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Music and the Brain: Dalouge Smith and the SDYS

Eliahu Sussman • Features • October 12, 2012

The San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory is the home of an El Sistema-inspired youth orchestra program. Recently, the organization partnered with researchers at the Neurosciences Institute (NSI) and the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Center for Human Development to begin a landmark study with a goal of measuring and understanding the effects of music education on childhood cognitive development. The study, which goes under the acronym “SIMPHONY” (Studying the Influence Music Performance Has On Neurodevelopment in Youth) joins the expertise of UCSD child cognitive development experts, the NSI’s experts on the brain and music, and the SDYS’s experience teaching young people music.

Dalouge Smith is an arts advocate and the San Diego Youth Symphony’s president and CEO, a role he has served since 2005. SBO recently spoke with Dalouge about this potentially revolutionary scientific endeavor with the goal of better understanding the project’s genesis, methodology, and some of the hypotheses that the people involved are hoping to prove.

School Band &Orchestra: Hi Dalouge! So, tell me about this fascinating study your young orchestra members are going to be participating in.

Dalouge Smith: Okay, but let me back up, first. When we started our El Sistema-inspired program, we actually had a bigger purpose in mind than just the one program we were starting. This is all a part of the larger effort and vision that the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory has for rebuilding community support and investment in music education in the school system. Our decision was that we needed to be participating in five different activity areas in order to achieve that goal.

The program is the first and most obvious. But we never wanted to say, “Okay, we’ve got some kids playing music,” and then stop with that. We never expected to scale the way a public school system could scale in terms of delivering music education system. Our efforts were to be a sort of catalyst and a demonstration of what can be achieved for students. We started our program, but then we’ve got these four other areas that are aimed at highlighting the benefits of music education, and ultimately, hopefully, culminating in community investment in music education.

The second aspect of the work was research and measurement. We knew that making the case to the community needed to be more than, “Aren’t these kids cute?” or, “Don’t these kids sound wonderful?” We needed to have academically aligned information, so we’re working with the school system to track the differences in the test scores and the attendance of the students in the music program, as compared to other students in the same grades and in the same schools. The cognitive research is another layer of that case-making work. We came to understand that there’s a limited body of research out there. Once we realized that we wanted to be involved in that, then it was a matter of finding partners and getting started.

The third activity area is partnership. We’re focused on compounding and aligning resources, not competing for resources. We’re looking at partnering with the schools themselves, but also social service partners, community partners, other arts organization partners, and so on. We’re looking to get as many different resources aligned toward the same efforts as possible, so that we’re leading toward the last two activity areas, which are building community awareness of all of these outcomes, and then culminating in community action, whether that’s school board investment, corporate investment, large federal government grants, or whatever other form that might take.

Once we knew we wanted to do some research, the first conversations that we had were with people at the Neurosciences Institute. We were introduced to Dr. Ani Patel, who was working with the NSI at the time, and he was interested in what we were doing because he hadn’t ever worked specifically with kids and music. He had done a lot of work with music and the brain, of course. He made a connection with the UCSD Center for Human Development, which has a lot of research focused on childhood cognitive development. So basically, what we managed to do was bring three partners together, each of whom was bringing two pieces of a three-piece puzzle. We had the kids and music; the NSI had a history of studying music and the brain; and the UCSD center had a history of studying children and the brain. By combining our three assets, expertise, and resources, we felt like we had a great partnership.

Dr. John Iversen of The Neurosciences Institute works with music students.

SBO: Could you tell me about some of the details of the study?

DS: There have now been two grants. The first grant that UCSD received was a one-time, one-year grant to just gather data. It was a national grant, so they were the hub of a national effort to get kids to take a battery of cognitive tests and have the MRI brain scans in order to create a big data set. We actually got involved at the tail end of that project, so some of our kids were also tested under that. What UCSD and the NSI did was essentially piggyback some of the NSI testing modules onto this already-funded effort. If a child came in and took all of the tests that were a part of the UCSD regimen, they might also take a few extra tests that were related to the NSI’s music regimen. That was the first effort.

As that was winding down, the university also received a five-year longitudinal grant that is exclusive to our own community. They have approximately 100 slots, so the effort is to have several test groups: some of them will be music students; some of them will be martial arts students; and then there’s the control group, who don’t do either of those activities. That study is for kids from five to eight years old. The bulk of the kids that we’re identifying for the music component at the moment are kindergarteners who are all receiving general music instruction in their kindergarten class, as a part of a school district, youth symphony, and federal Promise Neighborhood grant project that’s part of our El Sistema-inspired effort.

SBO: Approximately how much music instruction will those students receive?

DS: They’re getting two hours per week. The last grant is one that the NSI received to add more testing batteries to this whole process. Part of what we’re hoping to be able to do, and we’re working with the principal on that, is actually have some of the testing that’s done over a laptop occur at the school site, so that the only reason that the kids would need to go to the UCSD is for the MRI tests.

