The importance of music at school: lessons from Ngataki

In February this year, Radio New Zealand reported that music in schools is in crisis. Programmes receive meager funding from the Education Ministry, and there are only about six hours of contact time in music for student teachers, who are leaving education faculties completely underprepared to run classroom music programmes.

Tim Carson from Music Educators New Zealand Aotearoa (Menza) says he believes that every child deserves a quality education, “and that includes music and the arts delivered consistently across schools.” Only, he says “it’s a lottery now… Music education in primary schools has become a privilege for a few, rather than a right for all. And the professional development has become the work of incorporated societies and charitable trusts.”

Music education is important not only for its own sake, but to a child’s entire learning experience. Researchers like Linda Tuhiwai-Smith remind us how for Maori, waiata, karakia and whakapapa have historically, and always, been central to the learning process, which seeks “to prepare the child for all aspects of living” and “to ensure that each child will ultimately have the opportunity to take an active, participatory role within Maori society.”

As Carson says, “When you’re exposed to a quality music programme, all the other outcomes improve. The social outcomes, and the engagement, and the numeracy and literacy outcomes improve as well.” He says that the same things happen whether you have classical Western instruments at your school, Pasifika drumming, a ukelele orchestra or a quality singing programme. And, “If you have been exposed to a quality music programme before the age of eight or nine – that’s when the world is your oyster.”

Carson laments that Menza, which represents music educators nationwide, has had no support or resources from the Ministry since the roles of specialist music advisors were cut seven years ago. That service was a lifeline.

That service once supported both pre-service and in-service teachers. It was initiated in the 1940s by the post-war first Labour government, a government that was blessed with an education director, Clarence Beeby, who understood the importance of arts to literacy and education at large. He set up an Arts and Crafts Branch within the Education Department that trained art specialists and school teachers in turn. One of its pilot programmes was called the “Northern Maori Project”, and ran from 1954-9 at Te Hapua, Ngataki, Te Kao, Paparore, Oturu, and later Pukepoto and Oruaiti schools in the Far North.

Some incredible records from a participating headmaster in Ngataki, Alan Simpson, speak volumes about the importance of music in schools.

Alan taught at Ngataki with his wife Bebe, a classically trained musician, an opera singer who looked after the new entrants, from 1951. Encouraging literacy among the children at Ngataki was the pair’s priority when they first arrived – though not at the expense of tikanga Maori, as an ex-Ngataki student, Simon Petrevich, recalls.

They saw that was part of our lives – the community, the marae, was a critical part of Maoridom… you just learn all this stuff alongside that… you look after your own culture, first and foremost.

Scene at Ngataki School – film still from Patterns of Growth


Still, Maori had been demanding proper English instruction since the settler period, since knowledge of English was made essential to participation in policy and law making, and trade in New Zealand. Prominent Māori petitioned parliament for decent English-language teaching all the way back in the 1870s. Ngataki was a neglected settlement, and given their posting in the school, Alan and Bebe were determined to make what difference they could through literacy. It was a while before Alan saw how music could get them there.

Initially, in Ngataki, Alan observed that conditions meant

There was a complete lack of interest in reading for fun or any other reason. There was just no desire to read… no family bought the newspaper regularly and home reading was nil for parents and children. It was obvious that somehow this disinterest had to be overcome before details of reading method were tackled.

The lack of motivation was understandable. Ngataki was a settlement to which Maori had been relocated, uprooted from Te Hapua following the devastating impacts of European colonisation. Alan explored some of the history of the area:

In the 1940s Te Hapua, the most northerly settlement in New Zealand, was in a bad way. It had been exploited by Europeans of the early century then abandoned when the valuable gum of the extinct kauri forests ran out.

Local Maori had lost touch with their cultural roots, had no housing except huts in the scrub, no real income, little defence against disease, no apparent future, and little hope of rising out of the slough of despair with little desire to try… Te Hapua was over 80 miles north of Kaitaia so it could easily be ignored. Authority at that time appeared to care little about this uncreditable legacy from the heady days of the rich pickings by men who took and gave little in return.

The Far North was out of sight and certainly out of mind until protests from local teachers and itinerant administrators forced the hand of distant authorities of Central Government… Considerable efforts were made to improve conditions from which came the idea to shift some families to Ngataki, a then totally undeveloped wasteland of scrub some 50 miles south.

