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In tune with the whole child. Galina Zenin in conversation with Agnieszka Burton

Holistic Think Tank

In an old photo Galina’s head is adorned with a huge white bow, she is wearing a short brown dress with white cuffs and collar of white lace, and an immaculately white apron over it. Her legs sport knee-high white socks that contrast with her shiny black shoes. Though she looks like a pupil from some up-scale Parisian grammar school, the picture was taken in the 1970s’ Moscow, in the depths of communism.

Back then, on the top of regular school classes and playing piano at home, her parents insisted that she attend a music school three times a week. Music was an important part of the Russian tradition; it was very common to send children to ballet, music, or other performing arts schools. Besides mastering various instruments, the children also had to sing in a choir, learn to play piano, and study the theory and history of music. When Galina resisted, her mother was quick to answer: “Please practise, music is good for your brain.” Russians believed that music was a tool that helped children to achieve academic success.

It took Galina some time to fall in love with music, especially with conducting. After she finished the 8th grade, she went to the Moscow Ippolitov-Ivanov Music College and then furthered her education at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. Later on she worked at schools and established the “Resurrection” Children’s Choir in Moscow.

In 1992 with her husband and young daughter, Galina emigrated to Australia. She was in her late twenties, did not know any English; nor did she know a soul on the other side of the world.

Today Galina Zenin is one of Australia’s most innovative music and early childhood educators. She has given presentations at a number of conferences in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and the USA.  She is a creator of holistic education programmes and a recipient of the Australian Scholarships Group’s 2015 National Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2018 her Bonkers Beat Music Program was selected by the Department of Education and Training (of the state of Victoria) for the School Readiness Funding Menu.

Galina Zenin receiving 2015 ASG National Excellence in Teaching Award

Agnieszka Burton: Galina, what inspired you to create the Bonkers Beat Music Program in 2004?

Galina Zenin: My Russian musical education was highly regarded Down Under [editorial note: “Down Under” = “in Australia”], so since 1994 I have been teaching music in a number of private schools in Melbourne. I was the Director of the Junior School Music department at Korowa Anglican Girls’ School. But when my son started school, I realized neither the early childhood sector nor many primary schools have any music education programme. It was very much up to a school principal to decide if they were to integrate music into the curriculum or not. It was heart-breaking, especially knowing how powerful and important music is for children’s development. I wanted more children to experience the power of music no matter what their background or demographic. 

Burton: So the private schools in Australia provide quite substantial music programmes, but not the public sector?

Zenin: Correct.

Burton: I should mention here, that all private schools in Australia are very expensive, for example the annual fee at Korowa Anglican Girls’ School in Melbourne is currently $36,200 AUD ($36,200 AUD = USD 27,874 = 23,168 EUR / 106,525 PLN).

Zenin: Every private school has music educators and in many schools children start learning instruments, singing in choirs, or playing in bands and orchestras from the age of 7 or 8. The music lessons are offered either once or twice per week. Fundamental brain development is occurring from 0 to 8 years of age, so if we wish to use music as a tool to help children to become smarter, we can’t wait until they turn 8.

Burton: Unfortunately parents and teachers regularly undermine the value of music.

Zenin: Parents should research what music does to children, and give them the opportunity to try. When I left the private sector, I started running free music classes weekly for children aged 15 months to 5 years. Parents loved it, and soon asked me to open a centre. And that’s how the first Australian Music Kinder, Bonkers Beat, was born.

In the third year of running the kinder[garten] I was approached by a mother who introduced herself by saying: “I have three boys, we are not big fans of music, but I’ve heard that kids who finish your kinder are doing well at school.”  She signed her youngest up to Bonkers Beat and seven years later we met again at the supermarket: “What have you done to us? Now all my boys are playing instruments… ” She sounded happy and proud.  She gave me a big hug and then, laughing, told me that they spend a fortune on classes for musical instruments.

Another example: a girl diagnosed with autism commenced Bonkers Beat Kinder. She used to sit in a corner covering her ears every time we played any music. Little by little, throughout the year, she started participating in group activities and playing instruments. During the concert, ten months later, she was dancing with her best friend, singing, smiling, and having the best time of her life! Her mother got so emotional that she started crying and even struggled just to take some photos.

When parents start treating music as a tool to develop brains, they see changes in children’s behaviour. That’s why our method is growing, the centre is at full capacity, and parents constantly ask me to open more centres.

Burton: There is plenty of research data supporting how music affects brain development. Dr. Robert Myers, PhD, a Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist, cites increased brain connectivity, increased grey matter in the cerebral cortex, particularly in the sensory-motor area, and an increase in blood flow in the left side of the brain as a few of the effects. These result in better coordination, improved language processing ability, emotional regulation, ability to inhibit negative responses to events, and enhancement of a child’s ability to handle frustration.  If this is not enough, maybe the fact that Einstein learned to play the violin as a young child could help to convince some parents and educators?

Zenin: I agree. Research shows that music makes a powerful positive impact on children’s brain development.

