Linda Wyrill meets a local teacher whose passion is changing children's lives with music.
A great musical performance is about more than hitting the right notes, says music teacher Fiona Major (pictured with her daughter). A big believer in the developmental benefits of music for children of all ages, Major was nominated for Young South Australian of the Year in 2011 for her work supporting the development of children, including those with behavioural disorders.
The 35 year old began teaching viola and violin at 18, and is now string coordinator at Saint Peter's Collegiate Girls' School. She also teaches viola, violin, piano and a string ensemble at Marryatville Primary School, as well as a number of students at her home.
"Learning an instrument requires focus and individual attention," says Major. "To play an instrument you have to do half a dozen things at once just to produce a good sound, such as listening and adjusting your pitch, reading notes, and interpreting rhythm and timing." But it's her philosophy of involving students in community events through musical performance that is the most notable string to her bow.
Performing publicly, says Major, is an important part of developing through music. "Being involved in an orchestra or ensemble requires organisation, commitment, dedication and teamwork," she says. For her Marryatville students, performing annually at the nearby preschool and explaining to the preschool audience what they do also develops their public-speaking skills.
Jemma, aged nine, and one of Major's students, likes the social aspect of being part of an ensemble. "It's good because I learn from my peers," she says. "I listen to the tune of the first violins so then I know how my piece goes."
Major says the social aspect of music is particularly important for children with special needs. Ryan*, who has Asperger's syndrome, has been taught violin by Fiona since he was seven. She says he's worked hard to overcome many challenges, including the difficulties of learning how new social environments work. "At his first music exam he kept asking the examiner to stop," says Major. "When he first started ensemble, the social aspects of the orchestra were challenging for him. Now he does really well with it." For his most recent music exam, Ryan received an A.
Major involves her students in one concert and one or two other performances per term at preschools, churches, school fetes and aged-care homes.
Involvement in the community aspect of music gives children "a sense of belonging and a sense of achievement and pride," says Major. Playing for the public, she says, also gives children a sense that they are helping someone else, and that they have something important to offer, even at a young age.
Major's students have performed at the Royal Adelaide Hospital as part of its 'Music Matters' program – a public-health initiative that brings live music to patients in wards and waiting areas.
"I liked playing at the hospital – it was fun," says Min-Seok, one of Major's students. "A lot of people watched us. I like playing violin for other people."
Says student Jemma, "I felt happy because they liked our music."
Major's violinist daughter Jessica says, "Patients might feel they can't do much because they are sick, but they can look forward to hearing our music."
Major organises a fundraising concert each year involving her students. At the start of 2011, she and her young musicians raised money for the Premier's Disaster Relief Appeal for people affected by the Queensland floods and cyclones. "It's empowering for children to realise they can make a difference and contribute through their music," says Major. "Learning music is about building children's life skills, not just their music skills."
Fiona's ensemble students recently performed at the Festival of Music for schools. "It was awesome," says Edward, aged 12. "It was at the Adelaide Festival Theatre and there were lots of people in the audience."
Year 4 student Zoe plays viola in the ensemble and says performing is her favourite part of learning an instrument. Shannon, in Year 7, says you have to work hard before each performance, but it's worth it. She loves playing at events where she also gets to listen to other people speak or perform.
Major says you're never too young to learn music. "My overall goal is for children to enjoy music," she says. For her students, this includes the personal enjoyment and fulfilment that comes from giving a good performance, and sharing their music to help others.
*Name has been changed
For Further Information:
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra holds events and musical activities for children such as 'Toe Tapping Toddlers', suitable for ages three to five. Visit www.aso.com.au or telephone 8233 6233.
To learn more about Royal Adelaide Hospital's Music Matters program, visit www.rah.sa.gov.au/healthpr/music.php or telephone 8222 5193.
This article was first published in the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Adelaide's Child.