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Educating Through Song: Interview with Musical Curriculum Creator Nuala O'Hanlon

TeachHUB Interview


Educating Through Song: Interview with Musical Curriculum Creator Nuala O'HanlonBelieving that children love to sing and learn while doing it, Nuala O'Hanlon teamed up with song writer and close friend Kathryn Radloff to create a musical curriculum she now shares with educators around the world.

Together, they write and publish innovative teaching resources which target primary school curriculum through value-based original songs. Their company is called Keystone Creations.

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Nuala shares her passion for music and learning in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.

Where does your passion for music stem from?

I’m Irish-born, of Irish parents, so I’m pretty sure I was born with it! If you’re Irish, it’s what you do - you sing!

Also, passion is infectious! My parents were always singing - Mum sang in choirs, and around the house, and Dad, a sharp-witted, English Headmaster, kept us all entertained with his self-penned songs, accompanied on his trusty old harmonica.He used to sing his 5 children to sleep at night with the old Irish ballads and rebel songs – so singing to learn about life and history is nothing new to me.


In short, my passion is my heritage. I come from a long line of singers who love to teach/ teachers who love to sing (great aunties, father, sisters, a niece and now my daughter, a 4th year student teacher) - singing and teaching are in my blood and I’m passionate about providing quality, educational songs to enable teachers to integrated singing into classroom learning.


Why do you believe music is a good outlet for classroom teaching?

The simple answer is, children LOVE to sing and they LEARN what they sing! My childhood and teaching experiences alone convince me of the power of music to stimulate and enhance learning.


Songs are the language of today’s youth. Children can reel off the lyrics of song after song - by heart! It follows naturally then, that music, specifically, educational songs, be utilized for helping students to learn.


Singing is one of the most enjoyable and effective mediums teachers have at their disposal. Songs help students to learn and remember curriculum content, life lessons and values. It helps them to develop skills and attitudes, gain understandings about other cultures, our world, and their place in it.


Richard W. Riley, previous U.S. Secretary of Education, sums it up when he stated, "Recent investigation into the effects of music on the brain reveals that the brain loves music and that information traveling on musical notes is learned more quickly and better retained for speedy, accurate retrieval – months and even years later.??...the creativity of the arts and the joy of music should be central to the education of every American child."


For me, the question is, ‘How can we afford NOT to integrate this powerful medium into the daily learning experiences of our students?’

How did they Keystone Creations come about?

It was, quite literally a case of ‘Necessity (being) the mother of invention’! I was frustrated by the dearth of educational songs, especially for middle and upper primary students, so I started writing my own curriculum-aligned songs to support what we were learning in class. I continued to write lyrics, joining forces with a singer/songwriter/musician friend, now business partner, Kathryn Radloff, and Keystone Creations was born! Together, we now write and publish educational songs that target primary school key learning areas and values.

What is your favorite song that you’ve produced for the classroom?

That’s like asking a parent, ‘Which is your favourite child?’ LOL! The answer is the same, ‘We love each one equally, but for different reasons’. Our songs are like babies - we grow them, we bring them into the world, then we send them on their way, to do what they came into the world to do. If I were to single out ONE of our songs, as a parent and a teacher, it would have to be ‘BULLY-FREE ZONE!’

This song resulted from our decision to tackle this issue at the grassroots level, in a language that children understand – song. The child-friendly ‘BULLY-FREE ZONE!’ takes a whole school, positive behaviours approach to negative behaviour, helping students to identify these behaviours, as well as providing strategies to help deal with and eradicate it.

What’s your favorite non-educational song?

It’s difficult to choose a definitive favourite, however, I love Irish music and do tend to favour inspirational and ‘yearning-type’ songs – songs that speak of making the world a better, kinder, more loving place - songs that speak to my heart and move my emotions.


Tears In Heaven by Eric Claption always makes me very emotional, because I have a son, Conor, and he was the same age as Conor Clapton when the accident happened. My heart always goes out to Eric Clapton whenever I hear that beautiful tribute to his beautiful boy.


