Research | Queen’s University Canada

Changing lives through music: The lessons we can learn

Changing lives through music: The lessons we can learn

July 17, 2020
Catarina Chagas
July 17, 2020

Since 2015, Sistema Kingston has provided underserved children with music training, helping them build confidence, persistence, and a sense of responsibility. A research project is now examining how students and families experience the program and its impact on their lives.


Since 2015, Sistema Kingston has provided underserved children with music training, helping them build confidence, persistence, and a sense of responsibility. A research project is now examining how students and families experience the program and its impact on their lives.

Playing classic instruments requires commitment and perseverance. Unfortunately, it usually also requires money to invest in private lessons – which creates an economic barrier for many children and their families as well as a socioeconomic gap. Closing this gap is one of the goals of Sistema Kingston, an intensive music education program housed at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Education.

This year, 35 students (grades 2 to 6) attended the program four afternoons a week. Their 2.5-hour schedule starts with snacks and yoga exercises, moving onto two different music lessons that focus on: violin, cello, or viola; choir; improvising and composing; and string ensemble. Such a routine aims to build not only musical capacities, but also collaborative skills, creative thinking, and self-esteem.

Evaluation as a tool of refinement

As Sistema Kingston’s fifth anniversary approaches, the program welcomes some evaluation to guide the years to come. “It is important for the program to be able to reflect upon past and current practices, and receive input that guides further growth,” says Tomm. Enter two professors from Queen’s Faculty of Education: Dr. Ben Bolden, a music educator and composer, and Dr. Alana Butler, whose expertise is at-risk learners.

[Photo of Ben Bolden]
Dr. Ben Bolden

As an enthusiast of music education, Bolden, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning, has been researching how artistic learning environments can nurture creativity. “Engaging children with music gives them another way to experience and connect with the world. It can open doors of opportunity and possibility. It can make their lives richer,” he says.

Butler's agenda focuses on equity, diversity, and inclusion in education, with special attention to race, gender, immigration status, and other social and economical matters and their impact on education. She highlights the importance of looking carefully at groups of at-risk children, since they are heterogeneous – kids might be facing hunger, or sexual abuse, or incarcerated, deported, or absent parents, for example.

[Photo of Alana Butler]
Dr. Alana Butler

Having herself benefited from an informal, low-cost, music education program, Butler also believes in the transformative power of music. “There’s something about the arts that allows you to experience the world in another ways, and also to express yourself,” she says.

Together, Bolden and Butler designed an empirical study to examine students’ and their families’ perceptions of their experiences with Sistema Kingston. They are following the program for two years to understand more about its the impacts, focusing on social and emotional development, identity, and inclusion.

While there are dozens of El Sistema-inspired programs around the world, most of them lack detailed and objective assessment of their impact on children and families. “If we just assume that they are wonderful, we might be missing the opportunity to make them even better,” explains Bolden.

Before starting to play real instruments, students build papier-mâché models to learn how to properly hold and take care of them.
[Children learning how to properly hold instruments]

A look at the future

Partial results suggest parents appreciate the program and have been observing its benefits. For instance, guardians reported that children behaved better at home since becoming part of Sistema Kingston. As one parent offered in a 2019 survey response: “It teaches a lot more than music and to play an instrument.”

Bolden and Butler are already involved in professional development workshops for the Sistema Kingston instructors, where they provide training and advice regarding challenging tasks, like teaching music in large groups and supporting vulnerable children. The researchers also expect to work closely with the music teachers to interpret the results of their project and to build recommendations for the program.

In the future, the goal is to take Sistema Kingston to other schools, broadening the access to music education in the city. This expansion will benefit greatly from the research project, to be concluded in late in 2021.

Transitioning during COVID-19

Like most projects going on at the university (and, well, around the world), Sistema Kingston had to adapt to social distancing recommendations. In their last day of classes, some of the students were able to take string instruments home to practice, but in-person lessons could not continue.

[Children playing violin]

As the social distancing period extended itself, the Sistema Kingston team started searching for an adequate online platform to continue the project. Teachers developed online classes and play-along videos. “[My son] has been benefiting from the Sistema [Kingston] online lessons to help ease the monotony of everyday life at home now… his cello lessons allow him to express himself artistically, and to keep up those skills that have helped him grow in more ways than one,” said a parent about the new study routine.

Unfortunately, Tomm explains that not all students are able to participate. “Access to technology and internet service are other barriers that our students face,” she says.

However, Sistema Kingston has had noteworthy success in breaking down barriers. The team is continuing in its mission to bring music education, and the associated benefits, to underserved children in Kingston and researchers at the Faculty of Education will continue to follow the group’s progress and see if it can be scaled.

Audio Story:

Understanding At-Risk Students

Season 1, Episode 09