Music is Essential to the Success of our Education System


By David Coon

I walked into the Gibson-Neill Memorial Elementary School in Fredericton the other night and was instantly captured by the music being performed by students from the Saint John Youth Chamber Orchestra. It’s hard to describe the joy I felt, and I’m not even a classical music buff. It wasn’t just the beauty of the piece they were playing, or the skillfulness with which they played their instruments, but it was the achievement that the performance of these young New Brunswickers represented that had lifted me up.

These Saint John students have been part of Sistema NB, which has just come to Fredericton. It also operates in Moncton, Richibucto, Tobique First Nation, Edmundston, Miramichi, Elsipogtog, and Hillsborough, engaging more than 700 children every day.

Inspired by its success in the poor barrios of Venezuela, Ken MacLeod and members of the Board of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra (NBYO) brought Sistema, and a growing team of teaching musicians from around the world, to inspire our children and youth to achieve their full potential through learning and performing orchestral music.

In addition to developing life-long music skills, children are improving their literacy and grades, and gaining confidence and self-esteem.

While there has been much political handwringing and finger-pointing at the literacy and test results in our schools, the gift of music the Sistema teaching artists are providing to our province’s children is transformational.

The “popular wisdom” has been to increase the emphasis on teaching science, math and technology in the form of coding (computer programming) to help ensure students succeed. I was a science guy in school, so I see these subjects as important, but there is so much more to building a solid foundation for children to succeed in life. The folks at the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra know this, and have been quietly, almost subversively – in the positive sense – expanding Sistema to more schools, reaching more and more children.

It was not that long ago, that learning to play music was just part of growing up. Piano lessons were almost routine, singing was a regular part of life for many, but I can’t help think as this part of our culture slips away, there are long-term implications to personal and community development.

Feminist and activist Emma Goldman was to famously have said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” She meant by this, that empowerment lies in all aspect of life, and that it cannot be restricted to political action. The same can be said of education.

We must not fall into the trap of thinking the key to success in life is to simply ratchet up the teaching of science, math and coding.

Many people fondly remember their participation in their school’s drama and band programs. Participation in these programs contributes to personal development and education. Their existence is a credit of those teachers who are able to dedicate themselves to providing these opportunities to our children and youth.

The love of music or theatre gained in schools has led some to go onto careers in the performing arts, though that is not the ultimate goal of these programs; just like teaching math is not specifically intended to turn out physicists, engineers, or economists.

Training for a profession, a trade or a vocation is not the point of our public school systems. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said, “What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” The role of government is to ensure that educators and their administrators have the means to achieve this. Sistema NB is showing the way.

David Coon is the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick and the MLA for Fredericton-South