Music and mindfulness at Leweston School

Rachel Milestone, Director of Music, outlines the benefits to wellbeing that music can bring

The promotion of good mental health in schools is a hot topic. Numerous PSHE lessons, staff meetings, insets and CPD courses focus on the growing mental health issues for pupils, and the need for mental health education to build resilience when coping with the increasing demands of academic life.

However, is it only the resilience of pupils that we need to be building? With headlines such as ‘More than half of teachers have been diagnosed with mental health issues’ (Independent, 23/1/2018) and the NASUWT Teachers’ Union describing the neglect of teachers’ mental and physical health as a ‘national scandal’ (4/7/2018), surely we need to focus as much on the wellbeing of the staff in schools?

With this at the forefront of my mind, I set about establishing Leweston School’s staff music lesson scheme. The link between music and good mental health has long been identified. Plato, for example, said: “Education in music…is most important…because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace” (Republic III 401d-e). 

William Congreve’s oft quoted “music hath charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak” (The Mourning Bride, 1697) also seems particularly pertinent here. More recently, there have been a number of articles in educational and psychological journals advocating music as an invaluable resource when it comes to good mental health.

In one of them, Dr Robert Myers, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at the Irvine School of Medicine, is quoted as stating: “Having a little bit of music in your life every day can be good for reducing stress and anxiety. Research and experience has shown that calming music can provide stress relief for children and adults” (Sarker, TES, 5/2/2018). 

Armed with the above evidence, I approached the senior management team at Leweston School with the outline of my proposed scheme. The overall vision was to offer music lessons to staff – both academic and support – as a way of promoting wellbeing, mindfulness and CPD. My emphasis was primarily pastoral, focusing on the mental health care of the staff body.

My hope was that it would also promote social relationships within the school and improve staff output and engagement and, therefore, ultimately, pupil outcomes. The senior management were immediately supportive, and a plan was devised whereby staff would be offered five free instrumental/singing lessons, funded through a CPD budget, with the option to sign up for regular lessons on a long-term basis at a reduced rate.

The scheme was met with great enthusiasm by the staff body. Almost immediately, aspiring oboists, singers, flautists, saxophonists, recordists, guitarists, harpists, clarinettists, violinists, pianists, and double bassists, filled the available twenty free places.  The staff music ‘pupils’ were apprehensive, excited, but, ultimately, full of joy at the prospect of their first lesson, with one of them stating “I need to do this before I die!”

So, has it worked? Has music brought mindfulness to the staff of Leweston School? It is obviously early days but already the feedback has been incredibly positive. From a CPD perspective, staff on the scheme have indicated how it has allowed them an insight into how difficult it is to learn a new skill, and has therefore given them more empathy with struggling students.

In terms of wellbeing, many of the staff on the scheme refer to it as valuable ‘me time’. Others talk about rediscovering the joy of learning and the positive effects their lessons have on their morale, confidence, and ability to relax. From my perspective as Director of Music, to see such excitement and joy on the faces of colleagues as they leave their music lessons is incredibly heartwarming, and brings me hope that the scheme may indeed have soothed any “savage breasts” or bent any “knotted oaks” that were brave enough to sign up for it.

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