As a student, I felt that gravitational pull to the music department and saw it many times as a teacher during my time working in international schools in Argentina and Malaysia. Most of my elective music students lived in the music department. But why was this so? I spent time chatting to a group of them, and alumni, in an attempt to find out.
Identity formation and socialisation
In a world in which music permeates our daily life in myriad ways, music can be used to formulate and express our individual identities. It not only allows us to regulate our moods and behaviours, but also to present ourselves to others in the way we prefer. These “musical identities” are often linked closely to subcultures in our school communities, especially for adolescents.
“An elective music class regularly develops a subculture of its own: the musos.”
The standard social groupings, labels and identities in schools are often shattered when students step into the music department. Students that are sporty, nerdy, cool and quirky can all coexist simply because they all love music and have elected to study it further. Students from disparate cultural backgrounds in an international school can also find common ground. Thus, an elective music class regularly develops a subculture of its own: the musos.
Elective music courses often run with small groups of students meaning a wonderful sense of community can form. One student I spoke with described this community as being, “like a family…where we laugh, cry, support and share”. Another student commented on the way that, “smaller class sizes can make it easier for everyone to get to know each other and find connection through music”.
A study by Adderly et. al. (2013) explores the way that the social aspect of music-making fosters a sense of profound belonging amongst students. Interestingly, participants referenced the way that these relationships assisted them in negotiating the often-turbulent high school years.
“Small groups for elective music courses mean a wonderful sense of community can form.”
Morrison (2001) highlights how elective music students often interact extensively outside the bounds of the classroom. Students have compulsory music lessons to attend, but they will also have ensemble rehearsals, concerts, shows, trips and camps that will unite them further. This sense of unity also permeates through other aspects of social life, such as going to the movies, parties or hanging out at the mall. Music appears to have a powerful socialising force.
Most formal music curricula in international schools require that students complete performance and/or composition components. For a young person navigating the social and cultural dynamics of an international school, these can be confronting and sensitive tasks. After all, the emotional expression needed to effectively communicate a piece of music requires a significant level of confidence.
It also calls for a willingness to be vulnerable to constructive criticism and feedback from teachers and peers, which will be fundamentally subjective in nature. Of course, there are assessment frameworks in place, but these must ultimately be interpreted on some level by the individual giving the feedback.
“The emotional expression needed to communicate a piece of music requires a significant level of confidence.”
A student I spoke with mentioned how, “sharing our performances or compositions with each other builds trust”. As each student develops their performance or composition skills in response to feedback, a sense of security and togetherness forms within the group. Students find solidarity together and begin to equate this with a feeling of safety in the confines of the music department.
A music department can be a seriously cool environment for a young person. Where else in the school might you have sound-treated practise rooms, a bunch of instruments, and the freedom to make plenty of noise?
“A music department can be a seriously cool environment for a young person.”
For students that are over-sensitive to sound or struggle with the stimulating and crowded environment of the school playground, the music department can be a safe space to find calm. Twenty minutes of tinkering on a piano or bashing away on the drum kit can be exactly what is needed. With exam pressure, parental expectations, time constraints, and the constant demand for student attention from multiple competing school initiatives, the music department can be a place to destress and find space, belonging and community.
It is not uncommon for elective music students to spend most of their break times at the music department. Students commented on the way that they felt, “part of the wider music department” at their school. In their senior years, students may be invited to use the department fridge and have a special space to store their instruments and bags each day. Not just a locker, a whole room! That’s right, the department becomes their place. Their home. Their safe space.
“Twenty minutes of tinkering on a piano or bashing away on the drum kit can be exactly what is needed.”
The above reflections do not suggest that students can’t make their home elsewhere in the school. At its core, I believe that this phenomenon largely depends on whether a teacher fosters this environment for students. What is certain is that I have seen how this sense of home can be wonderful for enhancing student wellbeing in the international school setting.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.