University of North Texas researchers, after roughly two years of study, recently tied off their project that looked at music educators’ knowledge and ability surrounding performing arts safety.
UNT’s Texas Center for Performing Arts Health, in partnership with Denton ISD and funded by the National Institutes of Health, passed along its findings to music educators across the state this past week.
The study looked at how well music educators understand the current state-mandated requirements for teaching students about safe techniques in the performing arts, which includes dance, theater, music and musical theater.
The Texas Education Agency approved the changes in 2013, but they didn’t take effect until the 2015-16 school year.
It has since become clear that, while educators are largely on board with the need for students to practice safe techniques while playing their instruments, not all teachers in the state know the best way to go about it.
Meghan Taylor, a UNT doctoral student and project manager for the study, said the TCPAH group had achieved its goal of providing a free resource to Texas educators to help them deliver health information to their students.
Kris Chesky, a co-founder of TCPAH and UNT professor involved in the study, said the major takeaway for him is that many music educators share an intrinsic level of appreciation for the issues surrounding performing arts health.
Those issue range from chronic pain and musculoskeletal problems associated with the odd postures necessary for some instruments to hearing issues that develop down the road.
One central point of the researchers’ findings is that lessons taught to music students in the classroom can be carried with them for the rest of their lives, even if they put down the instrument for good.
For instance, according to information published to the TCPAH website, some of Texas’ biggest industries — such as manufacturing, petroleum refining and construction — come with occupational hazards that could be lessened by adhering to lessons taught in music classes.
“These industries involve repetitive motions, excessive sound exposure, sustained vocalizations, or other situations that require an understanding of health and safety to make appropriate health decisions,” the website states. “Broadly, these situations are indeed similar to those asked of students engaging in band, choir, and orchestra ensembles across the state.”
An earlier iteration of the TCPAH/Denton ISD partnership would have seen more in-person observation and data collection from local music educators, but the pandemic derailed many of those aspects.
“We didn’t feel it was smart for us going into those situations with the teachers having so much else going on,” Taylor said.
The final product ultimately arrived in the form of a web seminar that was subsequently sent to music teachers across the state.
In the video, Melissa Lewis, a high school band director in Denison ISD, and Travis Harris, the band director for Denton’s McMath Middle School, fielded several questions about student safety.
They both spoke to the difficulties of assessing and improving students’ physical strength, coordination and ability.
Assessment begins for instrumental ensemble teachers from day one when students first get to pick what instrument they’ll play. Harris said he prefers parents be present so he can get some sense of how students will grow into their bodies over the next few years.
That means considering everything from height to dental structure to determine if kids will be physically suited for particular instruments.
That’s not to say a student with short arms won’t be able to play the trombone, or a student with weaker pinky movement won’t be able to play the clarinet, but it does mean the student will require closer attention to make sure they’re not harming themselves.
Proper safety means stretching and some strength training, Harris and Lewis said.
“We don’t do stuff like microfiber tears and things like that to build muscle. We’re just talking about kids being able to hold instruments correctly and the stretching that goes along with that to make sure — especially the littles — [they] learn they’re picking up big instruments,” Harris said.
From here, Taylor said the next steps for the project will be to spread current findings as best they can in the state and to hopefully get into classrooms for more hands-on research.