El Sistema, Music Education, and Executive Functioning



El Sistema combines the power of music education with a pedagogy that is socially minded and conscious of the needs of particular students and communities. As per the Venezuelan experience and longitudinal assesments from the Inter-American Development Bank, poverty alleviation, violence reduction, economic mobility, and the development of social capital are part of its long term programmatic outcomes and impact. The orchestra and other ensemble practices, reframes an at-risk child’s present reality in beauty and guides them through the process of developing sustainable communities, both civic and musical. 

Current research in early childhood education has concluded that most tasks that youngsters (and adults) face require the orchestration of several types of executive function skills. As explained on the recently published working paper Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function, the Harvard Center for Developing Child proposes that inhibitory control, working memory, and mental flexibility be deemed as essential Executive Functioning skills; “crucial building blocks for the early development of both cognitive and social capacities.” The research notes that children with poor executive functioning skills are at greater risk for confrontational and aggressive behavior and lower academic achievement. It also points to the fact that children’s executive function skills provide the link between early school achievement and their social, emotional, and moral development. 
 
Although attempting to tie the development of executive functioning skills to documented outcomes of music education is a promising idea, it must be further explored and probed through specific research design frameworks before it can be incorporated into public policy recommendations. Many scholars, practitioners, and other thinkers are already exploring this possibility.  In the interim, I will provide here a few preliminary observations from my artistic lens as to how these two can come to co-exist. 

In El Sistema and other educational settings, ensemble-based rehearsals require inhibitory control to build discipline and empathy, working memory to hold and manipulate musical instructions over a period of time, and mental flexibility to “adjust to changing demands, priorities, and perspectives” in a rehearsal setting. The orchestra as a model for the replication of these tenets may also allow students  a safe space for self-expression, socialization, cognitive development, and the attainment of concrete goals.
 
Music education as an intervention for violence diminution may employ different sets of musical ensembles and specific pedagogies to achieve positive outcomes in the development of youth. For example, in addition to participating in an orchestra, practicing drumming and developing compositional and/or improvisation skills—in the context of collective interaction—can also help build new healthy relationships and opportunities for both individual and collective success, increasing aspects of executive functioning related to inhibitory control and preparing students for a life free of violence and other external factors that may deter their growth as citizens.  

In her book, Healing the Inner City Child: Creative Arts and Therapies with At-Risk Youth, Vanessa Camilleri an urban school teacher, described using specific group drumming techniques for school-age youth that provided through listening to one another, a means for them to express themselves, release anger and learn from each other’s musical contributions. In describing a group drumming process that took place at an urban charter school, she argued that the technique was productive in helping the student's capacities to work together, share their feelings, and explore other problems inherent to the lives of traumatized and/or stressed youth. These and other related experiences are analogous to the processes leading to inhibitory control development, a "crucial building block" of human development. 
 
Working memory, a skill directly correlated with advancing creative capacities can be developed through music education. Research points to the fact that music training improves the recall of verbal information and develops the region of the brain responsible for verbal memory. Findings by the Arts and Education Partnership, the arts research and learning coalition based in Washington D.C., noted that music students who were tested for verbal memory showed a superior recall for words as compared to non-music students (Ho et al., 1998; 2003). All in all, musicians were  found to have superior working memory compared to non-musicians and were better able to sustain mental control during memory and recall tasks, most likely due to their long term musical training, their observations concluded. 

Keeping track of  varying elements in scaffold activities and having “the ability to follow logical steps” on self-directed of instructive commands successfully is a strong indicator of a finely tuned working memory. In El Sistema, a teaching artist may instruct a six-year-old child to find his instrument, take out his music, sit straight, and warm-up before a rehearsal of a specific piece of music. The student will have to remember to execute these in a determined order. That will help build the foundations of a “mental surface” on which the student can place important information that may arise during rehearsal or in his science classroom.  
 
