"50th Anniversary" Churchill Fellowship

The Barbara Matthews Churchill Fellowship

In 2015, Anita was awarded the Barbara Matthews Churchill Fellowship to explore research collaborations between music education programs and neuroscience laboratories. This is an important anniversary year for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, marking 50 years of supporting Australians to travel overseas to conduct research in their chosen field. The Fellowship aims to reward proven achievement of talented and deserving Australians with further opportunity in their pursuit of excellence for the enrichment of Australian Society.  

Anita's trip was in May 2016 and will visit programs and labs including

  • The Harmony Project (LA)
  • The Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern Univeristy (Evanston)
  • El Sistema Music programs in the New Jersey/New York area
  • The International Laboratory of Brain, Music and Sound Research (BRAMS) in Montreal. 

Anita's reflection on her Churchill Fellowship

My Churchill Fellowship experience was designed to look at the triangulation of music education, neuroscience and disadvantage. At first these three areas seem to be unrelated, but recent research has pointed to the powerful impact that music education can have on the neurological impacts of disadvantage. Being a music educator and then a researcher, I had been fascinated by the potential of my area of expertise to improve the lives of children through developing their brains.

I visited two music programs (Harmony Project and El Sistema) focusing on children living in difficult social and cultural circumstances, and two neuroscience labs (Brainvolts and BRAMS) who specialize in using music to understand how the human brain grows and changes.

The highlight from the music programs was to see how effective developing a child’s executive functions skills could address the multitude of personal and academic issues that are inherent in living in disadvantaged circumstances. Executive function skills are the basic building blocks to become an independent adult and are learned primarily at home. Encapsulated in one activity, learning music in an ensemble, child learn how to focus effectively, maintain attention, develops personal responsibility, communicate appropriately and resolve conflict productively. Surprisingly, learning music helps children to tolerate personal boredom and creates an incentive to inhibit behaviors that would disrupt the rehearsal. Music education is an enjoyable, social cohesive, cost effective and neurologically powerful means of changing a child’s future.

In contrast to the music program environment I was very familiar with, spending a week in each of the neuroscience labs felt like entering a different world. I underwent all of the neuroscientific tests that were performed regularly on participants, donning electrodes all over my head and a motion capture suit to get a first hand understanding of their work. I learned about groundbreaking research that linked the brain’s mechanisms for music processing with our understanding of Parkinson’s disease, the root structures of autism, the mechanisms for the development of language and the way music education significantly and permanently changes the brains of human beings. I also learned that there is a need for translators like myself to help musicians, music educators and parents understand this cutting-edge work. 

As a music educator, I have experienced the way music education can change children’s lives. Through my Churchill Fellowship I have heightened my understanding of how music education enhances every child’s brain, regardless of talent or intelligence. Imagine how an entire generation of musical educated children could change the Australia of tomorrow.