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Music Ensembles Help Immigrant Kids Integrate Into Society

German researchers report immigrant children who spent a year in student music ensembles fit in better with the mainstream culture.
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(Photo: Furtseff/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Furtseff/Shutterstock)

There has been much discussion of late, especially in Europe, about finding more effective ways to integrate immigrants into mainstream society. In England, France, and elsewhere, specific concerns have been raised about the isolation of Muslims, and the possibility their experience of separateness could breed radicalization.

So new research from Germany couldn't be more relevant or timely. It points to a simple way migrant children can be made to feel included and connected: Playing music together.

"Programs providing young migrants with the opportunity to perform music within a larger, culturally heterogeneous group can be viewed as an effective intervention to encourage adaptation to mainstream culture," writes a research team led by psychologist Emily Frankenberg of J.W. Goethe University in Frankfurt.

In the journal Psychology of Music, the researchers describe a study featuring 159 elementary school students from immigrant families. They attended 14 different public schools. Roughly reflecting the ethnic composition of German immigrants, 30 percent were of Turkish descent, 24 percent were Russian or Ukrainian, and six percent were Polish.

"Results indicate that it was the experience of collaborating and performing within a larger group which led to stronger host culture orientation."

The students were either in second or third grade at the beginning of the study. Sixty-two of them were participants in the program titled "An Instrument for Every Child." That means they took weekly lessons on the instrument of their choice beginning in second grade, and played in school ensembles beginning in third grade.

The students' level of cultural integration was measured twice—at the beginning of the study, and again about 18 months later. The scores of the music students were compared to those of the 97 who did not participate in the program (although some did sing in a choir).

Both times, the students responded to a series of statements designed to measure their "behavior and attitudes in such domains as language use, music, and national pride," as well as the extent to which they felt accepted and valued by their peers.

The key finding: The older children who were enrolled in the music program—those who were in third grade when the study began, and in fourth grade when they were re-tested—"showed an increase in orientation to mainstream culture." This positive trajectory was not found in their non-musical peers.

This difference was not found among the younger students, who were "just beginning Grade Three at the time of the second data collection, and thus had not had much time to experience ensemble playing." To Frankenberg and her colleagues, this strongly suggests that playing in student ensembles led to a feeling of fitting in.

"Results indicate that it was the experience of collaborating and performing within a larger group which led to stronger host culture orientation," they write. In these groups, "students collaborate to perform music pieces together. This requires children to listen and pay attention to each other"—regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

The researchers note that the vast majority of study participants—87 percent—were born in Germany. It's not clear whether joining music ensembles would have the same positive effect for those who moved here as children or adolescents.

They also note that fewer than four percent of the students chose to study traditional instruments from their own countries. Since "maintenance of one's culture of heritage is a necessary component of healthy adaptation," they suggest the program be modified to encourage such choices.

Nevertheless, these are hopeful findings.

"Through the experience of playing music together, migrant children ... come into closer contact with their non-migrant classmates, and are encouraged to develop a stronger sense of community and cohesion," Frankenberg and her colleagues write. "For immigrant students, this may represent a key opportunity for social and cultural inclusion within the classroom and, from there, within wider mainstream society."