Student Scheduling: Easing Into the Day with Music

Patia Maule, NYA ’99, has been the Language Department Chair at North Yarmouth Academy. Patia has carried out a variety of roles at NYA, including Spanish teacher, language department chair, Bluegrass instructor, Steelband instructor, and substitute music theory teacher.  She has played many instruments in many genres of music, but she currently fulfills her passion for music by playing synthesizers in her original indie-synth-pop band, Forget, Forget. Patia also teaches lessons (piano, synthesizer, guitar, voice) and ensembles at the Maine Academy of Modern Music.


How do we start our day in the Upper School at NYA?

By playing music.

Why?

Because it helps wake up sleepy teenagers and makes them better students!

Wait, what…?!

Now … imagine that before your Spanish grammar lesson, you’re given a jolt of energy that wakes up the senses, focuses the mind, and engages your creativity, perseverance, and collaborative skills.

Coffee?

No, even better.

Playing music!

For real. Sleep scientists have studied the circadian rhythms of adolescents and found that, on average, teenagers’ circadian rhythms cause them to go to sleep and wake up two hours later than elementary-aged children. In other words, 7:30 a.m.—the time when many schools start their day—actually feels like 5:30 a.m. to most teenagers. Imagine an existence where you had to be fully functioning at 5:30 a.m. every day, ready to take a chemistry test, memorize facts about the French Revolution, learn the present perfect subjunctive in Spanish… never mind, stop imagining that! It’s too awful to contemplate!!!

Now, instead imagine that before your Spanish grammar lesson, you’re given a jolt of energy that wakes up the senses, focuses the mind, and engages your creativity, perseverance, and collaborative skills.

Coffee?

No, even better.

Playing music!

For decades—long before any the research on adolescent circadian rhythms was common knowledge—our schedule in the Upper School has begun at 8:00 a.m. with a 50-minute period dedicated to ensemble rehearsals. Research aside, we can attest as educators that we’ve observed over many years that playing music first thing in the morning primes teenage students for optimal engagement in their academic classes and sets the tone for the day.

But how exactly does it do this?  I’m not a neuroscience expert, but I have a few ideas:

  • Playing music is a multi-sensory activity, requiring audio, visual, and kinesthetic engagement; it helps get the blood flowing to many parts of the body and the brain, helping wake us up and sharpening the senses.
  • Playing in an ensemble requires collaboration, teamwork, and focus. Doing so first thing in the morning helps us get in the groove to focus and engage collaboratively all day long.
  • Playing music requires active engagement from both hemispheres of the brain. Doing so on a regular basis actually enlarges the corpus callosum, the thick band of neurons that connects the two halves of the brain and allows them to communicate. Stronger communication between the analytical and creative halves of the brain translates not only into better musicianship, but also into greater innovation and creativity in the classroom throughout the day.

Personally, as a teacher and a coffee-drinker, I can attest that having steelband at 8:00 a.m. is better than drinking a second cup of coffee. It not only wakes me up, it enhances my mood and makes me feel more ready to give that Spanish lesson on the present perfect subjunctive at 9:00!

But wait…do all Upper School students have music every morning? No. While the majority of students in the Upper School do play or sing in at least one ensemble, not all students choose to enroll in music, and not all music students have music every day.

So, what do these students do from 8:00 to 8:50?

They ease into their academic day not with music, but with extra help from teachers and quiet study time. Students work on papers and projects, use the library, study or collaborate in small groups, and check in with their teachers to ask for feedback on a draft or get extra help on a tricky topic. These students may not get all the early-morning benefits that music students do, but they are still allowed a schedule that more closely aligns with their natural circadian rhythms while having the opportunity for extra time with teachers.

At NYA, we provide a significant amount of time in our schedule every day to playing music because we believe in its importance and transformative power for students and their developing brains. We provide time to meet with teachers because we believe that teacher-student connection is the cornerstone of learning.

And in the Upper School, we do all of this at 8:00 a.m. because we know that it’s the best way for adolescents to start their academic day.

The following ensembles currently meet at 8:00 a.m.:

  • Monday – Wind Ensemble
  • Tuesday – Chorus, String Ensemble, Jazz Band
  • Wednesday – Wind Ensemble
  • Thursday – Steelband
  • Friday – Chorus, String Ensemble, Jazz Band