SBO: So the idea is to test them annually, track progress, and then measure the impact with some degree of certainty?

DS: That’s right. There’s actually a federal grant submitted by the school district and the social service partner, through the federal Promise Neighborhood program, and, hopefully, one of the elements of the grant is for comprehensive music instruction at this school site. So actually every grade beginning in the middle of this school year would begin to have music instruction. The kids who enroll in the study would then continue to participate in music instruction throughout the course of the study. That’s part of our aim, as well.

SBO: That’s one way to keep kids in the music education program!

DS: It’s what I said early on, about finding all of the potential assets and resources that can be invested into the same space for the same ends. We would never be a good candidate for this Promise Neighborhood grant, but having a social service partner and the school district create that partnership, we then are a resource to add this musical layer to it. We basically helped the school district design what this school music program would look like, because they haven’t had any teachers in the district for almost 10 years.

SBO: No music in the schools for 10 years? That’s terrible!

DS: Oh, yeah. This is a standalone elementary district. As the music instruction began to be cut, those few music educators who did remain were pretty much on their own. There weren’t any centralized music coordinators or resources for them, so they dwindled away.

SBO: What do you expect to see in the results of this study, and what do you think the most practical implementation of the results could be?

DS: There are a couple of things. There’s certainly advocacy. But as with all advocacy, you want to talk about whatever it is that is most important to the audience that you’re addressing. So for some people, and let’s just say a random policy maker who happens to be a school board member, his priority might not be cognitive development. His priority would be educational results. So it may not be of use to try to sway him by saying, “Hey, look, you’re going to have children with better brains for having participated in this program if you get more music in the school.” Maybe that would work, maybe not. However, if we start talking about the implications of having kids with those types of brains – more creative or better language acquisition skills, more empathetic, having better social skills, or whatever findings that may come out of this – it may be that there’s going to be a business community member who’s going to say, “You know what? That’s exactly what I’m looking for. That’s exactly what I need in my workforce. You’ve got to put music in there because the kids will then be better suited for me and other employers.”

It really depends on what’s going to be important to the audience that we’re talking to and aligning these results in conversations in such a way that it resonates with the people we’re talking to.

SBO: Do you expect this research to impact pedagogy and how music instruction is delivered?

DS: I don’t expect anything that dramatic by any means. One of the things that is so important to realize about the cognitive research is that it’s a brand new frontier. I’m a layman, but as the layman sitting at the table with these researchers and hearing them talk about what questions to ask and what not to ask – because that’s equally important, you can’t try to find everything – I believe that in the short term the data that is developed and the learning that can be achieved from the data is going to be very biologically based, initially. It’s going to be even challenging to correlate “one thing happened and so x, y, and z was the direct result in the brain.” Right now, my impression is that they’re looking for patterns and they’re looking for indicators. And as that process gets refined over multiple studies and multiple years of studies, then maybe there will begin to be some identifiers where they say, “Ah, maybe these kinds of results will accrue and occur.”

My instincts tell me that all of the lessons that we’re going to get are simply going to reinforce what we already know are good practices. We already know that music as a social experience has powerful benefits that go beyond just the learning of an instrument. We know that anecdotally. All of us who have been working in this area have known this for years, and now there’s this data set that says, “Hey look – it’s true!” Well, we already knew it was true, but it’s good to know that other people now have a reference point because they aren’t working with it as closely as we are. So I think that it’s very possible that we’re going to get the same affirmations.

Pedagogy, meanwhile, is such a unique thing. There are so many different approaches classroom to classroom. You can give 10 music teachers the same method book and they’re all going to be using it differently. So I tend to think that, certainly at least in the short term, it’s not going to have a profound impact on the way that music is taught. Hopefully, though, it will have a profound impact on the depth of value that individuals and communities place on the teaching of music.

SBO: It seems that many researchers in this field tend to be extraordinarily cautious about drawing any firm conclusions before all of the data is in. 

DS: Right, and I think it’ll be a long time until they do confirm what music educators are hoping to hear. That’s why I say that I think the scientists are still figuring out how to read the data. They’re hesitant to even make any proclamations because it’s a new frontier. Brain science is so contemporary that it’s being invented as we speak – the way they do the work, what the protocols for the research are – all of it. And when I say contemporary, physics has a tradition that goes back hundreds of years; brain science is a couple decades.

SBO: Sure, the technology that allows scientists to scan and measure brain activity is quite new. At the same time, these connections that are being investigated with these new tools are some of the same questions that have been asked for centuries or even thousands of years.

DS: That’s why I’m not expecting any revolutionary data. What I’m expecting is affirmation, but I think it’ll be a long time in coming. The data will be of meaning to some people, but not other people. Hopefully, to the people for whom the data has meaning, ideally, it will reinforce the value for music and music education. We may get to the end of all of this, look at the data and say, “Oh, bummer! There doesn’t seem to be any real benefit to all of this.” In which case, we won’t use that in our story telling and our advocacy efforts! But that’s why we’re involved in this project.

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