A migration of some twelve families took place. All were uprooted from what they had known and however bad that was, at least there had been a measure of security, some happiness, some laughter and good times… Family ties were cut off by inadequately roaded land full of deep gum holes… Worst of all their ancestral land had been left behind with only European promises that life would be better.

In 1951, because small schools didn’t employ cleaners, the children had jobs to do each day before they went home.

Our floors were so clean you could eat off them… Big kids pulled the little ones round and round on sacks til surfaces shone… The work took 15 minutes a day and for their efforts all pupils were issued throughout the year with exercise books, pens, pencils, etc. at no cost.

Many of the children were shy, whakama, and reluctant to speak English. Alan decided that, before anything else at school, he really wanted to get the children talking.

The first thing to develop, the lead in to greater accomplishment by all pupils was I thought, the improvement of oral expression.

One hurdle though, from Alan’s point of view, was the reluctance of the parents of school children to speak English at home.

The parents used to say that they would not speak English in front of their children as they would be laughed at for making mistakes so then the children had to be shown how to help their parents!

By 1953, after two years of solid teaching, “we had run out of ideas. It was going to be more of the same perhaps to burn out.” Bebe, who was a trained opera singer, was doing some great things with the small children including teaching music, though Alan hadn’t yet recognised what an asset Bebe’s skills were.

Music… was taken by my wife, an expert, as I felt inferior and anyway couldn’t see much value in it. She had a really wonderful choir. Breathing perfect, tonal qualities, voice production, pronunciation – all that could be desired. Yes, the singing was good, extremely good, but unfortunately it stopped there…

The period over, music was forgotten till the next week. There was no attempt to carry over any of the thrills, the successes of the children. I left it in its narrow groove practically ignoring how the children came into their own at this time.

Alan would soon transform his attitude to Bebe’s practice. In 1954, national arts and crafts supervisor Gordon Tovey travelled to the far North for the Northern Maori Project, setting up a network of schools that would develop teaching methods responsive to the needs of Maori children and communities, and anchored in the arts. Tovey was keen to put the best current theories of arts-based, child-centred education into practice, and to augment and spread good ideas by assisting teachers. Alan later recalled:

It was a complete surprise to be asked to join an official project to investigate ways of better teaching remote Maori children. An endeavour was to be made to develop aspects of classroom education by integrating Drama, Art and Crafts, Music and Movement with other subjects.

A Ngataki student remembers ‘dancing punctuation’ with Tovey: “dancing full stops, pauses, question marks and exclamation marks… we used the movements in our dances, as part of something we made up.” Jim Allen, an art specialist, taught Alan to allow the children to sing whilst working. “I was not happy about that,” Alan recalled, “as I thought it would break their concentration but they did sing and pot at the same time making a magical scene, the beginning of many such.”

Alan also eventually used music to inspire writing exercises, and had the children make all number of instruments, including drums. They embraced the initial chaos and excitement until boredom prompted discussions about conducting signals that would allow music composition as a group.

To develop musicality, a variety of experiences in sound and rhythm were built up through melodic improvisation. So body instruments (stamp, clap, snap and patschen) were used to prepare rhythm patterns. Then non-pitched percussion instruments such as drums, tambourines, rattles, maracas, claves and wood blocks were made in large numbers with great care and attention to detail by children of more senior classes. Good quality hide was used for skins, manuka for claves and sea shells were glued together for rattles. To give a variety of tone, colour and sound duration that would encourage worthwhile composition, melody instruments such as recorders, ukeleles, guitars and bits of old iron were added. Later, before the advent of chimebars, bottles were carefully filled, corked, tuned and played by now competent explorers of sound.

There was a bottle orchestra, too: three bottles to each child. “It took some time to tune the bottles then the water level was marked in permanently to facilitate tuning on future occasions.”

Bebe’s little ones used to astound me with their compositions of simple tunes which they played on the bottle-o-phones made up of seven beer bottles filled up with varying amounts of water to make a scale. They played these with metal spoons or sticks.

Still from Patterns of Growth
Still from Patterns of Growth

The kids even practiced their tables using Maori chanting and five-part harmonies. Bebe was running a choir.

Our choir involved all the children. They learnt breathing voice production and pronunication of English American and German folk songs… Lots of poi and action songs too… Bebe’s operettas come to mind too. She would make up a story with the children, help them compose the songs and stretch everyone to the limit by requiring a variety of skills for all the kiddies had a part of some kind.

