For most of us, certain songs trigger certain memories, help us with memorization and evoke deep emotion — good or bad. Rhythms are woven into our lives, from the breath through our lips to the blood pumped by our heart.
It’s soothing for a baby to hear the soft hum of a mother. It’s natural to give in to the steady beat that beckons the toe to tap.
Music is innate.
It touches an inner soul that brings back fond memories, says Kareen Bangert, principal of Rossiter Elementary school.
“It brings everyone on the same level,” she added.
Before every school assembly at Rossiter, the students and staff sing, “The lion sleeps tonight.” Bangert says it serves as a transition to prepare the large group for assembly behavior.
The Helena School District is committed to providing music in the schools, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said. Even with tight budget times, music has never seriously been on the chopping block.
“We have a well established program that is clearly beneficial and there’s a lot of support,” he said.
Students in Helena’s public elementary schools are exposed to two 30-minute sessions every week from a certified music educator. In middle school, the district requires students to have one fine art credit every year, which can be filled by band, choir or music technology. High school students need a fine art credit as part of graduation requirements, which they can
fulfill by taking one full year of an art, music or drama classes.
Teresa Burson, curriculum administrator, says there is a significant amount of research that says participating in musical training helps students cross the mid lines in their brains so that they are using both sides.
Burson, who has a background in music education, says music helps with coordination, rhythmic rote memorization and reasoning.
“I think it helps with student achievement, both physically and academically,” she said. “And, it’s the one thing you can take with you in life.”
Mike Zarling, a senior at Helena High, started playing piano when he was 4.
“Music has helped me with all subjects — math, science, literature — it complements all subjects,” he said.
Some students say it’s a great break from sitting in desks. Other students say it’s a bit of an escape from the real world, but most say it’s an awesome way of self-expression.
Francie Tupper, a student at Kessler Elementary, loves going to piano lessons.
“It gives me something to do and I can put my emotions into playing the piano,” the happy fifth-grader said. “I also like it in my life because I can show people how I feel by playing.”
The Center for New Discoveries in Learning, a website dedicated to helping families give children learning strategies and diagnostic technologies so they’ll be successful at home and in school, says using the 60-beat-per-minute pattern (like the music of Mozart) can increase learning potential by five times.
Listening to music with a tempo of 60 beats per minute while studying has been shown to help students retain the material.
Founder and California college professor Pat Wyman tells those who attend her training seminars that the center has been evaluating the use of music both in the classroom and while students study. They found that students using 60 beats per minute felt calmer, could study longer and earned better grades.
“In my teacher and parent training seminars, I have been using music for years as a strategy to reduce learning time and increase students’ memory of the material,” she said. “Music activates the whole brain and makes you feel more energetic.”
Helena mother Christine Zarling encourages all her children to play music and they’ve developed their own niches. Once they started with lessons, they took to it immediately.
She loves listening to them practice while she’s cooking dinner or folding laundry.
“When music becomes part of your life, you can carry it throughout your entire life,” Christine said. “It’s important to have some kind of musical option in school.”
She says having music classes in school is important, particularly for students who might not otherwise be exposed.
Educators say the benefits are not just about test scores, memorization and grades. Many students and teachers feel that it connects students to school. For example, even though Albert Einstein did poorly in school, historians say playing the violin was the key that helped him become one of the smartest people who ever lived.
Providing students with a reason to stay in school has been the topic of many discussions at school board, parent advisory and student council meetings.
Capital High music teacher Duane Zehr says research suggests that music not only helps students become academically successful, but music in the schools also provides a social network for a lot of students.
“It socially grounds them into the school,” he said. “When you are involved with music you are doing highly complicated things in your brain — translating dots into sounds, and doing that together as a group is a complex task mentally.”
CHS senior Christopher Schneider is a percussionist in the school’s premiere jazz ensemble; he says he’s thrilled to have the opportunity to play every day at school.
“I find it’s an amazing opportunity to get that creative every day, but also technically working together during the school day helps with problem solving,” the 18-year-old said. “It changes how you think.”
Schneider says music meshes subjects together in a subtle way.
Music is a creative act that requires a lot of technical skills, so it allows you to see a subject like math or writing in a creative light, he adds.
“It’s helped in my pursuit of life,” Schneider said.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or alana.listoe@