Music education researchers explore how music affects learning and society in Miami

Researchers are studying how music education enhances the lives of at-risk children through an innovative partnership.

By Cathy Benedict and Patrick Schmidt
Professors of music education, FIU School of Music

Each of us is surrounded by music every day; music plays a significant role in our lives in many forms and settings. This understanding forms the basic impetus of the music education research we are conducting in the FIU School of Music with Miami teachers and children.

Our research is strengthened by the understanding that music is a diverse practice, offering the opportunity for enriching experiences to anyone interested in music – not simply the “talented.”

Social change through music

We’ve seen this demonstrated in an FIU research collaboration with the Miami Music Project to provide free music education to Miami youth using the El Sistema framework. El Sistema was founded by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu with the idea that social change could be achieved through musical excellence using an ensemble model of instruction. This program has been quite successful in Venezuela and in other countries (e.g., Scotland’s Big Noise). The Miami Music Project developed ESMIA, which is now the second largest El Sistema-inspired program in the United music project el sistema

ESMIA involves 300 Miami-Dade Public School students, ages 4-18, in two underserved immigrant communities with distinct populations, predominantly Hispanic and Haitian. The students take music lessons with us and FIU students for one to three hours weekly.

Through this project, we are looking at the ways, and by what means, participation in El Sistema enhances the lives of children who may be at risk. So far, it’s clear that the children are very engaged in this process.  Each week we observe how they come to see themselves and their musical abilities differently as they grapple with the musical challenges that get progressively more sophisticated.  Even at this very young age we see them become more confident as they turn to the person next to them and address the issue at hand, or as they stand to sing alone with comfort and certainty.

This research is critical in guiding further implementation of these programs internationally, as well as for public policy regarding much needed support of music education programs within public school settings.

Making sense of the world

Today’s challenge for music educators is to convey to society a larger picture of the role music already plays in our lives on a daily basis. Learners from all ages engage with music through technology, software and digital instruments. Music learners of all ages engage with music in schools and communities participating in traditional ensembles.

If we recognize that music brings together cognitive, kinesthetic, aesthetic, cultural and social forms of thinking, we must also recognize that music and music education is experienced not only within school classrooms or concert halls, but also in homes, communities, places of worship and even work.

Most significantly, understanding music in different environments helps us to understand how learning is fostered by musical experiences and also how music helps us to make sense of the world.  This has many implications for how we facilitate musical experiences in our schools.

Musicing in public schools

Music education is an integral part of many Miami Dade Public Schools curricula. Unfortunately, in many Miami-Dade elementary schools, an education in and through music has less of a presence in the lives of young students. Further, Miami-Dade has eliminated requirements for music before second grade.

miami music project el sistemaConsequently, music instruction at the elementary grades often becomes the responsibility of general educators. FIU College of Education students are mandated to take a course to prepare them to teach and integrate music in younger grades. However, we have little analysis on the impact of such instruction on teachers.

The goal of another aspect of our research is to have a better understanding of teacher perceptions, dispositions and continued practices in implementing musical engagements in the “regular” classroom. A better understanding of how to incorporate music in their teaching can have an impact on student learning and facilitate more diverse teaching practices that address different learning styles, different intelligences and enable the higher-level thinking that is fostered by artistic engagement.

Beyond the joy of making music (or “musicing”) with these diverse groups, what we hope to accomplish is that each of us is transformed through our engagements with the other.  Engaging in research helps to focus these issues.   


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