Comment: Drama and music teach skills for life

ARTS help pupils develop for the future, say Lilla Scott and Andrew McGarva

The formal purpose of education in Scotland is summarised by Education Scotland into four key “capacities”. They aim to enable each child to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor. Within our schools, each area of the curriculum has a role to play in supporting the development of these qualities in young people. Our experience as music and drama teachers highlights the role these subjects play in the development of key skills.

The education expert Sir Ken Robinson asserts: “The arts produce the most eloquent expressions of human intelligence, imagination and creativity. They beat at the heart of human life and give form and meaning to our deepest feelings and highest thoughts.”

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The study of music and drama requires compromise, consideration for others and a very practical sort of teamwork. As one of our pupils put it recently: “Even if you’ve got the biggest part, it’s no good without all the people around you. It’s about creating something that’s bigger than anyone individually.”

Successful learners, according to Education Scotland, “have a motivation and enthusiasm for learning, an openness to new ideas and a determination to succeed”. In music and drama, there is often no right or wrong answer, which puts us as teachers in a slightly different role to teachers of other subjects. Rather than holding the definitive answer to a set task or topic, we are there to inspire, to guide and to promote thoughtful consideration. Creative subjects provide endless opportunities for children to take responsibility for their own learning and they frequently surprise us with their improvisation, interpretation and insight.

When it comes to promoting enthusiasm for learning, it is impossible to overestimate the impact of students enjoying themselves. There is so much scope for fun in music and drama lessons. Students come out of a drama class or music practice energised; their brains refreshed and re-set ready to focus on the rest of the school day. Children lead such busy and pressured lives, and we must actively find ways for our children to play, to experiment, to improvise and to create things of their own making.

Confidence, the second of the Education Scotland capabilities, is a difficult trait to teach. Rather, the development of confidence requires frequent opportunity to practice a skill, a supportive environment in which to push boundaries, and a steady sense of one’s own improvement.

It takes courage to stand up in front of a class or audience. For children it can be wonderfully freeing to try out new behaviours and temporarily “try on” whole new personalities.

The confidence to express emotions can be particularly challenging, and it is vital that we promote in children the ability to seek and accept help. Performance can be an outlet for the expression of all kinds of emotion, and can act as a “pressure valve” for dealing with life’s challenges.

The ability to contribute effectively – in discussions, in workshops, and in shared tasks – is fundamental to the practice and performance of music and drama. In any class or year group, few will go on to become professional performers. All, however, will be required to perform in their daily lives – at interviews, during business presentations, or through public speaking. Business magazine Forbes reports that interviewers make a decision about potential employees within the first seven seconds of meeting. The ability to walk into an interview projecting professional confidence is a highly valuable skill – and one that can be taught, practiced and honed.

As young people leave the security of school and go off to new towns, new universities, and new jobs, the performing arts offer a route into these new communities for many people. Choirs, orchestras and dramatic arts societies help many students to make friends and enable many adults to find a creative outlet amongst the pressures of everyday life.

If the objective of education in Scotland is to shape young people who are ready for successful futures, then music and drama have a key role to play. In helping students to develop their confidence and self-expression, we are shaping young people who are ready to form productive personal and professional relationships throughout their life. We are enabling children to discover new facets of their personality and explore ways of dealing with emotion, as well as developing skills for learning that support their future success – in education and beyond.

• Lilla Scott and Andrew McGarva are head of drama and director of music respectively at Kilgraston School, Perthshire