Savannah Country Day Schools’ lecture series begins with the secret to smarter kids

Conductor David Elliott leads the Savannah Wind Symphony during a rehearsal for the upcoming "Let Freedom Ring" Patriotic Concert at Georgia Southern University Armstrong Campus.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Conductor David Elliott leads the Savannah Wind Symphony during a rehearsal for the upcoming "Let Freedom Ring" Patriotic Concert at Georgia Southern University Armstrong Campus.

Savannah Country Day Schools’ (SCDS) Music Director David Elliott wants people to throw their headphones away. To clarify, he referred to the introduction of Sony’s Walkman. “That’s when music stopped being communal and started being ‘my tunes,’” he said.

His argument, which he will make at the first of SCDS's Faculty Explorations lectures, is that playing music or listening to it in a group setting elevates brain activity that builds and strengthens synapses. The implication is that the stimulation music provides makes us smarter.

Savannah Country Day School's Music Director David Elliott will be kicking of the school's 4th Faculty Exploration Series with his lecture entitled 'Why Your Brain Needs Music' at 7 p.m. on Jan. 17.

Credit: Savannah Country Day School

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Credit: Savannah Country Day School

He is not alone in this assessment.

Gabrielle Musacchia and Alexand Khalil published Music and Learning: Does Music Make You Smarter? in Frontiers for Young Minds in 2020. In their paper they stated, "You do not have to be a Mozart to get the brain benefit of playing music, because music is so accessible and is more than just songs." The ultimate message they try to convey through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research, electroencephalogram (EEG) and other sources is that music is "an important part of our lifetime of learning."

SCDS Music Director brings expertise to lecture

Elliott contributes to SCDS in many roles. Not only is he the music director, he is also adept at carpentry, IT tools and audio/visual technology. He has also helped build 16 houses, done sound and light design/tech for 100-plus stage productions and concerts. Oh, and he lived on a boat for 13 years.

When he's not teaching or busy raising his young son, he plays in the Savannah Jazz Orchestra, the Celebration Brass Quartet, and the Savannah Wind Symphony. He also currently serves as an interim conductor for the wind symphony, for which he is in the running to be named the permanent conductor.

Elliott seeks to restore music to schools’ required curriculum. “When I first started here [SCDS], music was required of all middle school students, so in the sixth grade everybody was in dance, chorus or orchestra.” He explained how that changed over the years. Different heads of the lower school came and went and with them came changes in the curriculum. The school eventually shifted to more fine art offerings such as visual art, photography and drama. Those options lowered the number of students taking music.

Elliott said music uses more of your brain power than any other single activity. “You’re interpreting what you're seeing…on the page. You got to manipulate your instrument, you got to listen to what you're doing and listen to what everybody else is doing. It's all got to be together.”

Savannah Country Day School Music Director, David Elliott instructs students from the middle school's jazz band. He has been teaching at the school since 2000.

Credit: Savannah Country Day School

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Credit: Savannah Country Day School

The symphony of activity and concentration strengthens the synapses in the brain, which he has been reading about since 1984, shortly after he started his teaching career. He had initially come across research conducted by Frank R. Wilson, a California neurologist, whose work was featured in the New York Times in 1986.

While completing a Master’s degree, Elliott did his own research project. He compared 100 students’ Intelligence Quotients (IQs) in K-12. Luckily, the school district he worked at in Chicago tracked student IQs each year. In his study, half of the students were instrumentalists and half were not. His research revealed that younger students’ IQs stayed relatively the same. “Then, from fifth through 12th grade, I saw an increase in IQ in the band kids that the other kids did not have,” he said. Since that time, he has read countless studies about music’s positive influence on brain development.

What to expect from the first lecture

Elliot said that his lecture at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 17, will not focus on the science heavy scholarship of neurologists. Pulling from years of teaching children, he plans to start with a video that he often shares: How playing instruments benefit your brain by Anita Collins.

From there Elliott will have instruments for attendees to play. “People will feel what it's like to be in an ensemble together,” he said. He plans to get everyone involved, starting off with rhythm and melodies. He wants folks to understand by doing and seeing how much the brain is actually involved.

Ultimately his message is, that if people want their children to be smart, then kids should study and play music. He suggests parents introduce children to live music as early as possible. “Not just recorded music, but live music,” he said.

He also encourages everyone, at any age, to engage with the music. “This whole thing about sitting down at a concert and not saying a word is a fairly recent invention of mankind.” He added that prior to 400 or 500 years ago, music and dance were always together.

Attendees should be prepared to move, pound a few keys or pluck a few strings.

Exploration series came about because ‘education is wasted on youth’

Adam Weber has been teaching physics at SCDS for 31 years. He came up with the concept for the Faculty Explorations lectures after many discussions with colleagues, which led to a joke among teachers.

“We would kind of laugh and say, ‘education is wasted on youth,’” said Weber. He explained that he and many of his peers felt that while teaching children is rewarding, kids are in class because they have to be. “As educators,” said Weber, “having an audience full of adults who are interested in learning, that’s what we like.” The concept also evolved with the idea in mind that parents or guardians could take a class with their child’s teacher.

Savannah Country Day School physics teacher, Adam Weber, engages adults during a previous Faculty Exploration series presentation. Weber has been the force behind the Faculty Exploration series since its inception in 2019.

Credit: Savannah Country Day School

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Credit: Savannah Country Day School

In 2019, Weber and a few colleagues entered the planning stages which led to five teachers giving a talk in the winter of 2020. He was one of the teachers who was scheduled to speak, but a violent thunderstorm cancelled his talk. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and they did not move forward with the rest of the first lectures. The faculty brought the lectures back in 2022 and 2023. So this year’s Faculty Explorations will be the fourth iteration. Unfortunately, SCDS did not have the resources to record of the previous series. This next round will also not be livestreamed or recorded.

"The impetus of it is coming and experiencing what your kids experience,” Weber said. “Or maybe you haven't experienced being in a classroom for years, so come and see what it's like again.”

The series is definitely for adult audiences. Wine and cheese will be provided, for example, so he encouraged that people make plans to leave the children at home.

This year marks a return to SCDS advertising the series to the general public. “We've never excluded anybody,” said Weber. “We just never advertised, so this year we're really trying to bring it out to the community a little bit more.”

If You Go >>

What: Savannah Country Day School Faculty Explorations

When: 7 p.m., Jan. 17

Where: SCDS Campus, 824 Stillwood Drive

Info: For the full schedule of lectures, review the SCDS Faculty Exploration's website at Registration is free and open to the public. Members of the public can register up to the Tuesday evening before each event.

Beyond Wednesday’s lecture, subsequent Faculty Explorations will feature the expertise of SCDS instructors Neil Gabbey, Laura Santander, and Meg Haston.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah Country Day Faculty Explorations series begins with the secret to smarter kids


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