Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Health Benefits of Music...

I've been wanting to write about this subject for a while, so when I read the Jerusalem Post's article today titled "Is music the key to success?" it inspired me to get on it... While the article is fascinating on its own, I want to tackle something other than linking music to success.
I want to link it to health.
Ok, so being a music teacher for over 25 years makes me rather biased about this subject.  Unfortunately, in the last 15 years or so, I've encountered a specific situation that keeps arising every few years that saddens me.  I get a phone call from a mom, who, in looking out for the very best for her child, explains that despite their child's tremendous musical potential, she has decided against furthering their piano lessons due to a heavier school workload.  Yes, 11th grade is a difficult one.  It's the year of the Bagruyot (SATs) and intense studying.  Of course, the first thing to go is the extra-curriculum subjects like piano, art, sports etc.  
They don't realize how much they are depriving their children.  
And - believe it or not - stopping music lessons is actually detrimental to their long-term health.
I know.  You think I'm nuts and am possibly trying to promote myself, but I speak the truth.
Yes, Bagruyot are important in terms of securing a spot in university, college or any other higher-educational program.  It's essential in terms of enabling you to move forward on any educational track.  But it isn't everything.
In fact, so many of life's most important skills are learned outside of the classroom.  
Take sports for example:
In playing sports, besides the obvious health attributes, you learn how to be part of a team, when to lead and when to follow, when to assert yourself and when to be a supporting player.  You learn to listen to a coach and to follow a sequence of instructions.  You learn what your limits are, what you excel in and what your weak spots are.  You learn how to cheer when a teammate scores and to accept the losses as part of the game.  And you learn from those losses...
As far as music goes, the health benefits are stronger.  You might not gain muscle tone from sitting on a piano bench for hours at a time, but you are exercising parts of your brain that others don't even come close to activating.  And those brain-benefits last a lifetime.  Learning how to play an instrument and practicing that instrument daily does so many amazing things for you, things you might not be aware of.
First and foremost, it teaches you how to listen, something most people have difficulty doing in today's day and age.  It also strengthens math skills.  I, for one, profess to be quite possibly the stupidest person when it comes to math.  I passed my math finals by the skin of my teeth, but I happen to be rather good at fractions.  You can argue that after decades of baking, of halving or quadrupling recipes, anyone halfway-decent in the kitchen would become skilled at fractions, but try dividing 17 notes into 4/4 time when each note value ranges from a 32nd note, to an eighth note and you'll grab an Advil, close your eyes and rest your head.  But I can do it and so can millions of other musicians.  Playing an instrument also teaches you the power of being able to focus on the present while simultaneously anticipating the future.  And it teaches you how to multitask successfully.  Think about it.  You are employing four of the fives senses all at once.  Your eyes are busy reading the notes, which in turn is sending a message to your brain so that you can decipher how to translate the written note to the keys in front of you.  And this is after you've learned how to read an entirely new language.  And you're not just touching the keys, but coordinating two hands moving in two completely different directions while your foot is pressing on the pedal at the appropriate times.  Your ears are fully activated, assessing and reassessing any mistake you might have made so you can quickly correct it AND if you're singing along, then your voice is working too, concentrating on utilizing just the right pitch and tone to match the keys you're playing.  And while you're juggling it all, you're learning how to compartmentalize.
Music is all about patterns, recognizing them, seeing similarities and differences and being able to spot those similarities and differences as you're playing.  When playing a piece that has a section that has been transposed into a different key, you have to master the ability to switch gears, moving from let's say, key of G with only 1 sharp to the key of B which has 5.  Being able to switch gears quickly and successfully is a skill that's required in almost any career.  You might call it trouble-shooting.  And if you belong to a band, similarly to sports, you learn how to be a team player.  How to take cues from other musicians, how to let others take the lead and serve as the accompaniment or how to take center stage in a solo and shine.  And because proficiency in any instrument requires a serious amount of practicing, you learn above all, discipline, patience and perseverance.  You learn that with enough practice, you can become amazing at something that maybe three weeks ago you might have sucked at.
I once told a student that I learned a 14 page piece by Mozart and that it took me several months before I was able to play the piece in its entirety without any mistakes and they were shocked. How could I sit in front of the piano and play the same thing over and over again?  Don't I get bored?  
That's the epidemic of today: boredom.
I explained that I wasn't at all bored and though it might have taken me longer than I expected, I was particularly proud of being able to master it.  That's a lesson that each and every kid should learn.  How to start something, stick with it no matter what, and then master it.  There's no better rush than that.  And when - post-university - your musically-educated child goes off into the real world, having secured a challenging job and applies those same lessons to every project, it will help ensure his/her success.  Others might have to learn it the hard way.  But having learned an instrument, they'll be way ahead of the game.
Now some might argue that you need to have some talent in order to play an instrument.  I don't agree but I will tackle that in another post, so stay tuned....
Now we come to the health issue:

A truly mind-boggling study published on April 4 in the American Psychological Association's journal of Neuropsychology found that people who learned, played and steadily practiced their instrument for many years may have built some protection against cognitive losses in their later years than those with fewer, or no years of musical activity. 

Researchers had 70 people ages 60 to 83 perform a variety of tests.  Among them was measuring their visuospatial memory, testing their ability to name objects, and assessing their brain's ability to adapt to new information. They found that those who had engaged in musical activity for 10 years or longer scored substantially better than those with no musical activity in their past. And it further suggests that the longer people play instruments, the more benefits they may derive, and the more they will be able to stave off the onset of dementia. Most of the musicians in the study were pianists; woodwind musicians came in a close second.  All were amateurs who had started playing when they were 10 years old. The study adjusted for physical fitness and education levels, each of which could contribute to protection against dementia.  And, interestingly, the relationship between cognitive skills and years of musical activity was consistent whether the musicians were currently involved in making music or not.  The study points out that the areas in which the long-time music players scored best were the same ones in which people tend to suffer a marked decline as they age and in which people with Alzheimer's dementia tend to have deficits. That musical activity could perhaps be utilized as a means of delaying cognitive losses due to Alzheimer's is remarkable!

Here's something else: Scientists have revealed that members of a British symphony orchestra have more little grey cells than ordinary people in a part of the brain known as Broca's area.  Vanessa Sluming, of the University of Liverpool, examined the brains of musicians under the age of 50 and found that they had added to their grey matter.  Then she looked at non-musicians under 50, and found an age-related decline.

"It is possible that maintaining musical skills throughout adulthood is associated with the retention of brain tissue, supporting a 'use it or lose it' interpretation," she said. "People who have a well-developed musical performance ability exhibit alterations in the structure of the motor cortex part of the brain." 

So, as it happens, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart can actually help build AND sustain brain mass and keep you super-sharp and mentally with-it well into your later years.

For those parents out there that are super-concerned that their children maintain a perfect grade-point average, think again.  Preventing your child from taking music lessons is only detrimental to their physical and emotional health.  The benefits from learning and playing any instrument completely outweigh a perfect Bagrut score. 

Don't take that away from your kid....

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