The power of music

Research on arts programs for disadvantaged kids shows music, when taught the right way in the right environment, can be truly transformative.

Victoria University psychology academic Angela Utomo was part of a research team exploring the experiences of refugee-background students as well as teachers and artists involved in The Song Room program, which introduces music and creative arts to disadvantaged children in selected schools.

The Song Room runs about 250 free programs annually across Australia, including in-school and school holiday workshops, performance programs and training to help sustain programs into the future. The national not-for-profit program has already reached more than 150,000 socio-economically disadvantaged, special needs or recently arrived migrant and refugee children.

Ms Utomo's research, which she presented at the recent 'Place & Displacement' conference, focused on what it was about The Song Room experience that engaged children so effectively.

"Teachers said many of the students were hard to engage in classes but as soon as The Song Room music program came they reacted to the hands-on, experiential learning and immediately engaged," she said.

She found the musical experience - for many kids their first - as well as the non-disciplinary style of instruction and the welcoming environment made children feel comfortable.

"The children seemed to experience it as a place of safety and beauty: places which are important for all of us to have," she said. "Above all else it was a very social place for them - from the way activities were organised to the way seats were arranged - so that kids from refugee and non-refugee backgrounds mixed and spoke much more than they usually did in school or other settings."

She said while the program was not designed exclusively for children from refugee backgrounds the focus on building musical ability, regardless of academic or English proficiency, and the interaction between all involved had been therapeutic, without singling them out as being deficient or in need of therapy.

"What comes through in this research is the restorative quality of music and arts programs like this if the right environment and tone is created," she said.

Ms Utomo's work was part of a larger research project in 2010 with The Song Room that led to the 'New Moves' report by Victoria University's Associate Professor Michele Grossman and Associate Professor Christopher Sonn.

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