When Chris Morrison took over as principal of the small rural primary school at Yahl in South Australia five years ago, only six students played an instrument.
When she asked around she found many more wanted to learn, but the cost was a barrier.
The school embarked on a mission to get every one of its 130 students learning music and turn its entire student body into musicians, providing instruments and teaching for the children regardless of their circumstances.
Today the 150-year-old school, surrounded by paddocks in South Australia’s south-east, is reaping benefits in other areas of learning and behaviour as a result.
“We made sure that we bought instruments so that we could keep the costs down so it wasn’t just a privilege,” Ms Morrison said.
“We promoted music as being something which was going to help learning, help with self-confidence.”
The principal has been overwhelmed by what she has seen in her student body as a result.
“I tear up and I just get these goosebumps.
“You watch these children that you know, maybe struggling in lots of other ways and there they are, being the leader of a recorder group or showing somebody else how to do it, or moving somebody else’s finger just in the right spot.
“That’s joyful, it really is,” she said.
Students start the music program in their first year, and every student from Years 3 to 7 has been given an instrument to learn.
The school now boasts brass and woodwind bands, along with drums and guitar.
A small group of students and teachers has also formed a garage band that rehearses rock classics at recess in the school’s tiny sports shed.
“The program has just gone ahead in leaps and bounds and it’s just lovely to just be constantly hearing music in our school,” Ms Morrison said.
Student behaviour and learning has improved as students make the links between music, maths and literacy, and many are enthusiastic to practise instruments at home.
“One of the parents said to me ‘I couldn’t believe it – my son and his best mate are always playing games on the computer’,” Ms Morrison said.
“He came into the room – one of them was on the computer but the other one was practising the guitar, and then they’d swap over.
“To me that was saying we’re getting through to these kids that music can be something you can share and do socially, and have such a good experience with.”
Music is part of the daily curriculum and the entire school focuses on music for a half a day each week.
A boost to students’ confidence
School services officer Cameron Horsburgh, who teaches trombone and trumpet, said the biggest change had been in student confidence.
“There are some kids who really struggle with confidence and still do.
“But the fact is, if you put an instrument in their hand, they do stuff you’d never ever expect them to do,” Mr Horsburgh said.
“You’ve just got to see the light in their eyes because they’ve realized that they’ve done something well and everybody else around them can see what they’ve done.”
He said some schools treated music as “a bit of an annoyance”.
“But here all the staff are fully involved, sometimes in learning instruments themselves. It has made a huge difference to the whole culture of the school,” he said.
Along with many other educators and volunteers at the school, Year 4/5/6 teacher Chris Couchman started learning to play alongside his pupils.
Every day he takes his class out onto the school oval and encourages them to wander and experiment.
“I’ve had a couple kids who would quit too easily in the classroom in the past,” Mr Couchman said.
“They have taken off with the instruments and are actually practising and learning resilience, and that has transferred into the classroom,” Mr Couchman said.
“They’re having a bit more of a go now in class. It’s actually helping them in other areas, which is really good to see.”