Over the years we’ve received reports from a speech pathologist, that reflect that due to singing and making music daily, our kinder children’s speech development, including comprehension and articulation, is higher than the Australian average. 

There is not an area of human development that cannot be impacted by music.

Burton: What is the most important aspect of this programme?

Zenin: The programme is delivered daily. Throughout the day educators are encouraged to use spontaneous singing and structured music sessions.

Spontaneous singing is great for transitions throughout the day such as, washing hands, putting on sunscreen, meal times, tidying, cleaning, etc. Over the years, I’ve composed many original songs, as well as created new lyrics for traditional tunes. That way children sing and have fun while doing something important.

During the arranged sessions they play percussion instruments: drums, maracas, castanets, tambourines, bells, and some of them even glockenspiel.

Another factor that makes children love this programme is engagement. The songs incorporate sign language, movements, instruments, and elements of drama. I believe in the power of classical music, so every morning and afternoon educators put on certain classical pieces to create a calm environment and help children settle in.

Burton: Does the programme have its roots solely in educational philosophies originating in Russia or also in other parts of Europe?

Zenin: Yes. My music programme is also based on and influenced by methods of Hungarian composer and pedagogue Zoltán Kodály and German composer and music educator Carl Orff.  I’m very passionate about both methods which played a significant role in creating the programme, as well as my love of classical music and music around the world.

Burton: This music programme was growing together with Bonkers Beat Kinder?

Zenin: That’s right. Bonkers Beat Music Program and Bonkers Gym Wellbeing programme were created in conjunction with Bonkers Beat Music Kinder. It’s impossible to separate one from the other. So when I talk about the music programme I talk about the kinder. 

Parents and educators often ask me how it happened that children love my songs so much and they work! Here’s a little secret… When I was composing the tunes and writing the lyrics, I would play and sing the songs, and ask children for feedback. Sometimes they complained by saying: “Galina, the music is too fast, we can’t play it.” Or “Galina, it’s too long.” So, after discussions with the children I would go back to the studio and make changes.  As you can see, children from my kinder played a big part in the process.

Burton: Do you think this music programme could be implemented in primary schools?

Zenin: Absolutely! Most of the songs I’ve written support the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework [interviewer’s note: resources for professionals working with children from birth to 8 years old] and are easy to embed into the curriculum.  We sing songs about numbers, letters, gardening, sustainability, farming, safety, etc. I believe many schools, especially in primary years, can use this music programme to link a variety of subjects. This provides the children with an opportunity to learn about the world and concepts in a holistic way by being wholly engaged.

In Australia many educators use the method of scaffolding, adjusting their support techniques to suit an individual child or extending educational experiences. For example: one of the children’s mum was pregnant, so we introduced the song about growing up and talked about all the various things that grow around us. To make these discussions with children more meaningful, we’ve involved them in gardening, engaged in art experiences, brought books, puzzles and pictures on this subject.

In another example children had a group and individual visual arts project on how they see winter, autumn, summer, and spring. They went outside and looked for fallen leaves, later children created a dance and sang a song about seasons.

Another good example here is a song about emotions. This is both big and very important topic… Ideas to illustrate it are endless! A teacher can use a mirror and ask children how they feel. Then children can draw themselves or use play-dough to create self-portraits. Educators can use a variety of games, visual cards, books, puzzles, and the list goes on. 

The song is like a seed, or a tool to connect and summarize everything in a very engaging and fun way.  Songs also provide many opportunities for open-ended questions, they prompt children and provide them with “scaffolding.”

Burton: However, schools are very time-poor. How could teachers incorporate these songs into the already busy schedule?

Zenin: The Bonkers Beat songs go on only for two or  two and half minutes. They can be used to start or end a lesson, or can be used in the middle of a busy day to give children an opportunity to move and get engaged. That will provide much stimulation to enhance learning even further. [Editorial note: a few sample songs are available at: https://www.bonkersbeat.com/]

Burton: How could schools consolidate such programmes into their curriculum?

Zenin: It is already happening in Australia. Three years ago the Bonkers Beat Music Program was included in the Victorian School Readiness Funding Menu. Teachers can watch online training, and play songs to children. Schools don’t really need any additional budgets for purchasing musical instruments. Drums, shakers, maracas, and other percussion instruments can be made from recycled materials.

Burton: How about secondary schools?

Zenin: Australian high schools have various subjects, including: English, Mathematics, Science, Humanities, Social Sciences, The Arts, Languages, Health and Physical Education, Technologies, and Work Studies. I don’t think the original format of the Bonkers Beat Music Program would fit in.

However, I believe that all students would hugely benefit from the Bonkers Gym Wellbeing programme, which incorporates elements of music. It can be modified and include contemporary styles of music and different strategies for older children.

Burton: I have just imagined a high school where teens are rapping to learn geography, mathematics, or science. Maybe they could create their own songs, which in turn would help them to memorize formulas and concepts; it would also allow them to let off some teen steam!

