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Music and the Brain

Kindergartners at PS 144 in Manhattan thought they were just having fun by leaving their regular classrooms for twenty minutes, three times a week, and playing music on piano keyboards and percussion instruments.

The children were visibly excited as they hurried to their assigned keyboards. Watching the teachers, they would wiggle their fingers in the air and sing the notes of the song they were learning. When asked to identify a number they held up the corresponding finger. They used headphones to hear only their own playing while practicing the lesson. After practicing the selected song on their own or with the teachers, some of the children try a song of their own choice.

The fact is, all this fun was actually a pilot program called Music and the Brain, and was based on a study indicating a link between the experience of early musical instruction and cognitive ability. The program is a collaboration between Lenore Pogonowski, professor of Music and Music Education at Teachers College, and Frederic Papert, president of the board of directors of The 42nd Street Fund. TC developed a curriculum that translated what had been a laboratory experiment into a viable public school situation. Mr. Papert equipped a classroom with a keyboard laboratory.

Frederic Papert, who co-directs the program with Lenore Pogonowski, was intrigued by the theory and wanted to put it into a classroom setting to create a win/win situation for the children involved. "If the research was correct," Professor Pogonowski said, "the children would increase their spatial-temporal intelligence, logical thinking, abstract reasoning and problem-solving abilities. If this did not occur, they would not have lost anything because they would have had three years of keyboard training and music concepts classes."

She anticipated that the program would enhance the children's learning skills by providing them with an opportunity to recognize numbers and make musical decisions. Moreover, Professor Pogonowski sees the children improving their dexterity while at the same time learning how to work together. And, finally, it is hoped that the program will enhance their resourcefulness.

"This project is concerned about the processes of making music and making connections in other areas, rather than preparing students to go to Carnegie Hall," Professor Pogonowski pointed out. "It is not our agenda to make that connection for them, but to open the door for such connections to be made by providing them with a pedagogy that stimulates them to think, act on their thinking, and produce because they want to-not because they have to."

The children in the program were initially given Weschler pre-tests and were re-tested after four and a half months, at the end of the program. The results of the testing are being measured and assessed, and a science advisory committee will evaluate the program's neurobiological underpinnings.

The pilot program was taught by doctoral students Sandra Rogers and Michael Nord. The curriculum they followed integrated movement, singing, playing percussion instruments, visual art, composition, improvisation and ear training. "You can see a difference in their behavior," Mr. Nord said. "Individuals who are having problems in their regular classrooms are real leaders in their keyboard classes."

Stephanie Miller, principal of PS 144, is committed to keeping the program in her school. "Knowing what we now know through Teachers College about how the brain works and how it develops, we can create a more solid program for our students." She continued, "Our children need a lot of help in learning how to focus and how to concentrate. When they have the opportunity to create music and replicate something that they hear, they gain a sense of mastery, which is key to success."

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