The work at Ngataki was rewarding. As ex-student Jerry Norman says of Alan and Bebe,

They became more than educationalists. They were part of a social change for us too. My sister was named after Bebe, and our youngest brother was named after Alan Simpson. So that  the regard that my family had for the Simpsons.

Alan remembered how “Often in the morning when we were getting ready for school we would hear the kids singing and playing their home-made instruments along with a guitar.”

Even particularly shy children could lose themselves in the action of such activities and gradually accompany their sound-making with a word or two until, in time, flowing conversation became a central feature of all classroom activities. The children became adept at working in groups making up plays or songs based on social study or science themes, or interspersing haka or Maori song and chant with original poems. Doing was important. The building of confidence in individual ability and in the wisdom of the group came out of this teaching approach based as it was on interest, discussion, explanation, respect for each other’s opinions and continual excursions into creative enterprises.

The school was onto something that would have seemingly miraculous flow-on affects in all areas, especially language and literacy, as Maori have always known the arts to have. A 2010 Liverpool University study of symphony orchestra musicians lead by cognitive scientist Vanessa Sluming, examined these connections too. In it, orchestra musicians’ brains

were found to have an enlargement in the cerebral cortex in one specific region… Compared to the controls, the musicians had 699 cubic millimetres more grey matter in Broca’s area, a crucial part of the language system in the left hemisphere. Broca’s area is the part that we use to generate fluent grammatical speech.

…Those orchestra musicians also had more gray matter overall than did the non musicians, and their brains were also less susceptible to gray matter loss with age than were those of the non-musicians.

Ramsay Howie, the senior music tutor from the Auckland Teachers’ College, came to see the school one weekend.

Under trees, in circles on the grass, amidst paintings and pottery, anywhere and everywhere we made music together.. There was a tremendous outpouring of effort. Outside the school fence the environment was the same but inside it, we created a new world and drank deep of its affectionate atmosphere.

Ramsay also showed us how we could sing our reading to a simple tune, how we could raise and lower our voices like a kite in flight and how Maori chant could be incorporated with multiplication tables and what Italic writing was. But best of all he brought us his warmth and understanding and a genuine interest in what we were doing. We took him sightseeing to North Cape and on return found our big kids had prepared dinner in our kitchen for a surprise. On the Sunday evening as he walked down the sandy path to his car, the children cried.

It was not long before changes were happening in literacy.

After eighteen months it was interesting to find senior pupils wanting to have a better idea of what was in the library, so they were shown a simplified Dewey system which they spent all spare time and some school time on till all books were listed.

“And now,” says Alan and Bebe’s son Shane Simpson,

when you talk to pupils of that time who are now of course the elders, they will say, “One of the great things your parents left us was a love of reading, and a love of language.” They’re very proud of the fact that not only are they readers, but their children are readers.

Still from Patterns of Growth


Changes did not only take place in literacy. Alan was also using dance to support his physical education lessons – finding for instance that ballet could help teach kids tennis. The visiting P.E. specialist, Brian Jennings, strongly disapproved and once taunted Alan: “The Far North Sports are coming up, I expect these kids will participate?”. That year Ngataki won every trophy in the competition – and Jennings had to present them. He then began suggesting other schools incorporate dance into physical education.

The Northern agricultural advisor Bill Delph once withdrew Alan and Bebe’s nature studies funding, after seeing that Alan wasn’t following Delph’s requirements strictly enough. “I showed him all the art and craft we got from the local environment,” said Alan later, adding that Delph’s approach was to “come up and meander round, take the kids for a walk in the bush and talk about something they knew more about than he did.”

Alan and Bebe’s work proves Tim Carson’s assertions about music education. Carson says it’s ironic that we’ve developed this very focussed, narrow curriculum – reading, writing and arithmetic, “but actually, if you have a balanced curriculum with a strong, quality arts programme that’s fostering creativity – all those other things improve as well.”

Bebe and Alan Simpson were able to make a difference as school teachers in Ngataki through running a programme that fuelled literacy with oral language fostered with community aroha and government support for the arts. They did it by listening to tangata whenua, listening to children, and by nurturing the love that children have for music.


To learn more about this era of education in New Zealand, see The HeART of the Matter at 2016’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

Photo of Ngataki School from Alexander Turnbull Library, Gordon Tovey collection

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2 thoughts on “The importance of music at school: lessons from Ngataki”

  1. Pingback: How “creativity in schools” was pioneering, Pacific wisdom – writing by renee

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