'He had never heard anything so amazing': Why one 15-minute class is changing lives

Violinist Aiko Goto, from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with children from St Mary's North Public School.
Violinist Aiko Goto, from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with children from St Mary's North Public School. Photo: Janie Barrett

Until last year, many six-year-olds at St Marys North Public School in Sydney had never seen a violin.

Some didn't even know string instruments existed until a virtuoso from the Australian Chamber Orchestra stood before them and began to play one.

"There was one little boy who couldn't believe what he was seeing," principal Lisa Parrello said.

"She started playing and his whole world exploded. He had never heard anything so amazing. He wants to be in an orchestra, and for our students, that wasn't in their vocabulary."

He now has that opportunity, thanks to a ground-breaking trial in which every child in his class is being taught to play the violin or cello. Since the beginning of 2018, they have practised for 15 minutes a day under the direction of one of the ACO's teachers.

They began in year one, and will practise daily at school for at least three years. The aim is not to turn them into musicians; it is to give the children, most of them disadvantaged, access to the cerebral benefits of learning music.

"If you can get a child between the ages of five to seven, and can give them a difficult instrument, you get permanent changes in the way that the brain processes information," Ms Parrello said.

"A lot of our children ... come to us with significantly less vocab than children in affluent areas. Our children haven't even heard a lot of sounds. We're looking to improve their ability to learn, to speak, to articulate the spoken word through learning music."

Tara Smith, the ACO's learning and engagement manager, said string instruments were ideal because they developed auditory processing skills. "We are trying to develop not just musical skills but grit and growth mindset," she said.

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The music they are producing is "getting better", said Ms Smith, but the benefits were most noticeable in other aspects. "Their reading levels have skyrocketed," she said. "Their executive functioning. Their focus and concentration.

"Their attendance is going up. The school has a lot of lateness - these kids are not late. They started doing the daily practise in the afternoon, but [Ms Parrello] moved it to 9am because it gets the kids there on time."

Every morning, the 26 children file into class with their instruments and practise with their teacher, who appears via video link. Once a week the cello and violin teachers go to the school and take one-on-one and group lessons.

"We are extremely fortunate," Ms Parrello said. "The Australian Chamber Orchestra is giving our children something we could never afford to give them." The orchestra was selected to play at the launch of Education Week on Monday.

The trial is being evaluated by University of Sydney academic Anita Collins. It is also supported by the NSW Department of Education, which supplied the children with their instruments. Next year, it will be expanded to include all year one students at St Marys North.

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