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Partnership with Chicago Public Schools yields research boon

Kate Johnston, the director of choirs at Walter Payton School, is the kind of teacher who gives kids wings. The Chicago Tribune put it best when it profiled her two years ago. The title of the article was Remarkable Person (she was teaching at UIC Prep at the time): “In two short years, she has taken kids who had never heard a symphony and gotten them onstage to sing with one, Chicago Sinfonietta, at the downtown Harris Theater, just five miles but a world away.”

A musician and educator who works with underserved students, Johnston doesn’t just devote herself to the kids she teaches. She’s also done a fair amount of thinking about the connection between neuroscience, music, and cognition.

Back in the late-2000s, she was working “with a very forward-thinking principal,” she said, “who asked me, ‘Can you connect music with literacy? Will kids read better because they’ve studied music?’

“I said, ‘I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to find out.’”

She sought out a book: Music, Language, and the Brain, by Aniruddh Patel, the first comprehensive study of music, literacy, and neuroscience, which the neurologist Oliver Sacks has called “indispensible.”

After reading it, she got in touch with Patel, who said, “Do you realize that right there in your own town is one of the greatest neuroscience labs in the country?”

Johnston then contacted Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Chair and professor of Communication Sciences, Neurobiology, and Physiology, who runs Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. For the past ten years, Kraus and her colleagues have been doing research that demonstrates to the world that learning how to play a musical instrument has enormous positive effects on a child’s developing brain.

Johnston proposed a collaboration. “I’m sitting on a remarkable population for you to study,” she told Kraus. “You can follow them for all four years.”

Now at the end of their third year of data collection, the study has proven to be complex and fascinating. Students from UIC Prep, Pritzker College Prep, and Evanston Township High School are participating in the project. While the students learn (or don’t learn, in the case of the control group) to play music, Kraus and her colleagues are studying their brains.

“These are logistically difficult projects to do,” Kraus explained. “We must follow these children longitudinally for several years and it can be difficult to maintain contact with them and their families.”

“Recruiting, too, was very hard,” Johnston added, “because of the language barrier. We’re working with a lot of bilingual families.”

Still, in spite of the odds, the study is producing affirming results. “We have our first two publications demonstrating the powerful negative effects of poverty and benefits of in-school music training on the adolescent brain,” Kraus said. “We are seeing that kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (as measured by maternal education) have an inefficient auditory system that is noisier and poorer at responding to sound. We are also seeing that after two years of training—one year was not enough—the brains of the kids who are in music have changed so that they are now less impacted by noise. Biologically, their nervous systems have become more efficient machines, and this has positive consequences for both reading skills and hearing in noise.”

For Johnston, this has been resoundingly positive news. For one, she’s been able to go back to that forward-thinking principal she worked with five years ago and say yes, there appears to be a big connection between the study of music and advantages in literacy—a revelation she hopes will ultimately be embraced by legislators and policymakers. “There is way too much defunding of arts programs in this country,” she said. “We’re handicapping the cognitive potential of our youth with these decisions.”

And for a teacher who thrills in seeing her students wing off into the wider world? There have been some happy developments there, too. “One of our earliest participants in the program got in to college last spring,” she explained. “She entered Northwestern as a freshman this fall.”