Singing and Healthy Children

Participating in a chorus can have a transformative effect on a child’s academic achievement and overall well-being.

What constitutes well-being for a child? Social scientists include such factors as being in a family with enough resources. Having good health and access to health care. Living in a safe neighborhood. Being able to learn and achieve academically. Being engaged in the community. Having friends and a sense of belonging. Being stable emotionally and nourished spiritually.

Many children, because of poverty or other deprivations, start off in the deficit column on most measures of well-being. Derrick  was such a child. When he was 12, both of his parents were incarcerated on drug charges. He and his sister went to live with their grandparents, which meant having to adjust to a new school and neighborhood. Derrick was struggling and a troublemaker when he showed up for rehearsal at one of the Cantare Con Vivo Children’s Choirs that are offered free of charge in schools all over Oakland, California. 

“It was challenging to keep him in the choir because of his behavior issues,” the choir’s conductor Julie Haydon recalls. “But he had this beautiful voice.” Haydon recruited several men from Cantare’s adult choirs to befriend Derrick and redirect him when he was acting inappropriately. Before long, Derrick was a dedicated choir member, even performing solos in concerts. 

After a year, Derrick moved again, and Haydon lost track of him. Then in the fall of 2012, a young man ran up to her on the street in downtown Oakland. “Julie, I was in your choir. Do you remember me?”

“Everywhere I go, I know I am a good singer,” the now-several-feet-taller Derrick told Haydon. “People tell me they can sing, but I know, because I was in choir. I always think about that, and I’m glad I saw you because it reminds me of all the good things we did in choir.”

A senior in high school, Derrick plans to go to community college. “That’s a big deal because the high school dropout rate is over 50 percent in Oakland,” Haydon says. “Derrick is very proud that he stayed in school and he has ambitions to do his best. Music played a role in that. That to me is a great testament to what this has done for him, to have had that positive experience to carry around with him through all the ups and downs in his life.” 

Filling in the Gaps

“When children get more resources, they do better,” the Foundation for Child Development’s January 2012 report Analyzing State Differences in Child Well-Being noted. Yet spending on children in the U.S. is falling at the federal level, and state financing, which provides the bulk of programs for children, varies widely from state to state. Arts and music programs are often the first to go when states look for places to cut in the education budget. 

Independent children’s choruses are helping to bridge that gap. Of the around 85 independent children’s choruses that are members of Chorus America, some specifically target children who would not otherwise have access to music programs of any kind. Many offer scholarships or other similar opportunities.

Atlanta Music Project students perform with Roger Waters during his "The Wall Live" tour. (Photo: Lauren Page)

Carol Schoch founded the Detroit Children’s Choir seven years ago because she couldn’t bear the thought of kids missing out on the transformation that choir participation can bring. “Fifteen years ago, Detroit schools had some of the best music programs in the nation,” Schoch says. “Now because of budget cuts and mismanagement, most of the schools we go into don’t even have an institutional memory of ever having a choir program or any music whatsoever.” 

Choral organizations are attempting to fill similar gaps in other communities. Three years ago, the chorus Seraphic Fire partnered with Miami-Dade County public schools to establish the Miami Choral Academy, which serves kids from the county’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. In Atlanta, a new choral music adjunct to the Atlanta Music Project (AMP) called AMPlify launched this past February to serve children living in the resource-poor southwest section of the city. Both the Miami and Atlanta programs are inspired by El Sistema, the groundbreaking program that has taught music to thousands of Venezuela’s poorest children. 

Though El Sistema is primarily known as an orchestral program, it has always had a choral element, says co-founder and director of AMPlify Aisha Bowden. That’s an advantage, says Shawn Crouch who directs the Miami Choral Academy. Focusing on the voice means that everyone can participate. “No one has to buy instruments,” says Crouch. “And our program has a better chance of being replicated.” 

Accessibility is key for all four of these programs. All rehearse in schools or other neighborhood settings to which children can safely walk. “Neighborhood choirs make sense,” Schoch says, “because of lack of public transportation. You couldn’t just have one central location and expect people to come, especially those that need it the most.” 

Bowden agrees. “Southwest Atlanta is like another land,” says Bowden. “If you don’t have a car, you are out of luck. We want to make sure that children who live in that area receive the same exposure and uplift that the arts will bring as children that live north of the city.”