Mental flexibility, a skill necessary to succeed as an orchestral musician, can be further developed through a rigorous music training program.  In an orchestral rehearsal, a musician must consider many complex activities at once. He must be focused on his own interdependent musical contributions, and at the same time, regard the instructions of a conductor and her indications related to tempi, dynamics, and/or instrumental technique; quickly addressing them and synthesizing them through a collective and affective orchestral sound. The participants must remember one new indication after another, applying them systematically and devising cues that will keep them on track while a rehearsal is in progress. For the sake of a finely tuned and collective music-making experience, it is of utmost importance that any relevant instructions be remembered, internalized, and performed at the highest level.

Having a superior mental or cognitive flexibility, allows children to “catch mistakes and fix them, to revise ways of doing things in light of new information, to consider something from a fresh perspective and to think outside the box.” Research supports the claim that a focused music program improves a student’s originality and flexibility, which are “key components of creativity and innovation.” Graduates from music programs report that creativity, teamwork, communication, and critical thinking are skills and competencies necessary in their work, regardless of whether they are working in music or in other fields (Craft, 2001; SNAAP, 2011). 
 
Recent Studies

As an intervention tool, a socially-minded aesthetic education can help develop executive function skills while cultivating values of teamwork, self-discipline and leadership. Some early research already points us in this direction. In the El Sistema-inspired, Baltimore based, Orchkids program, children participate in music for three hours during every school day. In order to better understand OrchKids social‐emotional and behavioral development, teachers filled out rating scales for every child in their classroom. The rating scales included items from the Behavior Assessment System for Children, Second Edition (BASC‐2) and the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning (BRIEF), as well as other established tools that measure various dimensions of child behavior in relation to national samples.

Their most recent BASC‐2 surveys showed that on average, OrchKids have high levels of adaptability, social skills, and leadership relative to their peers. OrchKids seemed to excel most in the area of social skills, scoring an average percentile rank above 56% of their same‐age peers in a given semester. Additionally, the BASC‐2 data showed that, on average, OrchKids demonstrate good attention skills in the classroom, healthy levels of adaptability, excellent social skills and strong leadership.
 
In a study conducted by the Boston based, El Sistema-inspired Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS), a research team consisting of a CLCS teacher and a researcher from the Harvard’s Graduate School of Education studied self-regulation, motivation, collegiality, and responsibility as the skills and behavioral markers for cognitive, emotional and social development beyond academic achievement.  From data collected through observations, surveys, and interviews, the researchers noted that “the El Sistema program scaffolds students in their development, improving behavior at home and in the classroom. Student interviews provide[d] evidence of self-regulation and responsible behaviors, as well as developmentally advanced understanding [sic] of working together, and a passionate engagement in the El Sistema program.” 

The Orchestra: a practical intervention 

As a multi-dimensional intervention for at-risk youth, orchestral practice, because it develops both cognitive and emotional capacities has the potential to mitigate attitudinal aggressiveness and improve levels of mental acuity together. These two, enhances a student's early capacity for success, beyond a musical realm, and into an understanding of citizenship of profound transcendence, as Dr. Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, has argued. 

On a public policy and advocacy level, documenting that music education, and specifically, that El Sistema inspired programs can act as catalysts for the development of executive function skills, will allow advocates the tools to continue to propose the arts as a valuable component of educational curricula.

The Harvard research mentioned here suggests that early education policies that emphasize literacy instruction do not always meet the demands of student development in the 21st century. Focusing our attentions on the development of executive functioning in students through an aesthetic education framed through an arts minded curriculum can be beneficial for the evolution of education in our times. 
 
 
Notes:
 
Arts Education Partnership, Music Matters: How Music Education 
Helps Students Learn, Achieve, and Succeed, Washington, D.C., (2011)

Campe, K. and B. Kaufman., “How does a Latin American Music Initiative impact an American Charter School Community? Observations from El Sistema Boston.” Harvard Graduate School of Education and El Sistema Curriculum Development, Boston (2011).

Camilleri, Vanessa (ed.) Healing the Inner City Child: Creative Arts and therapies with at risk Youth. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, (2007).

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

Robinson, Sinclair, et al. OrchKids Evaluation Report Executive Summary and Primary Data Collection (2010)
 

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