Prof. Bina John: “we can’t live without music”

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Overcoming barriers to music education

Assistant Professor of music education Bina John is unequivocal in her defense of music education. “Music is not only a birthright, but it is the ultimate expression of being human. Music is one of the most accessible ways to meet a child’s need to flourish. Every child should have the right to thrive, physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually and musically.” Professor John insists that the right to make music is not only universally deserved, but universally attainable. “I believe every single person is musical…If everyone can learn to speak a language, everyone can learn to make music. It’s not a talent, it’s not a gift; it’s who we are.”

Professor John’s faith in the power and necessity of music is reflected in her academic career, which she has spent investigating the benefits of music-making. For eight years, she has served on the Board of Directors of the Regent Park School of Music, which provides affordable programming and lessons to 1,000 children from low-income families in Toronto every year. In 2016, she initiated a research project, Of Music and Social Justice, to investigate a joint effort between Regent Park School of Music and Turning Point Youth Services Program, to provide music classes to youth residing in juvenile detention centers. (Watch U of T's October 2017 profile of the program below.) She is also currently a collaborator on The Virtual Music Teacher project. Led by Dr. Elaine Biddiss at Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, the project is developing an early music education app for children with disabilities.

Though these two projects seem very different, both aim to overcome barriers to music education for children and youth. The Music and Social Justice program was a response to a need for social interaction among youth in the youth justice system, as articulated by lawyers and judges who served on the board of Regent Park School of Music. “They saw a real gap in the justice system, and believed music could really make a difference for the youth during this very difficult stage in their lives.” The results of the program are promising: “So far the research shows that the youth who participated not only increased their musical skills, but there was evidence of a deepened awareness of self, and awareness of self is a fundamental aspect of self-regulation.” Professor John also noted that many participants sought to continue taking music lessons after being released from detention. “It wasn’t just [about] the program, but creating opportunities for life-long learning.”

The Virtual Music Teacher similarly addresses a gap in music education, among children with disabilities. Although Professor John identifies the period between the ages of three to eight as a critical window of opportunity for musical development, she notes that many children with disabilities miss opportunities for music education, since their time, energy and resources are spent on therapy. According to Dr.Elaine Biddiss, the lead investigator, less than 6 percent of school age children with cerebral palsy have ever taken music lessons, compared to 85 percent of typically developing children. The team is optimistic that their app will help to close this discrepancy by providing early music education remotely; the app includes active listening games, and a “mixed reality” component that responds to children playing actual instruments.

Professor John does not shy away from articulating what is needed (and often missing) in efforts to expand music education: “the barriers can be overcome by seriously investing a significant amount of money in music education.” The importance of funding is clearly illustrated by the effect of COVID-19 on the Virtual Music Teacher versus Of Music and Social Justice. The former, which receives NSERC funding, was able to respond to the sudden increased need for virtual music education by accelerating development of one part of the app. The latter project, which had already suffered funding cuts from the Provincial Government in 2019, has completely shut down in the wake of the pandemic. Professor John describes the uncertainty of the project’s future as “very, very sad:” “I do not know when the government will begin funding this program again, or when it will become a priority again.” She believes that lack of financial commitment to music education stems from a lack of awareness: “We need to educate major stakeholders about the benefits of making music, and educate our entire society about the long-lasting effects of systemic racism, and the need for our society in general to understand diversity and inclusion.”

In the meantime, Professor John remains optimistic that projects such as these will help to bring the right of music-making to more children and youth. “I feel blessed. People approached me for these projects; I didn’t go looking for them. I find that really humbling…and I am thankful for that because they’re two equally profound projects that highlight how we can’t live without music.”

This article was written by Claire Latosinsky, a fourth year BMus Voice student.