Zenin: That would be amazing! It’s a great idea, but to start composing, previous exposure to music, at a young age, would definitely help.

I’ll give you an example: A boy in our kindergarten told me one day: “Galina, I created a song about planets.” When he started singing, I realized that it was one of my tunes, but the lyrics were his own. So, I said to him: “Tom, that’s amazing! Would you like me to create a new tune for your song about planets?” He replied: “Galina, you need to write some hip-hop song, as you don’t have any hip-hop!”  And he was right, so I came home and asked my teen son to show me some good rap, for some inspiration, that’s how “Bonkers rap” was born. That little boy wasn’t ready to compose his own music, but he was really clever to use the tune that he knew, and adapt it to his interest.

Burton: How children with special needs, for example with autism spectrum disorder, could benefit from this music programme blended in everyday schoolwork?

Zenin: All children love music! Children with autism are usually even more obsessed with music because of its repetition, predictability, and the way it is structured. Music helps children’s development and learning in multiple domains including cognitive, motor, social, emotional, and communication skills.

Burton: When I visited the Bonkers Beat Kinder information session, a few years ago, I was drawn to what you said about children’s creativity, and how children will be creating new jobs in the future.
Could you please tell us more about that?

Zenin: My prediction was inspired by many incredible educators and speakers, including Dr. Yong Zhao and Sir Ken Robinson. Ken Robinson in particular  was very passionate about performing arts, especially music, and it was a great loss when he passed away a year ago.

I believe we need to facilitate and enhance children’s creativity because the world is changing rapidly and children growing up now will be creatively shaping the future.

Burton: I also remember a beautiful sensory path in the Bonkers Beat garden, where children walk barefoot on rocks. Your kinder is very successful; you received the “Excellent” rating by the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, the highest rating a service can achieve under the National Quality Framework. The Bonkers Beat Music Program is very successful and has even been implemented to over 50 early childhood services across Australia. Tell us more about your wellbeing programme…

Zenin: It all began in early 2000s when I experienced lots of personal health issues and work-related stress. Luckily, I came across an incredible Swami Sarasvati, who originally brought yoga to Australia in the 1960s and became my inspiration and mentor. And that’s how my wellbeing journey began. Gradually, I introduced yoga to kinder[garten] children and developed a range of wellbeing routines which incorporate lots of music and poems. This wellbeing programme is very powerful as it promotes and enhances mental, physical, and overall wellbeing of both young children and their educators.

Burton: In the olden days music was an important part of everyday life, during long winter nights people used to play instruments and sing, the same at gatherings and celebrations.  Why are we losing the touch with music?

Zenin: You’re right… Our focus has shifted… Parents concentrate more on academic subjects and stress a lot about the tests. The educational system is centred around formal assessments rather than the holistic way to assess children’s progress and help them blossom. That’s why so many children now feel that they are failing.

Burton: What types of values should schools have in your opinion?

Zenin: I think we need to go back to basics and focus on fundamental values like kindness, empathy, resilience, health, creativity, good manners, cooperation, and looking after the environment. Regardless of the technological progress and complexity of the time we live in, as a human society, we won’t be able to thrive if these fundamental basic values are not taught at schools and homes.

Burton: The Australian school curriculum is quite interdisciplinary. Primary school classes run programmes in blocks of subjects; in high schools science is integrated with biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. My friend, who has her boys in a good public high school, explained that, for example, they  learn trigonometric functions by using the example of building the wheelchair ramps for disable people. Or when they were learning human anatomy, they linked it with some biochemistry.  But schools are still focused mainly on achievements and test results. Do you think interdisciplinary education would help to enhance the important values that you have mentioned earlier?

Zenin: Interdisciplinary education is a part of holistic education. Students’ emotional and cognitive growth will be enriched if multiple subjects are taught together. Children have multiple intelligences and learn in different ways. So when we bring a variety of subjects and children start looking at concepts from different perspectives, they understand the world around them better and learn more. Children thrive on interdisciplinary education!

At our kinder, if a teacher introduces a concept of numbers, they provide a wide range of experiences. Children sing about numbers, draw numbers, work on art projects, make puzzles, listen to stories, play with friends in a make-believe shop and use “coins and notes to buy food.” They start seeing numbers everywhere! But most importantly, they start understanding what numbers represent and how they work. This topic of numbers can also be taken and used for gardening. Children might plant a different number of seedlings: 5 beetroots, 3 onions, and 15 carrots. An educator and children can also record when they’ve planted veggies and learn more about days, weeks, months. The opportunities for learning to deepen children’s learning are endless!

Burton: So to summarize, how would you define the holistic approach to education?

Zenin: For me, holistic education is about linking performing arts, visual arts, languages, science and all other subjects together. It’s about enhancing children’s curiosity and connecting their mind, body, and spirit.

That’s why the Bonkers Beat Program is so different. It focuses on the development of the whole child and making strong connectedness to the environment and natural world.

To my mind, holistic education is the only way to move into the future.

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