Shannon Brown gets up to speed with British International School’s collaborative effort with The Juilliard School of New York City. Photo by Richard Harper.

It has long been known in the educational world that a child who loves and learns music is more likely to love to learn.  Making music involves using multiple senses simultaneously – we listen with our ears, scan and read music with our eyes, touch the instruments or microphone with our hands, and process ongoing information throughout the song or piece.

Tapping into these skill sets can have amazing benefits. A study from Boston Children’s Hospital in 2014 found that executive brain function – the strongest predictor of academic success – is better in musicians than in non-musicians.

Music education has been a proven booster of early language development, increased IQ, better spatial-temporal skills, and improved test scores. At a time in educational history when many schools around the world are dropping or limiting their music programmes, Nord Anglia Education (NAE) schools are expanding into new territory. Here in Vietnam, British International Schools are excited to announce their collaboration with the most prestigious music academy in existence: The Juilliard School.

The collaborative music programme between Juilliard and Nord Anglia began in 2015 with a first-wave trial in nine schools. The final curriculum was rolled out to all 43 schools, located in 15 different countries, in the fall of 2016.

The curriculum centers around 12 pieces of iconic music and are meant to be used in all age groups. Each school will also have access to workshops, master classes, and performances by Juilliard alumni.

The Juilliard mentor for BIS is Paul Murphy, a trumpeter who has worked as a musician and educator for The Juilliard School, Carnegie Hall, and the New York Philharmonic. His role is to guide the programme’s implementation. During his introductory visit, he also made time to hold Q & A sessions for senior students on life in the music business and give performances on each campus.

Other Juilliard alumni are scheduled to visit over the academic year as well, and possible opportunities for online evening lessons should come soon. In 2016, the programme will focus solely on music, and in 2017 plans are being made to roll out new dance and drama curriculums designed by Juilliard.

I sat down with Ian Alexander, the Director of Music at BIS, to ask some questions about this new venture. “It’s just fantastic and very very exciting,” he told me when I asked about his first impressions. “We have a series of listening tasks recorded by Juilliard alumni and students which demonstrate the intricacies of the pieces. These are great tools to explain to our students how the works are put together. We also have a series of activities provided based around performing and composing. These activities are well-produced and we can integrate them into our normal curriculum and school programmes. It’s not just musically stimulating – it’s going to spread out and we will be able to use the 12 works in maths, science, art, history, and even English lessons. These are the early days of implementation but the potential is vast.”

We spoke a bit more about the concept of an ‘embedded’ curriculum. “The individual teachers will develop other subject curriculum for each piece,” Alexander said. “But we already have many ideas from the schools which piloted the curriculum. For example, you can use Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in math to study patterns, Thelonious Monk’s work to discuss the historical period of jazz, and any of the lyrical pieces to look at rhythm and poetry.”

BIS music teachers have already used three of the pieces this year in primary school lessons – Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Gershwin’s The Song – and has touched on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in his Music for Dramatic Production course.

One of the biggest changes parents are likely to notice is the new focus on keyboards for all students from reception through to 6th form. The Juilliard creative classroom states: “Using keyboards in a music curriculum encourages concrete and immediate comprehension of abstract concepts. Our experience and hands-on work with various kinds of learners has shown that there is no simpler way for students to begin to understand music notation than to see the relationship between notation and the keys on a keyboard. Additionally, while instruments such as recorders are traditionally used in the educational environment, keyboards facilitate exploration of harmony and melody.  Playing the piano helps students to begin to understand music notation and to see the relationship between melodic shapes, rhythmic patterns, chords, and counterpoints.” Alexander told me that the new set of keyboards throughout the school have been a big hit and students are enthusiastically enjoying the new resources and set works.

“Here at BIS we have an exciting programme of curricular and extra-curricular music,” Alexander continues. “We run a large variety of musical activities including choirs, bands, orchestras, string groups, big band and jazz sextet, and many chamber music groups. We collaborate closely with the drama department to produce musical theatre productions. In the last few years we had a student enroll in film composition at Berklee College of Music and this year three of our final year students are applying for conservatories, choral scholarships, and university music courses in the UK and US. We value music and believe it has a positive impact in our students’ lives,” Alexander said when I asked about being the Music Director at this exhilarating time. “I am very thrilled for this wonderful addition. Juilliard’s education programme is full of amazing musicians. And they’re not just amazing musicians, they are inspiring educators. Their team is hand-picked and they can all talk to students, whether the children are 3 years old or 18 years old. I have been more than impressed by their dedication and fit to the programme.”

The British International School, HCMC is planning a big event early next year that will showcase Juilliard alumni and talented BIS students. This event will give parents and the community a chance to understand more of what the program is all about and provide opportunities to get involved. The curriculum is currently being taught in years 1 to 9, while curriculum for the upper levels are receiving finishing touches. Stay tuned to AsiaLIFE for dates and details.