because it’s like, well they don’t like math, so, why do we make them do math? So where’s the value judgment that sits there about music education? That comes from the other myth of who should do it? So those are interconnected for me.

The next thing is about should it be called learning or not, or who should pay is the way I often put it, because so many parents pay for it outside of school. And while it is in the Australian curriculum, the variety of what a kid gets from, you know, a school two kilometers apart is enormous. And that’s because of value judgment, about where it sits for every child versus where it sits for the talented and interested and those who can pay child.

So I think those are all connected together. I also think we as music educators, and we do ourselves a disservice because we have dedicated our lives to music education. We love it. We get it. We experience it all the time. We forget that the people that we are working with both the teachers and the parents, more than likely, have no point of reference. They haven’t learned it themselves. They haven’t had a meaningful music education in their schools and haven’t had music within their families and understanding of it.

Brain Development and Music Learning

Debbie
In some cases some of them have had really negative experiences with no point of reference, and those with a negative point of reference. That’s what I find difficult even in my own school situation, when I’m, of course, being quite out there about the amazing things we do. And there are some teachers that will even say to me, ‘Yes, that’s good and it works here. You weren’t at my last school?”

Dr. Anita Collins
Yeah, exactly. There’s all these things sitting in between. Here’s the research and here’s the opportunity, those are the things we need to and from my past talk that while the word we use is advocacy, the actual thing we need to do is educate. We need to educate all those around the student to understand what it is the students actually receiving. Because the other thing we do is we present performances.

And we’ve got to remember if it’s a parent, for example, or if it’s an assembly performance and it’s the year 4 teacher, for example, as well. All they see is the shiny version of what we present. They go, that was a great performer and we do that we go, it can’t fall over, it can’t fall down, don’t come and listen yet, we’re not quite ready. As opposed to, that rehearsal time is actually where the brain development happens. The performance is important, but it’s not the be all and end all.

But we have to remember what do we show the school community and the parent community on what music education is, and all we do is show the shiny thing at the end. And I think when it comes to educating and advocating, we need to show all of the process, and we need to be able to have the words to articulate what’s happening in each part of the process, and where else they will use it in the future.

So we have to help them have a line between my child is practicing trumpet at home in my lounge room, it’s very loud, I don’t like it, through to that child’s mathematical understanding is going to be better because music learning is improving their abstract thinking which they’re then going to use in their math learning. We need to draw that line for them and we need to draw that line for the many, many, many times before it sticks.

We can’t just say things one, we have to draw it in many different colors in many different ways. And then there’ll be this moment, and I’ve seen it, it’s when the penny drops, and they go, ‘Ah, this is what I saw when a teacher comes to me and says this student couldn’t get through a math quiz, couldn’t get through the first two questions before we throw the pencil and through the paper and got up and ran outside and today he got through it’.

And yes, he’s been doing violin and that’s what the violins taught him, how to deal with frustration, how to deal with not being able to do something but trying again, so we have to draw the lines for them. And we have to do it over a sustained period of time. The thing that gets me if we all did this at once.

Can you imagine how we would change the school and the parent community, if suddenly we raised up that understanding consistently. And they started to connect on to it. Because there’s so many music educators around Australia, if we all did it in our own way in our own space, but we all had similar kind of thinking about it.

We could change it very, very quickly. So that’s the bit that excites me about helping teachers find their voice, and then find ways to use the research that work for them.

Debbie
I love that. Oh, I will happily be part of that.

Dr. Anita Collins
I’ll see you at the course. You’ll learn how to do it.

Debbie
Definitely. Definitely. I think we are all much more powerful than we think we are.

Dr. Anita Collins
Yes, I agree. If we all pull in a similar direction, we’d be pulling the world.

Get on Your Soapbox: Brain Development and Music Learning

Debbie
Yes. We should sort of finish with that analogy. We all pull in a similar direction. Because sometimes I think we’re too quiet for our own good, which seems silly coming from me. We just nod and say yes, and work our little butts off and do what we have to do. Because when the job is big, you know, the job is exhausting. And yeah, we’re working hard to put that shiny performance on. I’m sure there’s a lot more that we could do to draw those lines, like you said, in many different colors, in many different ways, interesting patterns. Love it, pulling the same direction. I love it. It’s been a fabulous chat Anita, I have loved this. But before we go, you get to get on your soapbox.

Dr. Anita Collins
I think part of joining the conversation and again thinking about it in your own way and that’s what Bigger Better Brains is there for. It’s incredibly experimental because this is something that hasn’t been done before. But it gets informed by the community. And we take on all the ideas and go ha, right? How can we, how can we make this for other people use? Or how can we make it dynamic and exciting? Where the students stuff came from? It’s like, how can we get the students involved? Right? You know, let’s, let’s produce all these things for the students. So the teachers actually, and in the end, what we’re trying to do is make that huge job just that little bit easier, just a little bit. And that’s what we’re trying to do. But I know, as a music teacher, that shift won’t just be a little bit, it’ll be enormous, because it will continue to engage music teachers in their very important work, but it will also help to change the fabric of Australia. And I’d still believe what I said in my TED Talk, which is answering that question, ‘What if every child had music, education from birth?’ How would our country be different and better, and all of my work with Bigger Better Brains is around trying to enact that to happen while meeting every single music teacher where they are and starting with, wherever they start, we’ll start with you. And we’ll help you along the way. So that’s my soapbox for wanting to help the profession to be better. And then my other soapbox is how we do it, which is educate to advocate.

Brain Development and Music Learning

Debbie
Educate to advocate. I love it. I love it. And if people want to connect with you, the best place would be?

Dr. Anita Collins
You can contact me at biggerbetterbrains.com. I’m on the web everywhere so there’s lots of different ways. But yeah, come have a look at Bigger Better Brains. See how we can help. There’s lots of free stuff. There’s lots of paid stuff. There’s lots of materials and products and everything else. COVID, while it’s been difficult for us has meant that all we’ve done is made made made and there’s so much there now for everybody to use and to use at the time when you’re ready. The most important thing is when you’re ready, when the time comes, we’ve got something for you.

Debbie
Fabulous. Thank you so much, Anita. It’s been a joy having a chat with you and all the best. We are with you the whole way. Bye bye.


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This podcast was brought to you by Crescendo Music Education. Connecting, supporting and inspiring music educators. In the show notes, you’ll find links to Crescendos social media platforms. Please connect with me and be part of the Crescendo Community. You might consider becoming a Crescendo member. For a low annual fee you can access hundreds of files, worksheets, printables, workbooks, repeat workshops, webinars, and receive great discounts on events. Come and connect with me, Debbie. Okay, see you in the socials.


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