Adrian Anantawan
Adrian Anantawan
Dudamel Orchestra
Resident Artist (Violin) and Conductor
Bernstein Orchestra

Music Lessons’ Real Impact: In Practice

Adrian Anantawan and Kathleen Jara
El Sistema at Conservatory Lab Charter School, Boston

By Cris Skokna, Contributing Writer

Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema is a music education program that helps Venezuela’s underserved populations. About 400,000 children participate in the program through hundreds of youth orchestras and dozens of choruses. In recent years, El Sistema has made inroads into the United States, particularly Boston’s Conservatory Lab Charter School. Since September 2010, the elementary school has used El Sistema as its overarching model.

Adrian Anantawan and Kathleen Jara, both leaders, conductors, and instructors at the school’s El Sistema program, say they believe strongly that music education transfers important and necessary facets of learning to its children, making them not just good students but also great musicians and future leaders.

A concept with a long history, transfer of learning, occurs when we use what we learn in one context (for example, chess strategies) in other contexts (for example, math or business). Transfer can be both positive (when learning improves performance elsewhere) and negative (when it does the opposite). In a recent interview, LearnNow talked to Adrian and Kathleen to find out how transfer happens—and why they believe the arts are a core part of education. For another perspective on transfer of learning in music, read this article [link] by Glenn Schellenberg.

Q: Should all children study the arts and music as part of a basic education? If so, why?

Adrian: Of course, you’re preaching to the choir. The foundation on which imagination and creativity happen is the arts. The arts are the safest space to provide that necessary education.

As far as music goes, at its very core, you get back what you put into it. And that’s a very important lesson to learn. It teaches students how to problem-solve. If something doesn’t feel right, doesn’t sound right, then it isn’t right, and this is a problem to be solved. Music teaches problem solving more than anything else you’ll do in school. And especially in orchestral and other group settings, these problems aren’t solved on a piece of paper but by the entire group.

Kathleen: Right now we are asking kids to grow up in a culture where they have to be creative just to survive. And not just creativity in the sitting alone sense, but having to be creative in groups, in meetings. And being creative in a group is such a difficult thing.

To succeed today, you have to have the tools to be creative—constructively. And there’s no better way to learn all this than playing music in a group. It’s a pleasurable thing, and an important thing, to be able to work together and make something beautiful without getting lost in “creativity.”

Adrian: What’s the utility behind creativity? That’s what we’re trying to instill in our students.

Kathleen: Music education gives you goals that are achievable. In music, it’s so clear and easy to see when you’re there and when you’re not, when it sounds right and when it sounds wrong. And it’s much more difficult and discouraging to try and be creative in a group if you’ve never had such training.

Adrian: On the other hand, good teachers will always encourage kids to think artistically, creatively, whether they’re teaching music and art or not. It’s more important to have good teachers than arts education if your arts education is 40 minutes a week with an art cart and the teacher saying, “Let’s have fun!”

Q: What are some good examples of transfer of learning from music, and how can we explain this transfer? That is, what mechanisms would such transfer be based on?

Kathleen: We see it more as a group thing than an individual thing. You see a lot more healthy confidence, not arrogant confidence, in students as the year goes on and as they pass through grades. Playing in an orchestra or a band gets rid of nervousness like nothing else. First, they’re not afraid anymore to play in a group. Then, they’re not afraid to do something alone. That’s completely transferable to the classroom.

Students also greatly improve their ability to work in a group, even if they’ve never worked together before. For example, you can take five violin players who have never played together. Take them and create a chamber group, and they can do that. Now, take five students from five different classes and have them work on a science project. They can do that. And they learned it from music.

Adrian: It’s a difficult question to answer because transfer of education is so broad. However, it’s safe to say that music education helps students make creative leaps throughout their schooling. They learn how collaborations work, how individuals work in an organization.

Personally, one of the biggest things music helps you with is sensitizing yourself to your environment. And this is not transfer of learning to school but transfer to life. For instance, I run, and thanks to performing music, I’m very aware of what my body looks like in any given position. I can make adjustments on the fly, make movements in the most efficient way possible.

Q: Have you seen any negative transfer of learning due to music education?

Adrian: When you fail to teach arts in the right way, there can be negative transfer. “Do what I say, or else!” You can create students who follow instructions very, very well but who can’t create or lead. You can also be too nice.

I struggle trying to understand the difference in the authority of being a teacher and being a conductor. When I act like a teacher while conducting, I’m too nice. When I act like a conductor while teaching, I’m too harsh. If I do too much of that, that can produce negative results.

Q: Can you share any specific examples of transfer of learning you’ve seen?

Adrian: I was in an advanced math class one time, seeing the students trying to solve a problem. They worked together, speaking up one at a time, rather than talking all at once. It was very elegant how they solved it. It was a practice very much grounded in orchestra. I don’t see that kind of group problem solving as much at other schools.

As a teacher, you get a feeling for parallels between what students learn in one place and how they use that elsewhere. And I see that all the time here. They understand each other through silence—listening to each other and opening themselves up to others’ opinions—by constructing a truth that is agreed upon rather than just “me.”

Kathleen: We have an older student, very mature very sweet, but he has trouble reading and writing—this is an ESL student. He always struggled grades-wise.

In this past year, he became concertmaster of one of the school’s orchestras. His confidence shot up, and his reading levels are shooting up as well. You can’t force knowledge like that on someone.

I think that his music training produced confidence that helped him in his reading. And now, all of a sudden, he’s reading music and writing!

This past week, Adrian has him doing score analysis—not easy—and he’s coming in early every morning to work on it. Which is amazing!

Learn More

Laura Lewis Brown, “The Benefits of Music Education,” PBS

Valerie Strauss and Daniel Willingham, “Music Education Helps Kids Learn to Read – Study,” The Answer Sheet of The Washington Post

Perri Klauss, “Early Music Lessons Have Lifetime Benefits,” The New York Times – Well