Musical Immigrants

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Being the new kid at school is never an easy transition. As an immigrant? Even harder. But German researchers have figured out a way to help ease the drastic change for those young kids seeking acceptance in a new culture: play music together.

“Programs providing young migrants with the opportunity to perform music within a larger, culturally heterogeneous group can be viewed as an effective intervention to encourage adaptation to mainstream culture,” wrote a research team led by psychologist Emily Frankenberg of J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt, published in the journal Psychology of Music.

Focusing on 159 German elementary school students from immigrant families—mainly those of Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian, or Polish descent—the study looked at 62 kids in second and third and grade who participated in “An Instrument for Every Child.” The kids took two weekly lessons on the instrument of their choice starting in second grade, and in third grade would join the school ensemble. Their level of cultural integration would be measured twice—at the beginning of the study and 18 months later—and then compared to the other 97 students who didn’t participate (some of whom still opted for choir).

Participants responded to statements intended to gauge “behavior and attitudes in such domains as language use, music and national pride,” as well as how accepted and valued they felt by their peers. Those who began the study as third-graders and who were retested as fourth-graders “showed an increase in orientation to mainstream culture,” writes Frankenberg, an increase they did not find in the non-musical group of kids. The younger students who had just begun third grade at the time of the second data collection (those who hadn’t played in the ensemble for much time), however, did not report a difference. The research team said this strongly suggested that playing in the student ensemble is what caused the sense of belonging.

“Results indicate that it was the experience of collaborating and performing within a larger group which led to stronger host culture orientation.” In this program, no matter religion or ethnicity, “students collaborate to perform music pieces together. This requires children to listen and pay attention to each other,” the report said.

It is worth noting, however, that 87 percent of the kids were born in Germany but came from immigrant parents—a detail that leaves room for interpretation as to how this same approach would affect adolescent immigrants. Another factor that the researchers will try to hone in is encouraging the students to pick an instrument native to their country (fewer than 4 percent had), as “maintenance of one’s culture of heritage is a necessary component of healthy adaptation.”

“Through the experience of playing music together, migrant children … come into closer contact with their non-migrant classmates, and are encouraged to develop a stronger sense of community and cohesion,” the report concluded. “For immigrant students, this may represent a key opportunity for social and cultural inclusion within the classroom and, from there, within wider mainstream society.”

Image by Robin Zebrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.

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