People exercise to rhythmic beats. They relax to music and whistle while they work. We tune in, because it makes us happy.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that teaching music enhances the mood too.
Music students in the piano and strings programs at Georgia College exude an upbeat, cheerful energy when describing their work with local elementary students. For undergraduates—these public outreach programs put dreams of teaching music or using music as therapy into perspective. They are a reality check, so-to-speak.
And—for youth in Wilkinson and Putnam schools—Georgia College’s music outreach means getting lessons and using instruments that would otherwise be cost prohibitive.
“This is a real opportunity for some of these kids,” said Dr. Owen Lovell, assistant professor of music and creator of the university’s new piano program, Bobcat Keys. “The educational and behavioral benefits of music lessons for school-age children are well-documented. Realizing these benefits is more difficult in some rural central Georgia counties, because access to a qualified teacher and suitable practice instrument can be hard to find.”
In addition to its ability to release dopamine, a ‘happiness’ chemical in the brain—music makes students better learners. Studying notes on sheet music and placing fingers correctly on ivory keys or delicate violin strings help local youths become better at reading, math, science and even sports.
Music strengthens cognitive regions for language, memory and reasoning. It improves hand-eye coordination, builds confidence and promotes risk taking. Music students are more engaged in school and do better on tests.
“These students can look forward to being the strongest musicians in bands and choirs in their schools,” Lovell said. “They’ll learn to concentrate and creatively solve problems. They’ll get higher grades and be motivated to stay in school.”
Five college students teach 10 pupils from Wilkinson County every Tuesday in Georgia College’s piano studio. Youngsters practice during the week on four digital pianos, loaned last summer to Wilkinson Elementary School by the university.
Bobcat Keys closely mirrors music’s other public outreach program, Putnam Strings. Two string students work with Georgia College’s artists-in-residence, Michele Mariage Volz and the Kazanetti String Quartet of Atlanta. On Tuesdays, they teach violin to 20 pupils at Putnam Elementary School.
“These community education-based programs with Putnam and Wilkinson Counties are great examples of what we strive for in the music department,” said Music Chair Dr. Don Parker.
“We want to provide a service that will have long-term benefits for all involved. We aim to lead efforts to connect with the community in a way that only music can do, providing our students with greater awareness of the struggles and needs around them. We want to continue developing programs that service our region in Middle Georgia,” Parker said.
Three years ago, Putnam music teacher Kathy Carroll found 20 violins collecting dust at the elementary school. They hadn’t been used for years. So, she called the Kazanetti String Quartet and asked if a program could be developed using undergraduates as tutors.
Carroll sees a definite improvement, as pupils move from beginners who’ve never cradled a violin under their chin to advanced stringers. Each year, the budding violinists participate in their school’s holiday concert in December and perform with Georgia College students in May.
Julie Rosseter of the Kazanetti String Quartet said she and her partners can’t compete with how “cool” college kids are to youth.
“The students at Georgia College are our feet on-the-ground,” she said. “Music is a way of doing so many things. We can use it as a tool to teach and as a tool for outreach. It’s great to pull-in the community and give back. The kids see Georgia College students as the biggest heroes.”
In a county “where there are a lot of assisted lunches,” Rosseter said, it’s nice to have a program that’s cost-effective. Pupils pay $75 a semester for weekly lessons, violin provided.
Senior music education major Sarah Davis of Ivey, Georgia, can relate to the children she teaches. Her family couldn’t afford private music lessons or expensive instruments either. Violins cost anywhere from $100 to $100,000 and private tutoring as much as $100 an hour. Group lessons are as high as $150 a month.
Davis financed her dream by making and selling jewelry online. At 16, she had fallen in love with music at a rock concert. An “incredible” violinist began to play in the band, Blue October. It inspired her to learn violin, then cello and viola.
Davis was a first-year student at Georgia College, when Putnam Strings started. She jumped at the chance to help other disadvantaged kids and has been with the program ever since.
“It’s a county that’s lacking in opportunity for strings. Actually, most of Georgia is lacking for strings,” Davis said. “Our goal as string educators is to expand and provide more opportunities for violin instruction.”
At Putnam recently, Davis snapped her fingers to the beat as her pupils played. When a young boy failed to keep up, Davis smiled and said it was OK. He looked up, surprised, and said, “I can see why kids love you. You’re nice.”
She replied by giving him her educational philosophy that music, while serious, should be fun. Everyone has the potential to be “an amazing musician,” Davis said. It simply takes lots of practice and hard work.
Each week, Davis patiently shows young pupils how to properly hold a violin at the chin. She models correct bow-stroking techniques, while doling out encouragement. Towards the end of a lesson, she tells students, “It’s OK to tell yourself you’ve done a really good job today.”
“We don’t need to treat music as if it’s going to be their profession,” Davis said. “We need to treat music as a creative outlet that can enrich their lives and the lives of everyone around them.”
By providing this service to the community, undergraduates receive valuable first-hand teaching experience, said Dr. William J. McClain, director of String Activities. He hopes youth will become interested in violin and pursue music as a major.
This is Lovell’s expectation too. In addition to giving disadvantaged kids a chance to learn and practice piano—Bobcat Keys is also an introduction to the Georgia College campus and university environment. Some pupils may become first in their families to go to college, Lovell said, and constitute “our next generation of music recruits.”
Youth practice on loaned pianos all week at Wilkinson Elementary School. They’re bussed to Georgia College for lessons with piano majors. Music books and transportation are paid for by a Knight Foundation grant and funds from the university’s Office of ENGAGE, which encourages community-based learning.
Conner Garmon, a sophomore music education major from Dacula, joined because he wanted teaching experience. He hopes to emulate piano teachers he had ever since his Grandmother paid for him to learn. Garmon wants to be a guiding example for others.
Teaching in a group setting is a difficult and important lesson for him. It takes lots of patience to maintain order and discipline. It’s also interesting to see different learning styles amongst his pupils. Some are “very aurally in-tune with music,” he said, “but others are more mathematical about it. They have to see the notes on paper.”
Like young violinists, these piano learners arrive full of vim and energy, eager to play. Children’s faces show “the perfection of joy” when they realize they actually can play, Garmon said.
Emily Kirkland of Thomson is a sophomore music therapy major. She learned to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano as a 7-year-old and never looked back. Kirkland loved the idea of piano outreach. Even if her pupils aren’t going to be professional musicians, she said, it’s important for them to be exposed to music.
“The idea these kids wouldn’t be able to get lessons or have somewhere to practice—it’s very fulfilling for me to be able to give them that,” she said. “Even if they don’t continue with music in the future, they’ll still learn basic skills and how to express themselves. I think that’s very cool.”
Teaching at an elementary level is vastly different from what Kirkland’s used to in college. Higher education means a higher-skill level, and there’s constant pressure to perform. It’s refreshing to switch back to rudimentary notes and basic songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
“It’s a different perspective,” Kirkland said. “While I love all the music we go through in college and the different variety there is at this level—it’s so amazing to go back to the simple joy of seeing them learn their first songs.”