oked River Elementary School's music class with Lorie Woehl could well be considered the fertile garden where young minds are growing and blossoming. Music is the unifying factor this Crook County teacher uses to teach students everything from complex mathematics to rhythm to social skills _ and her most promising students are among the youngest.
"I'm intrigued by how natural the the youngest students are at learning music. We use drums and they catch the beat right away. These kids have a natural ability to play the beat and march at the same time _ something that older children sometimes have difficulty with," she said. "And they love it. They really enjoy their time in music class."
Woehl, who has been a music teacher in Crook County for a little over four years has been teaching elementary school students only for about a year, says working with the younger students is a rewarding experience for her as well as for her students.
"With music you have to start really early to get them going in the right direction. It's very much like learning foreign languages. It's much easier for younger students to learn language and music than it is for the older students," she explained. "To be fully effective, it really needs to be offered to students when they are most receptive. Then, by the time they reach high school, their skill level and enthusiasm for music will already be set in motion."
Music education not only gives students a chance to learn a few tunes and perhaps perform in front of an audience, it also has long-term effects on a person's overall ability to learn.
According to recent research, students who learn some form of music continue to out perform their non-arts peers on the SAT. In 2000, SAT takers with experience in music performance scored 51 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 39 points higher on the math portion than students with no experience in the arts. Scores for those with course work in music appreciation were 61 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math portion.
The new studies on music and learning goes hand in hand with on-going research on the development of the human brain. According to these studies children are born with billions of unconnected or loosely connected nerve cells called neurons.
Every experience, such as seeing a parent smile or hearing their voice strengthens the connections between these cells. It seems that pathways in the brain that go unused eventually shrink up. Therefore, a child's early experiences can help determine what that child will be capable of in adulthood.
Some researchers believe that music learning takes its place among the kinds of experiences that lead to long-term changes in the brain's hard wiring, meaning that the more exposure young people have to music, the better off they are in the long haul. However, with the perpetual scare to cut the arts in education to save funds, the good news is that the arts in Crook County seem to be gaining some momentum.
"I think we're building a little bit," Woehl said. "We are lucky enough to have a supportive community and school administration who are really pushing for the arts."
Woehl also teaches a preschool music class not associated with the school district which, although she may have been a little apprehensive about at first, she now finds particularly rewarding.
"I had spent so much time with middle school and high school students, that I didn't know what to expect with younger students," she said. "But I'm really enjoying the kindergarten students which made me think that I could easily teach a preschool class as well."
Research conducted on students in New York indicate that exposure to music may also have positive effects on behavior, self-esteem and thinking skills, a fact that is borne out with Woehl's preschool students.
"One of my students has a learning disability and after spending some time in the preschool music class his behavior improved so much that the teachers at his regular preschool were curious about what had happened to him to make such a difference," she said. "They were very interested in learning how to incorporate some of what we are doing into their own curriculum."
Woehl's dedication to the young students is hoped to have far reaching effects. "With the preschool class I actually think of them more from a kindergarten perspective than a preschool perspective," she said. "I look at it very much from what can I do to get them ready for kindergarten. The more cross-curricular things we can do incorporating music, the better these kids will be when they start school. I like to think that it sets a precedence for the next 12 years. If they are secure in who they are right now, the more successful they will be later on."