In 2018, ABC-TV screened a powerful three-part documentary called Don’t Stop the Music. Set in Perth’s Challis Community primary school, which is located in an area of high unemployment and low income, the documentary showed how playing music can change children’s lives. Dr Anita Collins, an award-winning educator, researcher and writer in the field of brain development and music learning, was involved in the documentary as the on-screen expert.

The day after it premiered, she was interviewed on ABC Classic by Russell Torrance. “The Editor at Allen & Unwin heard it on her drive in [to work] and she wrote me an email and said, ‘do you think you’ve got a book in you?’ and I said, ‘oh yes I do!’ It was great!” Collins tells Limelight with a big laugh.

Dr Anita Collins. Photograph supplied

The book, which was published by Allen & Unwin last month, is called The Music Advantage. In it, Collins draws on the latest international neurological research to reveal the many, surprising benefits to children learning music.

Collins wrote it for the layman rather than the neuroscientist or musical academic aiming to fill the “gaping hole between what is published and what is happening in the world outside the lab”.

In the book’s introduction she writes that the book is an “attempt to open the door for you, the everyday reader, parent, teacher and student to the world of neuromusical research and explain how its findings will in some cases reinforce and in other cases challenge what we think we know about music and music learning”.

Collins explains how music helps the brain development of babies and toddlers; how it can lengthen the attention span of young children; and how it improves persistence, self-confidence, leadership, memory, creativity, focus and stress management in primary school children, teens and beyond.

The Music Advantage is Collins’ second book. The first, which was called The Lullaby Effect, was self-published.

“The first one was an activity in learning, it was a project to help me learn how to move from being an academic writer to finding my own writing style,” she says.

“I was in academia for 12 years and I wrote academic papers, and I decided to move away from academia and share what I was doing and learning about but I couldn’t do it in an academic way, it just wouldn’t work. I did this little podcast series called The Lullaby Effect for a radio station in Sydney and as I was doing it, I thought, ‘what about if I wrote a chapter about each one?’ I gave it to a close friend to read and all he said was ‘there’s not very much of you in this’. I think it was his way of saying ‘it’s really bad!’. And then he said ‘why don’t you write as you speak because you’re a speaker and people get really engaged when you are speaking, how about you do that?’ So I rewrote the whole thing as if I was talking about it and I published it, but it was really an activity in teaching me how to find my writing voice outside of academia. This new book extended on from that.”

Asked how she enjoyed writing The Music Advantage, she laughs. “I don’t think anyone enjoys writing a book but I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about why I was so passionate about the work I was doing and it made me go back into a lot of the research that I hadn’t read for a few years.”

“As a researcher and especially as an educational researcher it irked me that so much of the research stayed inside the research field and wasn’t shared or applied in a way so that everyone could appreciate the leaps forward that were being taken. So I was trying to find a way to keep the authenticity and detail, while making it as approachable as possible.”

The book is certainly touching the spot with great feedback and reviews. “Dr Anita Collins’ insights highlight the irreplaceable role music plays in the full education of a children. The Music Advantage is essential reading for parents, educators and policy designers,” says Benjamin Northey, Principal Conductor in Residence of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Collins has done numerous interviews and talks. “So many people have come up to me and said, ‘the way you [explain it] made so much more sense compared to the way I was taught,’” she says.

Music helped change Collins’ own life when she was a child. She had difficulty reading until the age of nine when she began to learn to play the clarinet.

“I think even prior to the reading it helped me with academic confidence, I would call it. I was struggling with my reading and I was working really hard to hide that I was struggling with my reading. But that gave me a certain view of myself as a learner and it wasn’t necessarily the most positive one, and so being good at music even before the reading stuff kicked in and I started to get better at it that gave me that confidence of I’m actually good at something. For many children at school they don’t have that one thing and confidence.”

She studied the clarinet through high school and did a Bachelor of Music Performance at ANU. “I learned from Alan Vivian and then about the third year of the four-year degree, I realised I wasn’t positive that the performing rank and file orchestral player was the life for me. But I finished my degree. It was a really important thing to finish it, and then my parents did the whole, ‘do something sensible, go and become a teacher’. Mum was a primary school teacher. I still remember – it was the third week of my degree in education, I was sitting in this room in some lecture and I just had this moment [where] I went ‘this is exactly what I should be doing, this is my vocation’. It just struck me that being an educator – and that’s not just of children but of adults and anyone I come in contact with – that was what I was put here to do.”

Collins is a music teacher and conductor at Canberra Grammar School, and an Associate Fellow of Music, Mind and Wellbeing at the University of Melbourne. In 2018, she wrote one of the most watched TED Education films ever made. The four-and-a-half-minute animated clip, entitled How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain, used neuroscience to explain why playing an instrument causes “fireworks” to go off all over the brain. It has now had over 9.5 million views.

Asked if she was taken aback at its viral success, she laughs. “Yes it’s insane! I was really surprised because I was honestly just trying to avoid my university marking and going ‘I don’t want to do this’, so I went online and found this thing that said anyone can pitch to TED-Ed and this is what you have to do… What I didn’t realise is they get almost 400 pitches a week and they choose five people to interview, and only one gets through. But I didn’t realise that. I thought ‘this is great,’ and then it happened really quickly with their people in New York. It was all done by email, which also amazes me from a creative point of view, then it was suddenly out there and people were loving it. And it just shows me that people have an interest in this, and they want to know more, and it gave me confidence that this area that I’m passionate about, other people are interested in as well.”

When it came to Don’t Stop the Music, Collins was not surprised at the impact the music had on the children.

“I had such an interesting experience with it. People got to the performance at the end and they were truly amazed by the kids’ ability and I had a different reaction. I went ‘but of course they can do this.’ Then I realised that I get to see that transformation multiple times a year all around the country but I didn’t realise until that point that not everyone gets to see that. It made me understand why sharing those stories is so important because most parents and teachers don’t really get to see that, so I wanted to pull back the curtain a bit and say this is what happens and that’s why it’s so important.”

Anita Collins with two young school children. Photograph supplied

Three years ago, while researching The Music Advantage, Collins began learning to play the cello to inspire her daughter Ellie who was frustrated with her violin practice.

Asked if she is still playing the cello, Collins says: “I took a little break over COVID as the teacher couldn’t teach me but I am getting into it next term, which is great. I forgot how frustrated you get and how much your fingers hurt, and why is it that you can play something on a Tuesday and can’t play it on a Wednesday, all these things, But it was such a good experience for me to go back and feel what it was like to learn and not just be teaching. For me, it’s very important that all teachers continue to have those experiences so they continue to connect with what they are teaching. The further away you get away from learning a new thing the more distant and academic it becomes. So I think it was a really good thing for me to do. I’m glad I did it, and I’m really looking forward to picking it up again.”

The Music Advantage is published by Allen & Unwin. RRP $32.99

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