Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

How a viola tamed a temper

16 Sep 2022

Music educator Dawn Chan heads a junior orchestra so inclusive, every student gets a fair chance to learn music – and make amends too.

Dawn Chan, Dazhong Primary School, President’s Award for Teachers 2022 Recipient

Lush strains of orchestral music fill the air at Dazhong Primary School twice a week. Some days, it may be Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, other days, the Indonesian folk tune Dayung Sampan. Everyone knows that is the Junior Orchestra in session.

The orchestra was set up in 2017 to allow all students to make music, including those from families less likely to afford private music lessons. It is helmed by Dawn Chan, Lead Teacher of Music, who got together with a few colleagues to exchange ideas on using the orchestra to uplift students from disadvantaged families. To Dawn, music is a great equaliser that can give every student an equal shot at success in life.

The programme was inspired by El Sistema, a Venezuelan music education initiative founded in 1975 by educator and social activist Jose Antonio Abreu. The classical ensemble programme pulls children from at-risk families and teaches them how to play an instrument. In the process, it rescues them from the streets, equips them with soul-stirring skills, and for some, a renewed focus in life.

Today, there are about 130 students in Dazhong Primary School’s Junior Orchestra, about one-third of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Driving social change with a melody

Like El Sistema, the Junior Orchestra brings joyful music to the community. The students do not participate in competitions, but instead play at events organised by Hong Kah North Community Club (the Junior Orchestra’s strategic partner) as well as at other locations such as Gek Poh Community Club and the National Arts Gallery.

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To provide mentoring by older students, Dawn, known as Mrs Kuah to her students, sought a partnership with a secondary school. MOE Arts Education Branch linked her with Methodist Girls’ School, whose students were also eager to share their musical talents through their Values in Action programme to benefit communities.

Under Dazhong Primary’s Arts Education Programme (AEP), every child learns to play the violin from Primary 1 to 3. The AEP is spiral in approach: after learning the violin, students can choose from a variety of arts-related CCAs such as Choir and Dance, as well as the Junior Orchestra which is an extension of the AEP.

With music being such an integral part of every student’s life at Dazhong Primary, it’s not surprising the many lives it has touched.


“Every child is unique. They have their own strengths, passions and learning needs. As teachers, we must look out for them and help them to succeed in life.”


Dawn cites the case of an unruly student whose life changed when she started learning the viola. The lower primary student was untidy, unhappy, and prone to temper tantrums – she would shout at everyone and bang her fists on the table to get her way. Most of the teachers were at a loss as to how to handle her.

“But when she played the viola, she was a different person,” says Dawn. “The music calmed her down. It was amazing to see how focused she became. During CCA time, I’d take the opportunity to teach her social skills as well, like managing her emotions and speaking with an ‘indoor voice’.” The latter refers to talking more softly; the student learned from there to adjust her volume to suit the occasion.

Through the discipline of learning an instrument, the student, now 14, extended that same discipline to other parts of her school life – she piped down and started helping her classmates out. Her model behaviour earned her an appointment as prefect. At Primary 6, she was invited by a few secondary schools to apply for Direct School Admission based on a non-academic talent, which in her case, was music.

‘When you pave the way for special needs, you pave the way for everyone’

Besides helping students from disadvantaged families, Dawn is also passionate about her work with children with special education needs, or SEN.  In 2011 before joining Dazhong, she was the form teacher of a Primary 3 class where about half of the 24 students had behavioural and learning problems. Between the teachers, they had enough experience to know that some of the problems stemmed from special needs.

As these students were undiagnosed and had no access to additional support, the teachers found it challenging to cater to them. “That was my turning point,” she recalls. “I was determined to do good and be inclusive as a teacher. I had started on my Masters then and I worked on a thesis on how music could help children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”

She also started reaching out to parents, nudging them to seek medical help for their children. It was an uphill task. Eventually, nine of the children were diagnosed with conditions such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia.

At Dazhong, Dawn uses the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to work with SEN students. At the heart of the framework is to understand the barriers to learning that a person faces, and to implement modifications and accommodations to remove these barriers.

Dawn recounts a situation she faced with two Primary 2 students with global development delay (GDD). Lacking self-control, they would run around and outside the music room and disrupt the class, not to mention their own learning. She studied the issue more closely and understood how they viewed the room and its extension as permissible space for expression. That’s when she had a brainwave: She marked out two large boxes on the music room floor with yellow tape and revealed to them the new boundaries in which they could roam.

“Surprisingly, it worked,” she says happily. “They treated the yellow boxes as ‘home’ and were happy to run around within the boxes. That made it possible for them to participate in class.”

In another example of how she gets everybody involved, she shares how a student with GDD and psychomotor challenges could not march to the beat of a song, so she handed him a drum to tap on instead.

“So, I tell my colleagues, when you pave the way for the SEN kids, you’re paving the way for everyone,” she said. 

Lessons with more than music in mind

When Dawn is not busy with the Junior Orchestra, she comes up with creative ways to make music lessons engaging for the students.

One way she does this is by fusing the school’s Applied Learning Programme – which focuses on environmental issues – with music.

For instance, she would pick a video on sustainability, mask the music and get her students to create the soundscape clip for the video. Students use freeware such as BandLab to pick music tracks, select instruments they like, input the rhythm for the piece and even record their singing.

“I want the music lessons to achieve multiple objectives,” she shares. “It’s meaningful for them to learn about important topics like green plans and climate change while learning how to compose music via a computer.”

“Our students are digital natives and you can imagine how excited they are about the music lessons,” she laughs.

Being passionate about technology, she conducts workshops for music teachers and allied educators on tools including BandLab and Chrome Music Lab, where even young students can learn to create their favourite ring tones for their handphones.

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Being in tune with music technology helps teachers keep abreast of what interests students, including the genre of music that appeals to them, she says. “I’m very happy to bring these tools to the teaching fraternity, so they have the skills and knowledge to teach their students all over Singapore.”