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An early music education, for the district on a budget | First Note creator’s president says video program can boost students’ performance early

The First Note instructor, ‘Miss Melody,’ and actors in the video series. Melody is played by music educator Rachel Brackett. - Courtesy Photo
The First Note instructor, ‘Miss Melody,’ and actors in the video series. Melody is played by music educator Rachel Brackett.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

It’s the same sad song played countless times: music teeters on a treacherous precipice in public education budgets. Though identified as a core subject by state and federal agencies, the arts don’t come up in the standardized tests that determine federal funding. And they stand well outside the quantitative results-driven cult of STEM.

Without directly measurable benefits, a music specialist can be a tempting expense to cut.

But a Kirkland-based nonprofit thinks music is too important to children’s development to lose.

The president of the Children’s Music Foundation, Rourke O’Brien, frequently refers to a 1997 study by UCLA’s James Catterall showing that, among students tracked for 10 years, those with a musical education performed better on standardized testing.

“The biggest finding was that the impact is cumulative,” said O’Brien, a Bellevue resident. “So if you start early the impact over time is quite huge. If you delay that to 3rd or 4th grade, you miss years you never get back.”

The Children’s Music Foundation has produced a video-based music curriculum for 4- to 6-year-old students that can be facilitated by teachers untrained in music.

The curriculum, First Note, was adopted on a pilot basis by Bellevue School District Early Learning for the summer Head Start program.

Produced in the style of a children’s television show, the 30-lesson series introduces basic musical concepts over the course of an academic year. The lessons are taught by “Miss Melody,” played by Kirkland music educator Rachel Brackett, and feature musical “guest stars” from around the world.

Each lesson contains four to five “pause points” where the facilitating teacher can stop the video and reinforce the concepts with students.

“At those pause points, (teachers) may do their own activity that they prefer, or that they’re comfortable demonstrating to their kids,” O’Brien said.

Teachers often worry about specifics like hitting the right note, O’Brien said, but the videos provide a copilot to do the heavy lifting.

The foundation commissioned a study on how the program was working out for six schools over the course of the 2012-2013 school year, submitted to the International Society for Music Education’s 2014 world conference in Brazil.

The research found that the program improved children’s self-perceived musical skill in instruments and world cultures, moreso than rhythm and pitch.

But what improved most was teachers’ self-perceived skills in musical education.

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