Beyond a sing-a-long, how do you integrate these songs into interactive lessons?

We do need to be intentional about the use of music in the classroom – stop seeing it as an ‘add on’ or something we need to fit in, if we have time. It is a valid, and highly-effective multi-sensory approach to learning and easily integrated across other key learning areas of the curriculum.

For instance, to connect songs to Math our motto is ANYTHING can be given a beat/rhythm, making it easier to remember, from times table, to geometry! 

Your songs are focused on lower level grades. How can teachers introduce music into their lessons with older students and more involved curricula?


One of our current publications,‘LIVING VALUESactually contains songs for use with older students: * ‘LIVING VALUES’ is an anthem-style song, containing values for schools * KEEP IT CLEAN! environmental rap song * WAKE UP – poverty awareness/making responsible choices * ONE WORLD – multi-cultural * HEALTHY KIDS – nutrition & exercise. 


Also, our curriculum/values-based songs for middle and upper primary are currently in production. They include such themes as *solar system *human body systems *technology *respect * manners *Antarctica *natural disasters *democracy *citizenship, to name a few.

What has your response been from educators and administrators as you introduce this unique approach to instruction?

We have had an overwhelmingly positive response! Words, such as unique, innovative, practical, quality, professional, have all been used to describe our product and contents.


Teachers, educators and administrators have been very generous and receptive towards our approach to learning. The government is requiring teachers to include more music and values in their programs, so teachers are very happy to have teaching resources that tick so many boxes, combining as they do, curriculum, values and music.


Schools are using them when planning grades’ Units of Work for the term. We’ve had requests to write school musicals, and have even been approached by a University professor requesting we write songs. Teachers’ Testimonials are available on our website, while the following excerpt, from Music In Action, A Magazine for Educators?2009 * Vol. 7, Issue 2, gives a good review of our approach to learning through song:

  • "'In terms of its application to the classroom, and usability by teachers, the books (& song CDs) rate a tick in every box...By no means is the learning from these books (& song CDs) limited to music, and there is often more than one lesson in every lyric. From extending literacy skills, through reading lyrics, to developing social skills by working in performance teams, this series of books validates music as far more than serving its own needs, but rather as a powerful tool for learning across the curriculum."

Click here for full review 

For those musically-challenged teachers, how would you suggest they use song in the classroom (for anything your CDs don’t cover)?

Our song-based curriculum/values teaching resources were actually written with the ‘musically-challenged’ classroom teachers in mind! Our mission is to encourage and facilitate the integration of singing into classroom learning.


Our resources require absolutely NO music skills, just the ability to press the button on a CD player! (We have, however included simple music scores at the back of each book for music teachers and the more musically-inclined).


Kathryn and I have written a Masterclass outline for the general use of song across the curriculum and are making this information available, over time, on our Facebook discussion page.


What tips do you have for teachers to encourage shy students who are resistant to singing in class?

I have always found that children who tend to be shy about speaking in class come alive once we’re singing. Music has that effect, because it engages a different part of the brain. It helps us to relax, shifts our focus from ourselves, to the music.


Know that it is quite alright to allow extremely shy students to listen until they feel comfortable enough to join in with the singing – just encourage students to tap to the beat or hum the melody and to join in when they feel like it they are still benefiting/learning from the music and lyrical content, and being part of the group experience!


Experiment with songs, singing them in different ways, loud/soft; posh voice/nasal; scared/confident; happy/sad voice, etc – this focuses concentration, releases creativity, and is FUN!


Encourage movement and body percussion (swaying, tapping, clapping, clicking to the beat) and simple musical percussion (tapping a ruler on the desk, tapping a drum, tambourine…The other students will be so intent on performance, that the shy student will relax into the activity.



How do you use music in your classroom? Share in the comments section!

Copyright Suggested activities, 2007, Nuala OHanlon & Kathryn Radloff, Keystone Creations Pty Ltd

Song-Based Teaching Resources Targeting Curriculum & Values

'A Lesson In Every Lyric'

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