Singing a new tune in arts innovation

Melbourne, 20 Feb 2016

The Song Room is a non-profit organisation that provides tailored, high-quality music and arts programs to Australia’s most disadvantaged children, delivered in partnership with schools across the country. The Macquarie Group Foundation has funded The Song Room’s research into arts interventions for impact comparison analysis, as well as online content development.

The Macquarie Group Foundation has funded The Song Room’s research into arts interventions for impact comparison analysis, as well as online content development.

One morning, a 12-year-old boy – let’s call him Farrukh – slunk silently into the hall of an inner city Australian school. Dotted around him were clusters of students – laughing, playing, or just watching and listening. Business as usual in the culturally diverse school, where students were gathered to participate in The Song Room’s (TSR) music program; here, they’d been learning violin, cello and piano for several months.

Speaking was not easy; these children came from many different language backgrounds, and most had not long been in Australia, having spent the greater part of their lives in refugee camps. They struggled not only with the English language and adapting to school culture, but also with the aftershocks of unimaginable trauma and terror. Most could not voice what they’d lived through.

The way we deliver a program on the ground is very tailored to the unique context of that school, of their community, of their needs... - Caroline Aebersold

That morning, nobody could know the pain that Farrukh carried with him as he entered the room.

Without a word, he took his place at the piano, bowed his head, lifted his shaking hands to the keyboard, and began to play. Gradually, a hush fell on the room; all eyes were fixed on the solitary boy. Minutes passed. Another child at down next to him, at first tentatively picking out notes, and then confidently adding to Farrukh’s swelling chorus. Other children stopped their own play and chimed in, until the entire room was united in the creation of music.

The Song Room’s teaching artist watched, enthralled. What poured out of these children was a beautiful jazz improvisation, beyond linguistic barriers, beyond the chasms of cultural divide, and beyond the loneliness and grief that inhabits many of these children’s hearts.

It was not until later that it emerged that Farrukh had gone to the TSR program that day because he was incapable of attending his regular classroom; he was reeling from a bout of violence witnessed at home just hours before. Farrukh came from a very fragmented family of recently arrived refugees. They were the only family members remaining; the rest of his family hadn’t survived in their home country. The echoes of damage – and of violence – remained with them.

What Farrukh was seeking was shelter, peace. And, explains Caroline Aebersold, CEO of TSR, “The place that he really found refuge was in his music. Sitting at the piano, with his classmates, he didn’t have to talk about what was really going on, and all the negativity of what’s still in his life. It’s such a beautiful example of how music and creativity can provide an escape, and overcome language and social barriers”.

Farrukh is just one of the tens of thousands of children the non-profit organisation works with, and success stories abound. The results of a Macquarie Group Foundation-funded three-year quantitative research study into the impacts of the organisation’s programs speak volumes about the potency of arts in education: NAPLAN results on literacy improved by a whole year, school absenteeism reduced by 65 per cent, and there was an almost 50 per cent decrease in the proportion of children who rated on the lowest levels of the Social and Emotional Wellbeing Index. Creativity, it seems, has an enormous positive impact on our children and on the education sector.

It is this creativity that lies at the heart of The Song Room, and it’s garnered the organisation international recognition. It is Australia’s first recipient of the prestigious World Innovation Summit for Education award and it has also received an Australia and New Zealand Internet Award for innovation through its online ARTS:LIVE initiative, now used in 60 per cent of Australian schools and by over 10,000 teachers.

A focus on innovation permeates TSR, from strategy development to funding models that include social enterprise initiatives, from the delivery of creative programs to community and school engagement.

“We are an organisation that is about using creativity as a tool for social change and educational improvements,” says Aebersold.

“So we try to be creative at all levels of our organisation. We focus on what the needs are in our schools and in the education sector, and how we can address those in an innovative way. And our model of delivery is not a cookie-cutter approach. The way we deliver a program on the ground is very tailored to the unique context of that school, of their community, of their needs, of their student cohort, and of what their interests are.”

This organisational elasticity can be both a blessing and a curse. The evidence shows that TSR’s ability to respond to community and educational sector needs results in hugely improved outcomes; flexibility is the key.

“We’re not just an arts organisation; we don’t just work in the education space. We work across arts, education, Indigenous affairs and immigration.” Yet while this adaptability can open new funding opportunities, it can also see the organisation fall through governmental funding cracks. “We think outside the box – but we don’t always fit into the box,” notes Aebersold.

It can also pose challenges in conveying exactly what it is that TSR does – it can be tricky to define what the organisation can offer a particular school, to communicate to funders, or to raise general public awareness. Says Aebersold, “If you talk about breast cancer, you only have to say those two words; people know what it is, why it’s important, why it should be funded, what the issue is and why it’s relevant”.

It’s not easy to be concise when explaining firstly why it is crucial to address equity in education for disadvantaged children, and then why creativity in the arts is a vital and powerful means of achieving this. Drawing a picture of the complex range of community needs that TSR addresses can also be quite a feat – the programs may focus on literacy needs for a non-English-speaking-background student cohort, or they may target behavioural issues by building teamwork and cooperation using arts, music and theatre, or the work may focus on using arts to foster cultural cohesion in a diverse and sometimes conflict-ridden environment.