In Miami, violence prevention is also a concern. Crouch points out that most juvenile-related violence happens between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., so that’s when the Academy program runs. 

Singing Out with Boldness

In places where there has been such a lack of resources, the impact of a choir on a child can seem disproportionately large. “Most of our kids have never sung in a choir when we first start,” Schoch says. “At the first concert, they are total novices. They have never sung in front of an audience of that magnitude before, have never been in a beautiful space before, have never been among so many children. They are shy, a little nervous. They are singing well but not singing out. 

“Then they get that first round of applause,” she says. “They see the smiling faces and the love coming from the audience. They stand up a little taller and the next time a little taller, and by the time the concert is finished, they are singing their hearts out. They are totally at home in the situation. That process is so important to the transformation of a child.”

Crouch recalls such a transformation in a female student, who “was lighting trash cans on fire” at the time she entered the academy. Within two years, he says, she had worked her way into the top-performing honor choir, and is now an A student at her middle school. “We like to say that you can’t be angry with someone when you’re singing. We’re literally teaching them you have to listen to each other; you have to put your personal self aside for the greater whole. That’s how we create a beautiful sound.” 

What the Research Says

Stories such as these testify to the importance of group singing for children. Yet relatively few research studies have linked choral music participation with many aspects of child well-being. Chorus America’s 2009 Choral Impact Study broke new ground when it documented for the first time the connection that parents and teachers report between choral singing participation and children’s behavior in the classroom and at home. The study found that children who sing in choruses get significantly better grades than their classmates who were never in a choir. Parents of choristers reported that participating in a chorus contributed to other qualities that help their children learn and develop—such as good memory, good practice and homework habits, and high levels of creativity.

Other studies have tracked the impact of choral music instruction on students’ abilities in other subject areas important to their development, such as math and language arts. A 2010 study conducted by Barbara Helmrich of Notre Dame of Maryland University found that middle school students in Baltimore who received formal instruction on a musical instrument or formal choral instruction outperformed their peers in algebra—a subject that experts say provides a solid foundation for later learning by teaching abstract reasoning skills.

A research summary compiled by ABC Music and Me, a supplemental education program that uses music and movement to advance language and literacy skills, cites a wealth of studies that demonstrate students who have music instruction do better on reading comprehension tests, have better verbal memory, are more skilled at listening, and have a greater vocabulary than those without music instruction. The research suggests that children’s early communication skills are the single best predictor of future cognitive skills and school performance. 

The Detroit Children's Choir performs (Photo: Deanna Carpenter)

A second grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Oakland noticed marked improvements in English language development among many of her English as a Second Language (ESL) students who participated in a Cantare choir. “There were also noticeable improvements in the areas of participation and concentration for my ADHD and autistic students,” she says. “One of my students, at the beginning of the school year, was barely producing isolated words with his stuttering. As the school ended, he was articulating more fluently and not afraid to sing and speak in front of the class.” 

It’s About More Than Getting Good Grades

The links between choral singing and academic achievement are often used to reinforce the need for more funding for music programs. But those who lead children’s choirs are motivated by something deeper. “Everybody measures the impact of things like math and reading arts as the tangible product of music education,” Haydon says, “but for me what motivates are the effects I see on kids from a socio-emotional standpoint. The opportunity to be a leader, to be part of the group and a part of something bigger than themselves is really huge. It is so critical for a child to have that place where they belong and are connected.” 

“Every singer is important. Our choir is not the same with one person gone. I believe it. And they believe it too.” 

The opportunity to work hard and work together to create something of beauty has a profound impact on children, Bowden believes. “In chorus, everything is performance based,” she says. “We are messing up, and we are fixing it. Children learn that it can be fixed and it’s not such a hassle to do things the right way. It carries over to everything else.” 

At a certain point, choir becomes family, she says. “I tell the kids, the same love and dedication that you have in your family you can have in this choir because you understand the meaning of family. In choir they start to have a bond that other kids do not get, because they have experiences that other kids do not have.” 

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2013. In this special issue devoted to singing and wellness, Chorus America explores current research and tells stories about how singing together contributes to the well-being of individuals, groups, and communities. Our Singing and Wellness Resource Guide explores the studies cited and further reading.

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