Don and kids piano

Peter Hadfield explains how young people are being inspired through the power of music.

The Australian Children's Music Foundation (ACMF) was founded in 2002 by Don Spencer, OAM, accomplished musician and host of Play School for 28 years, and is a not-for-profit organisation using the power of music to inspire young people. "When I was a young boy, life was pretty tough for me and my family," says Spencer. "Music was my solace and fired up my imagination. It changed my life. I thought if I created an organisation that allowed kids to have more access to music, it could change their lives, too."

Over the past decade, ACMF has worked in disadvantaged, Indigenous, multicultural and isolated schools, providing free tuition to thousands of young people, and has donated more than $500,000 worth of free instruments for programs across Australia. Funding for these programs is generated through government grants, grants from non-government foundations, revenue from ACMF events and corporate and private donations.

ACMF programs in 46 schools nationally involve creating choirs, forming bands, teaching songwriting and arranging, directing live performances and providing free group music lessons. These programs have been so successful that there is a waiting list of 200 schools. It costs about $30,000 to fund instruments and tuition at each school per year, and as further funding is secured more schools will be able to access the program.

All students at Matraville Soldiers' Settlement Public School in NSW take part in the ACMF program, which involves classroom music lessons run by two music educators. Principal Maurice Johnston has witnessed the impact the program has had on student engagement, behaviour, attendance and academic performance over five years. "While it is difficult to extrapolate the role music instruction plays in these results, anecdotally the staff are convinced the discipline of music and the leadership and teamwork of performance flows across the school," he says.

Music programs are also being run in four of the five schools in the isolated Indigenous communities on the Tiwi Islands. Two ACMF music educators visit each school for one week, twice every term. They also support teachers and members of the local community to continue their work, with the aim of holding an end-of-year concert involving all four schools and their communities.

Music-therapy programs are also provided to students traumatised by disasters such as the Victorian bushfires in 2009, encouraging them to express their grief in a positive way.

The ACMF runs other programs as well, such as the National Songwriting Competition, which recognises and rewards the talents of young songwriters from Reception to Year 12. Last year, winners in each category for secondary-school songwriters received $800 worth of musical equipment or music tuition and a $500 ACMF grant for music equipment for their school.

One of many ACMF success stories is the growth of its juvenile-justice programs, which operate in 20 centres around Australia. Professional musicians teach singing, songwriting and a variety of instruments that are provided to detainees upon their release so they can continue their music. Magistrates have recognised the benefits of reduced rates of reoffending, improvements in behaviour and an increased engagement with learning associated with the programs.

ACMF teacher and music therapist Kym Weatherley runs the organisation's music-therapy program at Sydney Children's Hospital at Randwick in NSW. The program is delivered to children who are chronically or critically ill, and can involve percussion, drums, guitar, ukulele and other instruments. The aims vary, from distracting the child from their pain and surroundings, to helping them achieve musical progress. While the program is only in its infancy, Weatherley says the sessions have already been integrated into the hospital's well-established non-pharmaceutical-care program. The aim is to roll out ACMF music-therapy programs in other major hospitals across the country by sourcing additional funds.

ACMF also runs a music program for teenage mums and dads attending the Young Parents Access Program (YPAP) at Corio Bay Senior College in Geelong in Victoria. Young parents who are completing their senior education, and their children (under five years), can engage in a range of musical experiences that enhance children's social, motor, speech, language and emotional development. According to YPAP program coordinator Lorraine Armstrong, "The increased self-confidence student parents have gained from participating in this program has a positive impact on all aspects of their lives."

The ACMF continues to bring its programs to young people across Australia, and has contracted 35 teachers, primarily professional musicians selected and trained by the ACMF, to conduct the classes. Not only are ACMF programs assisting young people, but the support provided to the teachers is helping them further their careers as performers. Additional financial support from government, corporations and individuals will allow the ACMF to change even more young lives through music.

For more information, visit

PHOTO: Don Spencer and kids.

Peter Hadfield, OAM, is chief operating officer of the Australian Children's Music Foundation.

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