Don't Stop the Music: documentary-led campaign donates 7,000 instruments to schools

Don't Stop the Music: documentary-led campaign donates 7,000 instruments to schools. Sixty-three per cent of Australian schools offer no music lessons. Last year, an ABC documentary set out to change that

Eleven-year-old Anastasia uses singing to calm down.

The student at Perth’s Challis Community primary school – located in an area with high unemployment, high rates of violence and low income – suffers from Tourette syndrome. Worse, her mother has cancer. But Anastasia has a big voice and writes her own songs.

“I’m living in a catastrophe / Life is getting harder,” she sings in the ABC three-part documentary Don’t Stop the Music. “It’s easier to write a song about it than talk to people,” she says.

Anastasia is not alone. Year 3 student Taj, who has 40 epileptic fits a day, says music makes him see “stars everywhere”. For Cody, who lives with his nan, playing the guitar makes him dream of “all those things I never thought I could be”.

All three students have benefited from the wildly successful Don’t Stop the Music donation drive, spearheaded by the ABC with Musica Viva and the Salvation Army as a way to combat the dire lack of musical education in Australia’s schools – 63% of which offer no music lessons in the classroom.

More than 7,000 instruments have been donated. So far, 2,500 instruments have been given to roughly 100 schools; the remainder will be distributed over the next year.

The crisis in Australia’s public schools comes down to teaching, too. Here, a typical primary teaching degree includes only 17 hours of music training (in Finland, teachers receive 350 hours). Simon Blanchard, the music teacher at Challis, was only picked as he was spotted one day carrying a guitar around the school.

“I don’t feel confident to teach music,” he says. “I don’t even know what I don’t know.”

Teri Calder, impact producer at the ABC, says: “Many public schools aren’t able to offer ongoing sequential music education. That’s because it’s costly, there’s a crowded curriculum and there’s a need to have access to adequate training.”

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In Don’t Stop the Music, which first aired in November last year and is being rebroadcast in celebration of Ausmusic Month, filmmakers follow a new music program at Challis. Pop singer Guy Sebastian lent his weight to the program, personally donating two of his guitars as well as teaching lessons. Blanchard was also provided with a crash course.

As Sebastian, himself a former music teacher, puts it in the documentary: “Children, more than anyone, need music.”

Sebastian’s assertions are backed up by science. Music development is “integral to human development”, says Dr Anita Collins, a neuromusical educator and a consultant to Challis.

This is particularly the case for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who grow up hearing 30 million fewer words by the time they are five. Music helps to combat this stumbling block by teaching students to listen to sound.

“It trains our largest information gathering sense, our hearing, to make meaning and take information from all the sounds around us,” Collins says. “For that reason music learning has never been more important in every child’s development because our world has never been as noisy as it is today.”

One study conducted in Canada compared school students who studied music to those who didn’t. By the end of their secondary schooling, the students who had learnt music were a full year ahead of their peers in their English, maths and science scores.

Australian research has also shown that students who study music have at least one year gain in language acquisition, numeracy skills and motor skills, with up to a three-year gain in reading levels. Children who are musically trained “tend to perform better in their academic achievements, leadership roles in school and life and manage change and decision making far better”, Collins says.

Musica Viva Australia chief executive Hywel Sims says: “Learning to play an instrument fires up our brains in a unique way, with tangible benefits for, amongst other things, literacy.”

In addition, music education introduces children “to a life filled with the joy of music – a gift we believe everyone deserves to have”.

It is a gift that students in the documentary take full advantage of. In one particularly moving scene, an orchestra is invited to play in the school canteen – the only place at Challis that is large enough to fit all the musicians.

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As they belt out Beethoven, the children crowd around looking, in equal part, nervous and excited. Many have never heard a live orchestra before. “When I first looked at it I started to shake,” one boy says.

That same boy, Samuel, a sports player, decides he wants to learn the violin. Within four weeks of his lessons, his attendance at school jumps from 27% to 95%.

Not that everything in Don’t Stop the Music is smooth-running. One child in the choir grimaces: “When we’re singing badly, it sounds like our cats are dying.” Another says of his guitar lesson with Sebastian: “That was amazing. It was the best experience I’ve felt in my life,” before correcting himself: “For a couple of years.”

As for Anastasia, she hopes one day to win the X-Factor and sing with her idol Adele. “If I became famous I would use the money and help my mum,” she says.

Don’t Stop the Music airs on ABC TV on Sunday at 2.30pm and is available to stream on iView