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Music: Food for the Soul, and the Mind
Many things we love the most aren’t that good for us. However, music is one definite exception to that rule. If we ate music, it would taste like chocolate cake, but it’s actually nutritious—food for the soul, and the mind. No one would turn down a slice of chocolate cake that made you healthier (a marketing executive’s dream!), and not many people can say that they don’t enjoy music. Convincing your child to play music instead of just listening to it may seem as impossible as getting them to eat their broccoli, but the payoff is inarguably sweet. For the opportunities, experiences, and brain training that playing music provides, it’s important for everyone to learn to play a musical instrument, and especially for parents to encourage their children in early years; according to Gallup, 82% of those who play an instrument began their training between ages five and fourteen.
Some of the benefits are in the brain. Research has shown that musicians’ brains are wired differently than those of people who do not play an instrument, and that this way of changing how the brain works can actually make learning easier—and the earlier a child begins their training, the better. Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist, has compared the brains of non musicians and musicians for years, including one study between thirty professional musicians and thirty non musicians; the study found that the two hemispheres of musicians brains are equipped to work better together than that of non-musicians, since the corpus collosum (the connective fibers that carry messages between the two halves) are notably larger in the musicians. In the Los Angeles Times, Schlaug said that “[musical activity] affects how the brain develops and affects how the brain changes in structure.” In that study, the brains of those participants who had begun to train musically before the age of seven showed the largest difference.
Other researchers have had similar findings. A study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in which half of the ninety boys aged six to fifteen were given extensive musical training for up to five years, found that the students who had received music lessons recalled, learned, and retained more words on a verbal memory test than the other half—all students at the same school. There is support from studies done across the globe by a variety of researchers that children who train to play an instrument learn differently, and in some cases, more easily, than children who receive no musical training.
When I was a child, I eventually gave up the chance to reap the benefits found in these studies. In fourth grade, I entered the music program in my school with the snare drum, with much encouragement from my school and my parents. Growing up, I always heard my father’s stories about the benefits of playing a musical instrument. Having spent most of his adolescence in West Texas, he usually felt out of place. He was liberal-minded and surrounded by conservatives, a scrawny little punk among cowboys, a high schooler more interested in Led Zeppelin than the Friday night football games. He had one thing that allowed him to connect with his peers: band. He would tell me about his adventures as a drummer, always citing these experiences as some that shaped him most, and certainly as some of the most fun. When I started playing myself, I was excited; not only was I proud to be carrying on a family tradition, but I enjoyed playing, too.
Even though I liked the drums, getting me to practice them at home was not easy for my parents. Nights after school were a battle wherein voices were often raised, and they never seemed to be happy with the times that I willingly chose to practice, like early on Saturday mornings. Compromise ended up being key in my musical education; ground rules were set, like “no playing until all members of the house are awake,” and “weeknights don’t have to be set in stone as long as you always practice before lessons.” We made it work, both parties deciding to be flexible. And trust me—if my family was able to make it work, yours can too.
As time went on, things began to go more smoothly—both my cooperation, and my playing skills. But soon enough I hit a snag I hadn’t anticipated. Eventually, I started to envy my friends in band who bragged about how their instruments made real notes, how their instruments were actually hard, and my desire to follow in my dad’s footsteps was overshadowed by my desire to show up my friends by becoming a great musician who played a “hard” instrument. Within a year, I traded in my drum for the alto saxophone, and began to prepare myself for life as a jazz legend like John Coltrane. The drums had come fairly naturally to me; why wouldn’t the saxophone? My dad especially was wary of the switch, seeing it as an example of my characteristic indecisiveness, but I insisted that I was sure about my decision, so he let me make it.
My band teacher had even stronger reservations. “You can’t switch back, you know,” she warned when I told her of my plans. I didn’t see what in my plan could go wrong, so I told her I was sure too. Within weeks, I had a much lighter instrument to lug around, but that was about the only plus; I hated it. I was terrible. During band practice, I would sit in my chair and feel the sax weigh heavily around my neck. The strap was terribly itchy and the woody taste of the reed was distracting; every time I put it in my mouth I’d begin to worry about splinters. When my teacher called on me to play my tuning note, a horrifying noise would come out over and over until she gave up and said, “Okay, next.” My face would burn up and I’d begin negotiations with my tear ducts: Please don’t cry; only half an hour left. I’d pretend to play for the rest of the time, then exit the room as quickly as possible.
One day after practice, I stopped by my band teacher’s office and begged to switch back to the drums, please. But she said that she had warned me that the policy didn’t allow for students to switch more than once; she’d have to start letting everyone switch, she said, so there was nothing she could do. So I quit band for good.
Years later as music started to have a much greater influence in my life, I realized that I had made a mistake when I quit the band. Not only had I given up the neurological benefits of learning to play, but I had given up the chance to be connected to music more deeply—by participating. Guided by the mantra that it’s never too late to learn, the year I turned fourteen I picked up my first guitar, a black and white Fender Squire that I took with permission from my grandpa’s closet. Now graduated to a scuffed-up acoustic Yamaha, I’ve learned how to play at a beginner’s level thanks to the help of friends and the internet—though I’ve sacrificed my chance to learn from a professional instructor. The support of a professional is important, though; according to a May 2003 Gallup Poll, the vast majority of people who play instruments had the support of a trained musician when they started: 30% answer that they first learned by “lessons at school,” 26% with “private lessons,” and 9% by a “school band or orchestra,” making for a total of 65%; another 8% learned by a family member. So while I’ve learned through other sources how to play at a beginner’s level, I can’t read music; I can’t have a conversation with other musicians about anything technical. Now more than ever, I regret quitting lessons, even if it was hard for me. Other children who pass up the opportunity to learn a musical instrument early in life and through lessons are sure to be left regrets as well.
Since entering high school, I’ve found that there are even more reasons to kick myself over quitting; members of the band at my school have had such opportunities as marching in President Barack Obama’s inauguration, to be a part of a major historical event. Maybe if my fifth-grade self had seen that coming, it would have never quit the program. I’m left with a lot of “what ifs” now that I’ve seen a little late what a difference it can make to receive musical training.
To some families learning to play an instrument may seem like an expensive and unnecessary cost, but musical training is a serious investment in a child’s future. Not only is it worth the price, but there are many options to make it a close to costless, pure profit pursuit. Foundations like Save the Music were created out of recognition for the importance of children’s musical education, and develop music programs that allow low-income students to have the same opportunities as others. Save the Music gives $30,000 grants to elementary and middle schools to help them get the resources they need to teach music, and has helped 1700 schools so far. There are other options, such as used instrument stores, in nearly every community, and through school’s programs, lessons and training are often provided for free.
There is no excuse for a child not to play an instrument. Learning to play a musical instrument can change the way your child learns, and offer them a wide array of opportunities they would they would be cut off from otherwise. It’s important for parents to encourage their children musically to ensure that they have access to the benefits of learning music and for children to stick with the practice. What else can you provide your child with that they’ll love as much as it will benefit them? Probably not broccoli.
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