How music can inspire you as a school leader

Ben James Connor

Ben Connor is a Primary school teacher in Lancashire. Teaching since 2010, Ben has taught from Year 2 to Year 5. Since September 2018 he has been English subject leader and SLT at a school in Bolton. In his spare time he writes articles, and leads workshops mainly focussing on Music and English, sometimes a combination of the two.

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As I’ve only just dipped my toe into school leadership, I was surprised at just how difficult it has been this year. Simply managing your class, or leading a subject, is a full time, stressful job all year round. Throw the demands of leading a core subject - or the day-to-day demands of managing a school - into the mix, and ‘stressful’ doesn’t describe it. Thankfully, there’s a great, highly-accessible resource to hand: music.

How exactly can music can inspire leaders? To find out, we first need to discuss how it can make a difficult job easier. I am a musician and play a number of instruments. Playing an instrument, even when you have lots of experience, requires your full and complete concentration. Playing the piano, as I do, requires you to engage so many different elements of your body, both physical and mental that any other thought goes quickly out of the window.

That sheer level of concentration is how I destress. The only place where thoughts of school go fully out of my mind is sat at a piano stool. Any school leader, or teacher for that matter, needs something that completely frees their mind of school - be it exercise, meditation, and so on. This is definitely a vocation rather than a job; you simply can’t walk away at 3.30. However - and this is vital - you MUST be able to compartmentalise in order to survive.

The other way that music helps me with wellbeing is singing. I sing in a community choir once a week. Whilst the levels of concentration are different, this is another oasis in a busy week, one which frees my mind from thoughts of school. Music, and singing in particular, has so many physical and mental benefits.

A review by Chanda and Levitin (2013) highlighted the positive impact of simply listening to music in a variety of ways. The review showed that listening to music releases dopamine and oxytocin in the brain, whilst also increasing the body’s immunity by supporting the production of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that works through the mucous system. One of the studies reviewed also found that listening to music resulted in a decrease in cortisol, the ‘stress’ hormone.

Singing has also been found to have major physical impacts upon the body, particularly the respiratory system (Vickhoff, 2013). Singing, especially in a group, produces a coupling of heart rate variability to respiration, a process called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Singing produces slow, regular and deep respiration, which in turn triggers RSA. RSA is a benefit of activities such as yoga and tai chi, so singing can be seen as an alternative to these, as well as having other physical and emotional benefits.

So music is good for you. Listening to music and singing along, whether in an organised way with a choir or simply in the shower, or in the car, on the way to work, can have a positive impact on your body - both mentally and physically. Music can provide a moment of calm in a busy, stressful day. It can help to clear your mind, allowing you to de-stress.

So where does the school leader inspiration come in? Well, if all the things above work, then you are better able to do your job. If your whole outlook has changed, if you are calmer and your body is tuned and able to function, then you will do your job better. I could write a whole article on how music inspires me and others, but first we need bodies and minds that are healthy and able to work. Listen to music, sing along (well or otherwise) and arrive at work with an opportunity to have a positive impact on the children in your care. This year, the doctor subscribes a burst of ABBA, Queen or Ed Sheeran on your journey into work (possibly not on public transport...).

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