Music Bringing Harmonic Notes to School Fails

If music be the food of life play on. Orsino’s bon mot in Shakespeare’s 12th Night is advice taken seriously in various French schools today where flutes, saxophones and drums help improve the notes of some of the most challenging pupils.

Les Choristes a 2004 French film where a choir brought out the best in pupils at a school for troubled boys.

In the film above, directed by Christophe Barratier, former music teacher Clément Mathieu changes the lives of some unruly schoolboys at the aptly named bottom of the pond or “Fond de l’ Etang” boarding institution when he uncovers and nurtures their hidden musical talents.

In an echo of that film, Philippe Boissel, a music adviser at a college in Gorron, Mayenne (53120) some three hours west of Paris, has achieved similar unexpected results thanks to school orchestras. He was responsible for introducing  the orchestra classes for under-performing and troubled pupils, an initiative which a decade later sees some 37 schools following his score and teaching through a formula of scales, repetition, rhythm and harmony.

“At our Gorron college today we can hear music on all floors of the school; in the corridors pupils whistle Brahms and Handel, the atmosphere in the school is completely pacified. The habits and discipline they learn in the orchestra  — listening to others, the rigor of  music making — are immediately transferable to all other subjects in the curriculum. My dream is that the rest of France will follow our lead,”  he tells Violaine de Montclos in the latest issue of Le Point (available only in the print edition, No.2120).

The magazine says that following a favourable report in 2010 by the Montaigne Institute, some 830 orchestra classes have been set up in French schools, to combat school drop out rates … and they work.

According to the Montaigne Institute report: “In an orchestra, you learn everything! You learn to respect others and respect yourself … In a band at school, we also learn to listen, read, count, to improvise, to express emotions … The children are placed in a position of success and make demands on themselves that in turn help them thrive in their schools. The orchestra becomes a powerful factor against exclusion, it helps children who are failing at school to prove their value in the eyes of all, and to find their place in the system. A bridge is created between the school and the family … The orchestra is an essential component of local life. It is invited to municipal ceremonies, school fairs, nursing homes and so on, playing a role in integrating  children into their immediate environment. It helps build links between generations. Among positive results it helps generate group cohesion, improve school performance, reduce incivility, enthuse teachers and instill much pride in all …”

Below is an interview with Yann Algan, director of the Orchestres à l’école project and a professor of economics at Sciences Po discussing the outcome of the project trial:

Mesurer l’impact des Orchestres à l’école sur… par institutmontaigne

The full report is here:  
Télécharger cette publication (PDF, 418 Ko). Its initial appraisal shows that for pupils participating in a school orchestra “there was a notable impact  on cognitive and non-cognitive capacities”.

The success of the musical educational experiment comes at a time when the French are involved in much soul-searching about the country’s vaunted  education system — among the best in Europe.

According to Le Point:  “the nation each year spends  6.3% of its GDP on education, and yet nothing seems to stop its decline. The most recent Pisa survey (2009) showed that 20% of pupils have not mastered basic skills in reading, a performance that has deteriorated by five points since 2000… France currently trains only 30,000 engineers a year when the economy need  40,000 . There is a lack of researchers, computer scientists, skilled technicians … Above all, 130,000 young people leave school with no qualifications, 12% of a generation that has been through 13 years of teaching for nothing…”

The Montaigne Institute says schools with orchestra classes in France presently teach 22,000 pupils of which 60% in primary and 40% in secondary school. Half of these classes and the notes achieved by their pupils is always higher and better than schools without orchestras.

Autograph of the first page of the Johannes passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Le Point’s article mentioned above discusses the results at one rural school — a college in Sisley, an hour from Paris, “not one of the depressed Parisian suburbs but rather a country school in a cultural desert. The school has a mixture of good and difficult pupils from a wide range of family backgrounds… the first term of orchestral classes finished last June, with good and poor students mixed together and treated equally for the three years of the music-led course. Of the 14 children judged to face the most serious learning difficulties  and studying in the 5th year, nine caught up with their peers and gained places at the Lycée, when for all intents and purposes their destiny had been school failure! In the class was Clara, a violent and unmanageable girl who the conductor put in charge of the percussion section. Today she comes second in her class and says: ‘I was bad, if you upset me I would make your life miserable but the orchestra calmed me down.’  Her mother adds: ‘Clara on the drums became the leader of the orchestra, they needed her rhythm  she was forced to concentrate, to focus on the music and she became an utterly changed person”.

Just as Mathieu brightened up his school by assembling a choir, discovering hidden musical talents and transforming the lives of the children in Les Choristes, so it would appear is France’s nascent  Orchestres à l’école programme. And as a spin-off a new generation is learning the basics and musicality of Bach,Beethoven and Mozart.

 Story: Ken Pottinger 


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