And then there’s describing a very complex process of delivery involving building partnerships with schools, principals and teachers; engaging and selecting teaching artists to deliver the program; capacity building and creating self sustainable outcomes in the school; and working with multiple art forms. This can be difficult to communicate not only to funders, but it also poses challenges for new employees, board members or supporters trying to understand how TSR works.

“If you have a very clearly defined, one dimensional program model – and often that’s what’s required – you’re meeting a very defined, specific need; there’s a specific model that will address that. If you have a more simplistic model, it’s very easy for people to come into the organisation, to understand what it’s about, to get on board with that program and deliver on it.”

Being a highly supple, creative organisation also impacts on recruitment. “When we do our Myers-Briggs profile on our organisational team, we tend to attract extroverts, people who are more intuitive, people who think outside the box.” This spells strength in these areas, which aligns nicely with what TSR does, but Aebersold is conscious of ensuring there aren’t gaps in the organisation’s skill base.

TSR’s senior executive and board have a vital part to play in keeping the organisation balanced. Part of their strategic and governing role, says Aebersold, is ensuring that TSR “is staying the course and on track, that we’re managing risk and being a well-run organisation. All of those governance responsibilities are the flipside of innovation, and you need that. You need people who are looking at the organisation from a different kind of lens”.

Board members, however, also need to share TSR’s vision, and to be opportunistic and imagine creative ways for executing this. Once again, this requires balancing skill sets in the board, and in the organisation’s other advisory committees. What TSR needs in the board has changed over time, as the organisation has evolved through different stages of growth.

Through all of TSR’s ventures, Aebersold is clear that there is one element that remains fixed. While innovative non-profits must be open to new ideas, new opportunities and new ways of thinking, both from within and outside of the organisation, it’s also critical to keep all eyes trained on their central purpose.

“You have to be very clear about what your core vision and mission is, and staying on course in the broader sense, because otherwise you run the risk of being pulled in different directions and being spread too thin, or trying to be all things to all people.”

Even though, in the 10 years that Aebersold has been at the helm of TSR, the organisation has evolved extensively and explored many avenues of innovation, their vision has not changed over time. “Our vision,” explains Aebersold, “is that all children should have access to the arts, to improve educational and social outcomes. And that’s what we’re still about.”

In education sectors across the globe, creativity is being recognised as a growing priority. When Aebersold joined TSR, the international evidence base supporting the effectiveness of creativity in improving educational outcomes was establishing, but there was little Australian research. Aebersold’s background is in the mental health sector, where “evidence-based practice is absolutely an expectation. Whereas,” she reflects, “in education and particularly in the arts, the expectation that there was research evidence and a strong evaluation framework to underpin work didn’t really exist”.

The Macquarie Group Foundation-funded research project conducted on TSR provided that robust evidence base demonstrating, not only for the organisation but also for the educational sector, the impact that arts can have on education. Out of that project, researchers Professor Brian Caldwell and Dr Tanya Vaughan released an internationally published book, Transforming Education through the Arts, which topped Amazon’s education book sales rankings for a period after its release.

This, says Aebersold, put Australia, and The Song Room, on the map as innovators placing creativity at the heart of education.

Issues of equity in Australian education, as well as concerns about Australia’s slipping standards compared with our international peers, dominate current educational sector debates; these are often expressed in drives to improve literacy and numeracy results. For Aebersold, the evidence is clear: “You get better outcomes in school, including in literacy and numeracy, if kids are engaged in their learning. To engage kids positively in their learning, they have to enjoy it, they have to want to be there, they have to turn up to school, and they have to be inspired by what they’re learning. And so we have to think innovatively about how we teach, what we teach and embedding creativity in all subject areas in their learning.”

Arguments for an increasing focus on creativity in the education sector are persuasive. When we think about the world we are preparing our children for, it’s difficult to forecast what shapes Australia’s future economy and industries may take. Education cannot simply prepare children for today’s industries and markets; the generation currently donning crispy new uniforms and trudging off to classrooms will be working in industries that may not yet even be imagined. Indeed, these very children may be the creators of those industries.

Argues Aebersold: “We need children who can think innovatively and create these jobs and industries of the future. So we have to give them very diverse skills. We do have gaps in Australia in arts education, and creativity is a way that we can engage children in their learning for the basic skills, but also creativity is increasingly going to be a core skill area that we need to equip children with for the future.”

For Farrukh and thousands of other Australian children like him, TSR’s vision of arts access for all means that, even for those in the 2000 most disadvantaged schools in Australia or in the 7000 schools that currently do not have specialist arts teachers, there will always be a musical instrument to learn, a gaggle of classmates to paint a mural with, an improvised play to negotiate, a collaborative poem to compose, or, simply, a piano to go to when all else fails them. And the results speak for themselves. 

Image caption: Caroline Aebersold, The Song Room CEO.

This article is an excerpt from the Macquarie Group Foundation's book, Innovation big and small: How great ideas are strengthening our community, which was produced in 2015 in celebration of the Foundation's 30th anniversary.

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