Open Letter to the Prime Minister

Sidelining music education during this pandemic will have a long term damaging impact on the brain development and life chances of our children

Please share this letter


Ross Garrod, Founder and CEO
Practice Pal Music
[email protected]

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to you to ask that your Government takes urgent steps to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the  brain development of  children and young people – by prioritising instrumental music education in schools.

We have seen that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused chaos to our education system, resulting in knee-jerk decisions by schools, local authorities and government that are damaging both the mental health and the life chances of our nation’s young people. Every school up and down the country is playing catch-up. Teachers and parents are rightly concerned about making up for lost time and ensuring the future of their children’s education isn’t at stake. However, what is concerning us is that the first thing to be thrown out the window in order to focus on classroom subjects is instrumental lessons.

Parents are cancelling lessons, schools are banning pupils from missing classes in order to have music lessons. We understand the concern - but we believe this knee-jerk reaction shows the continued lack of understanding of the unique benefits to a child’s whole education that come from learning an instrument.

Life is not going to go back to normal soon. The way children receive lessons today is not the same as it was last month, and will no doubt change again somewhere between now and Christmas. Achieving the goal of giving our children a valuable education is bigger than having them in the classroom. With so much change, we need to be thinking about the long term fundamentals - how we can help a child’s brain development so that they have an aptitude for learning, no matter where and how.

The way to do this is to get as many children as possible learning a musical instrument.

We welcomed a recent study at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the Universidad del Desarrollo Chile that found that young musicians who play an instrument, practise frequently and regularly perform in an orchestra have increased memory and attention skills. [1]   The study reinforces the message from many other studies that the time spent learning a musical instrument changes the physical structure of the brain in a way which increases IQ, verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills, and problem solving. [2] , [3] , [4]  Put simply, learning a musical instrument improves and strengthens your brain, and your ability to achieve in other subject areas.

Instrumental music learning is unique because rather than increasing  your knowledge it grows and restructures your brain in such a way as to significantly increase your aptitude for acquiring, understanding, storing and applying knowledge. [4]   And yet, all too often learning an instrument is seen as an added extra, something that can be dropped if other more important things come up. School administrations need to wake up to the fact that by sidelining music lessons they are stopping the brain development that will give children the skills to tackle this disruption to education head on. They are not helping pupils by giving less time to music and more time for classroom subjects, instead damaging not only their ability to learn now, but also their life chances in the future.

Learning a musical instrument , and particularly practising your musical instrument, increases myelination. [2] , [4]   Myelin is a fatty substance that forms a sheath around the nerve connections in your brain. This sheath dramatically speeds up  processing within the brain. [5]  If we are to give our children any chance to succeed in such a tumultuous time, we need to be focussing on areas that increase myelination, and in doing so, giving them the best preparation to learn. We need to bring instrumental music to the forefront of our children’s educational needs.

We want to give as many people as possible access to quality music practice. We believe it is the most important aspect of learning an instrument - and has an impact beyond music that will positively benefit you for the rest of your life. Although myelination stops occurring naturally in the brain by about 30, instrumental music learning is not only the most effective way to stimulate myelination in brains for children, but also for those over the age of 30. [6]   Given that the effects of poor myelination are seen from ADHD, [7]  dyslexia [8]  and depression [9]  to dementia and Alzheimer’s , [10]   we find it incomprehensible that something as fundamental as learning a musical instrument is being dropped across the country at such a crucial time in all our lives. Parents are fearful for the future of their children as a result of the societal effects of COVID-19. Please do not give them reason to be fearful by denying their children the time and opportunity within the curriculum to develop their brains’ academic capacity.

This is not just about learning an instrument as an extracurricular activity, but setting our children up to be able to take on whatever the future throws at them - and starting at the most difficult time in education any child has had to face for generations.

We are calling on the government to follow the science and take these three actions:

  1. Set individual instrumental music lessons as a core subject for all school children.
  2. Offer funding to schools who need it most to ensure every child has access to a musical instrument.
  3. Mobilise the workforce of exceptionally skilled musicians who are out of work during this pandemic and who are uniquely able to offer an education that will serve our children in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world .

We understand that there are many aspects of life that have been affected greatly by the coronavirus pandemic. We hope you will be able to see that we can tackle education head on by treating instrumental music education seriously and making it available for all - for the good of the whole life, education and wellbeing of our children and young people across the country.

Yours sincerely,

Ross Garrod
Founder and CEO - Practice Pal Music        


Endnotes

[1]  Kausel, L., Zamorano, F. J., Billeke, P., Sutherland, M. E., Larrain-Valenzuela, J., Stecher, X., ... & Aboitiz, F. (2020). Neural dynamics of improved bimodal attention and working memory in musically trained children. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 14, 1023. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.554731.

[2]  Jäncke, L. (2009). Music drives brain plasticity. F1000 biology reports, 1. Available online: https://dx.doi.org/10.3410%2FB1-78.

[3]  Schlaug, G., Norton, A., Overy, K., & Winner, E.(2005). Effects of music training on the child's brain and cognitive development. Annals-New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 219. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1360.015.

[4]  Loui, P., Raine, L. B., Chaddock-Heyman, L., Kramer, A. F., & Hillman, C. H. (2019). Musical instrument practice predicts white matter microstructure and cognitive abilities in childhood. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1198. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01198.

[5]  Almeida, Rafael G., and David A. Lyons. On myelinated axon plasticity and neuronal circuit formation and function. Journal of Neuroscience 37.42 (2017): 10023-10034. Available online: https://dx.doi.org/10.1523%2FJNEUROSCI.3185-16.2017.

[6]  Wan, Catherine Y., and Gottfried Schlaug. Music making as a tool for promoting brain plasticity across the life span. The Neuroscientist 16.5 (2010): 566-577. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2013.10.018.

[7]  Wu, Z., Bralten, J., Cao, Q. et al. White Matter Microstructural Alterations in Children with ADHD: Categorical and Dimensional Perspectives. Neuropsychopharmacol 42, 572–580 (2017). Available online: https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2016.223.

[8]  Hasan, Khader M., et al. Diffusion tensor quantification and cognitive correlates of the macrostructure and microstructure of the corpus callosum in typically developing and dyslexic children. NMR in Biomedicine 25.11 (2012): 1263-1270. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1002/nbm.2797.

[9]  Dillon, Daniel G., et al.Depression is associated with dimensional and categorical effects on white matter pathways. Depression and anxiety 35.5 (2018): 440-447. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22734 .

[10]  Bartzokis, George. Age-related myelin breakdown: a developmental model of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiology of aging 25.1 (2004): 5-18. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2003.03.001 .