Connecting to culture through music

Music education is more than creativity but a tool to connect students to culture.

10 December 2020
Man stands in centre of room with students sitting in the background.
Image: Dr Thomas Fienberg coordinates the Solid Ground program at Evans High School.

Music is a powerful tool in education that can be used to help connect students to their culture and improve learning outcomes and engagement at school.

Australian soprano Deborah Cheetham and teachers Sarah Donnelley and Thomas Fienberg joined Secretary Mark Scott on the Every Student Podcast to discuss the importance of music education and how it can be used to connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to their culture and engage with their learning.

Ms Donnelley, a teacher from Wilcannia Central School, and Dr Fienberg, head teacher at Evans High School, were recently nominated for the ARIA Music Teacher of the Year Award, with Ms Donnelley taking home the title at last month’s virtual award ceremony.

Ms Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman, is a renowned opera singer who said “none of what I do would have been possible without my high school music teacher, Jennifer King”.

The transformational power of teachers, and in particular music teachers, is something well known to Dr Fienberg, who studied a PhD in music education and Indigenous music.

“Research is clear that music has so many benefits beyond just the connection to culture and enhancing your creativity … the role that music plays in improving literacy and numeracy is so very well documented,” Dr Fienberg said.

Ms Donnelley uses music to draw everything together in her classroom at the remote school in north western NSW.

“It is a tool that we can use to bring a sense of calm and order in the classroom, to bring a sense of fun … it allows you to transfer into this other space where you can be thinking, relaxing,” she said.

“Number one for me it is building of a relationship and that connectiveness that music brings.”

Woman sits on a tree stump playing a guitar.
Image: Sarah Donnelley is the 2020 Telstra ARIA Music Teacher Award winner.

A priority for the NSW Education is to increase the percentage of Aboriginal students completing Year 12 by 50% while maintaining their cultural identity.

Ms Cheetham said music was integral to First Nations people, and more broadly all people.

“Music [and the arts more generally] is our way of knowing, it is our way of understanding everything in the world,” she said.

"In fact for all Australians at some point their ancestors knew the world and passed on knowledge through the arts. Writing is relatively new, knowledge was painted on to the body, it was danced and it was sung and it was passed on from generation to generation through the arts and in particular music.”

She said music remained an important tool in helping Aboriginal students connect to their culture.

“Music is vital. If you want First Nations students to complete high school, make it more relevant and do not disadvantage them further by diminishing the amount of time they can spends in the arts,” she said.

“It’s not that all of the other subjects don’t have their value … the arts feed into all of the other subjects.”

Ms Donnelley uses music to build a student’s identity, tell the stories of their history and place and combat the idea of shame felt by so many in the local community.

“It has provided an opportunity for our kids to stand up and our community to be proud of them, for our kids to be proud of each other and resilient,” she said.

At Evans High School, Dr Fienberg coordinates the Solid Ground program, which sees Aboriginal musicians share their expertise and guide students to better understanding their culture.

“The Solid Ground program is an amazing place where students can come into a room … and feel safe and feel that this is a place where they can learn more about culture through the voices and the eyes of people who are successful in their fields,” he said.

Ms Cheetham said she was encouraged by the current work for today’s students, adding that the culture being shared in classrooms was a “very precious commodity”.

“We have to make up a great gap in the knowledge of non-Indigenous Australians about the longest continuing music practice in the world, the longest continuing culture, and that will build a valuing and a love for Indigenous cultures and First Nations cultures.”

Listen to the full episode now:

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