Student Well-Being What the Research Says

How a School District Used Music Teaching to Keep Students Connected

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 25, 2023 3 min read
Dressed in her shoulder pads and jersey, 8th grader Julie Michael, 13, holds her flute before playing the national anthem with the marching band at Seven Springs Middle School in New Port Richey, Fla.
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The pandemic quite literally took some of the air out of many school music and band programs. But it has also provided new routes to engage students in music and school.

That’s one implication from a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. It looks at how secondary students have experienced music instruction via both traditional and virtual programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Researchers analyzed students who participated in Los Angeles’s virtual middle school music program, or other in- and out-of-school music instruction in a descriptive analysis for an ongoing research series.

While students who participated only in virtual music showed smaller benefits, researchers foundthat higher engagement across multiple programs—in both formal or extracurricular music instruction—was associated with greater feelings of competence and connection to school among middle schoolers.

“In part, music may provide both an outlet for emotions and a different path to self-confidence for students working to recoup learning disrupted during the pandemic,” said Beatriz Ilari, associate professor of music teaching and learning at the University of Southern California , and lead author of the study.

“Sometimes, for the kid who’s not doing well in other things, music may be the place where that kid might thrive and feel, ‘oh, I can do this,’” she said. “There’s the hope those good feelings will transfer to other areas,” though the study did not look at connections between students’ music engagement and achievement in other academic subjects.

The results come as many school districts debate how and whether to rebuild music programs that stalled during the pandemic. Many in-person school music programs have been considered high-risk activities in recent years, because group singing or using brass or woodwind instruments indoors can produce a high concentration of droplets and aerosols in the air, which some early studies found contributed to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Prior studies similarly have found music instruction can boost students’ social-emotional development, but also that low-income students often have less access to music programs in or out of school.

Illari and her colleagues surveyed 120 students, the majority of them Latino, from more than 50 Los Angeles middle schools during the pandemic. LAUSD provided virtual music instruction for secondary schools during the school closures, including delivering instruments to students’ homes and holding choral collaborations online.

Only about 3 percent of students had no music education at all. Rather, more than three quarters of students were studying some kind of instrument, either through formal music classes, from marching band and orchestra to mariachi; casual listening; and/or the hybrid virtual music program. Students reported on their feelings of competence, confidence, and connection to school—indicators of well-being and “positive youth development.”

Gearing music to students’ interests

“Music is not a magic bullet, but I think offering access is important because it has a lot of potential for engagement ... and as an outlet,” Ilari said. “For pre-teens and teenagers, music becomes this very important badge of identity. It’s how they express themselves, it’s how they vent their emotions ... and how they also build communities around themselves.”

Students also reported a wide range of musical tastes, from K-pop and rap to heavy metal and Western classical music.

“That’s where I think many music programs sometimes need to catch up,” Ilari said. “Of course, there’re some kids who love orchestra, band, and choir and that’s great ... but there are some kids who actually would like to be doing songwriting and mariachi and music appreciation at the highest levels. There’s room for a lot of exploration [in music education] for adolescents, maybe more than any other age group.”

While most students in the study had just begun to learn an instrument in middle school, those who had started formal music lessons by age 8 either in school or in school-based extracurricular programs reported more “hopeful future expectations” for themselves in school, the study found.

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