“Something that make me very happy is the idea of music, and what music can do for us,” Richard Gill OAM says.
He talks about the ability of music to completely turn someone into a different person. He gives the example of people with Alzheimer’s, who have been nonverbal for a long time – after listening to music that they enjoy, they were able to sing along, and afterwards, could speak.
“Music makes you brain light up,” Richard says. “The whole brain is active. No other human activity does that.”
He gives another example of a German man with advanced Parkinson’s, who could dance without trembling when played ‘The Blue Danube.’
“Music was our first language.” Richard says. “Human beings sang before they spoke. That still exists in the animal kingdom. Birds sing. Whales sing. Animals call to each other for all sorts of reasons, not just mating. We did that.”
“These days, if you walk along George Street singing, you could be arrested. I know, because I’ve tried,” Richard says. “Kids find it especially weird.” But there’s something really good about singing, and being considered weird is not going to stop him.
Richard Gill is deeply unimpressed with our education system. “Standardised testing is destroying the minds of students and teachers,” he says. “Apparently no-one has realised that children don’t come in standard packets.”
He tells us about talking to politicians about music education: Senator George Brandis and Christopher Pyne. He told them he wanted a national music program, with a national coordinator to mentor other teachers. He convinced them to agree to this commitment and they started the program. They reduced the national music curriculum to just four pages, with these conditions: 1. There must be singing; 2. Students must learn to read music; 3. They must write their own music, and sing it.
Some teachers complained that they couldn’t sing. Richard said his program would teach them. “You can teach people to sing. It’s in our DNA,” he says.
Richard says that nobody in this country has ever researched how children learn music. “We are now doing it.” The results are coming in: the children being mentored in music with a good teacher are showing vast improvements in learning.
At the schools being studied, the retention rates were changing dramatically. During the study implementing this new music program, school spirit went up, reading went up, numeracy went up. “Children, through music and singing, are learning to focus, listen and concentrate,” Richard says.
“Are they reasons for teaching music? No, they are bonuses. We teach music because it is good, unique and abstract, which is so powerful in the mind of a child.”
The first sense to be developed in the womb is hearing. “This concept of listening develops in the womb, and it is this quality that the child depends on for life.” Richard says that the sound of a mother humming is incredibly calming for a child.
“Children can learn an enormous amount of music by rote,” he tells us. They learn nursery rhymes with patterns, through repetition and listening. “This has an effect on all learning.”
The neuroscience is in: those who don’t learn music as young children do not do as well at school, and even sport, as those who do.
“My job is to strive until every child in this country has access to a qualified music teacher.”
He believes in colleagues helping colleagues to achieve this aim. “It’s working,” he says. “Children’s attitudes to learning and school is changing. It’s music that’s doing it.”
Richard says that lots of grown up people hate community singing. Usually, it’s because they think they will sound terrible. “Don’t worry, because you do. Not everyone can be a nightingale. Some can be crows.”
Richard gets the audience to sing in rounds. “Sing, sing together, merrily, merrily sing.” The audience sings for Richard, despite his jibes.
“Your brain is saying thank you,” Richard says.
“The way to happiness is through singing. There are whole cultures that sing as part of their existence. We need to do that. And if ever I see you in the street, I’m going to sing to you.”
Richard Gill OAM, renowned and beloved Australian conductor and music educator whose work in developing young musicians is recognised worldwide presented this at Happiness & Its Causes 2016.