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What the extended pandemic summer means for our musical abilities

What the extended pandemic summer means for our musical abilities

Published on September 27, 2021

What the extended pandemic summer means for our musical abilities

By Dr. Sean Hutchins

In many ways, the past year and a half has been the longest “summer” of our lives. Whereas many students might step away from their usual activities for a normal summer season and return in the fall, the extended shutdowns in Canada, the US, and the world kept many of us away from work, school, and the activities we love for much longer than a normal summer. Music has been particularly difficult for many of us to keep up with. Ensemble practice, performances, and even individual lessons were greatly restricted for many, including your children. But now, with life starting to get back to normal, that means getting back to music.

The pandemic and “summer loss”

However, restarting brings its own challenges, and it’s natural to feel that some of your child’s skills and abilities may have been lost. But how much has this extended break impacted music students? Definitive studies on the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic have not yet been completed, but we can find clues on the possible impact on music study from other research.
One such example is from looking into the phenomenon of “summer loss.” Studies of reading and mathematical abilities have shown that children’s academic levels tend to regress a little over the summer vacation. This loss is exacerbated by lack of access to resources or support at home, which can make summer loss an even bigger problem for lower-income families. Though music itself is rarely studied in this context, the breadth of this phenomenon makes it likely that it would apply to music as well. This strongly suggests that your child’s music skills will not only have stagnated, but even deteriorated during this “extended summer” of the pandemic

Declines in learning

More directly, a few studies have been released showing the academic impacts of the pandemic itself. One interim study of California students compared the development of math and language abilities for students during the shutdowns to comparable students in prior years. These findings show that, even during the school year, learning was reduced by approximately 10% during the shutdowns, as measured by standardized testing. These reductions were most concentrated in younger students. A similar study of reading abilities of Toronto Grade 1 students also showed a nearly 10% drop in achievement. Another interim study of learning loss during the pandemic, by a U.S. national curriculum and testing company, showed similar results, with lower scores for math and reading abilities — again, most prominently in earlier grades. And just as in studies of summer loss, these reductions were most apparent for students from lower-income families, who can generally afford less support for their children.
Together, these initial studies paint a picture of considerable loss of musical abilities for many students during the past year. What’s more, we know that music is linked to other cognitive abilities, especially language abilities, so the loss of music skills and academic skills can attenuate the other. So where do we go from here? There is an adage that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time is now. Students who managed to keep up with music during the pandemic will be in a better position going forward. For those students who practiced less than they would have liked, other studies of motor learning can provide a ray of hope through the finding that relearning motor skills (such as playing an instrument) is quicker and easier than learning the first time. So whether your children are coming back from an “extended summer,” or have been able to keep up with their practice the whole time, there is hope that as we return to normal, we’ll all be able to bring our musical abilities back up to where we left off.
Dr. Sean Hutchins is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.