The power of the performing arts to reach out to us in an intangible way and move us, is well documented. What Joseph Campbell called “The divinely superfluous beauty”, is perhaps the reason why musical instruments or ancient cave paintings have been a part of the human experience from the very beginning. I like to call this power “The Spark”.
For some, this spark may have been ignited during a concert of your favorite band or orchestra, watching a good movie, during a dance performance or all the above. One of my earliest memories of ‘the spark’ was to listen to my great grandfather’s piano, he was a composer and an orchestra conductor who performed for our family every time we visited. His music astonished me and impacted my path to becoming a life learner of music and the arts.
This aesthetic experience is non-exclusive to professional and amateur performers, it has been studied by researchers for a long time. However, it wasn’t until recently that researchers started to focus their attention to the neurophysiological effects that performing arts might have on the brain of a learner; What other areas of the brain might be affected as a result? What other extra-artistic skills might benefit from a systematic practice of Music, Dance or Drama? In other words, transfer of learning.
Performing Arts and Transfer of Learning
Music has long been a favorite area of research for cognitive neuroscientist dedicated to understanding the transfer effect. A prototypical example could be how an untrained skill such as speech perception is enhanced by a systematic practice of music. In recent years, studies along the transfer effect induced by musical training had been mainly focused on its effect on executive function and the way we regulate our emotions and actions.
Evidence suggests that at a neurophysiological level, musical training changes the shape of our brain to improve the way we hear, our motor skills, our goal-oriented behavior, our ability to detect errors and our working memory.
If you wish to learn more about how music affects executive functions, follow Dr. Patricia Kuhl an expert who has dedicated her life to study the physiological parameters of the brain when we learn. You can watch her Ted talk here.
More recent studies have started to investigate other artistic disciplines as well. One of the most promising, a large study conducted in Houston, Texas that tracked the transfer of learning of over 10,000 students as they participated in arts programs (Music, Dance, Drama). They concluded that increases in students’ arts learning experiences significantly improved educational outcomes.
It seems apparent that the effects of systematic training in the arts, go beyond sensory processing to make the brain ready for complex pattern recognition and the realization of a great variety of cognitive tasks. The development of flexible thinking, critical thinking, creativity, imagination, and collaboration as these might be the most sought out skills in the workforce of the 21st Century. The scientists, the communicators, the economists, and cultural icons of the future are now sitting in our classrooms. That is good enough reason for educators to put these skills at the center of learning.
Transferable skills and our Collaboration with Juilliard
This is my 8th year as a Nord Anglia teacher under our NAE-Juilliard collaboration. The Juilliard approach to classroom instruction has really changed the way I teach music. I left behind years of rote memorization and concept regurgitation in favor of lessons designed to facilitate self-expression, experimentation, and creativity. Paraphrasing, the Juilliard Creative Classroom’s resources emphasize building students’ personal artistry through their own creativity allowing them to engage with extraordinary works of music, dance, and drama.
A great win in this collaboration is the NAE-Juilliard Learner Ambitions. A holistic view of the child that allows the teacher to assess students not only form the point of view of their performing skills, but to recognize that to become an artist every aspect of our students’ development matters. In this light, we can facilitate in the classroom learning opportunities in which every child’s artistic capabilites can be developed.
This holistic approach is divided into three main categories: Ways of Being, Ways of Thinking and Ways of Doing. And each one of these divided into three sub-categories (see image below):
These categories are particularly useful in understanding which areas of our students’ development need improvement, and to recognize how this growth could have an impact in other areas of their education.
In summary, the skills acquired through learning to play with a music ensemble, creating a character or designing a piece of choreography are some of the same skills that students will need to navigate their life, regardless of their professional aspirations.
It has been great to be part of the NAE-Juilliard collaboration and its aim at helping every Nord Anglia student discover, not only ‘the spark’, but the ability to make their life a work of art.
If you would like to learn more about performing arts at BISC Lincoln Park, follow us on Twitter @BISCLPPerfArts