Kathy Kucsan, Education Director
Are there only three reasons to take piano (or trumpet or flute or banjo) lessons? Of course not! There are hundreds of great reasons, such as enjoyment, expression, self-fulfillment, reaching goals, fostering discipline, being creative, and being happier, to name just a few.
The best thing is that you don’t have to be “good” at music. We have this American Idol mentality in our society that rewards the best and humiliates the not-so-great. Wait – that’s another blog topic. Studying an instrument or voice doesn’t have to include comparison or competition at all. And at the Center for Musical Arts, we’re much more interested in the process than the product. When you take lessons with one of our expert faculty, it’s a path of self-discovery, a healthy mentorship relationship, and a rewarding, exciting day when you realize you can play that song or piece you’ve always loved.
For younger students, taking lessons complements their participation in school music ensembles. It also supports brain development, self-confidence, self-esteem, and sense of accomplishment.
Here are three of my favorite convincing arguments for studying music:
#1: Music lessons help brain development and health.
We’ve known for a long time that music lessons help developing brains. Musical activity involves the whole brain – every neural region that science knows about has something to do with learning and processing music. This is true for people of all ages. Consider this: when you sit down at the piano, you’re reading notes on a page – an entire symbol system – that is translated by your brain into instructions to your hands and fingers to move in particular ways, in specific rhythms and patterns. This incredibly complex process involves an intricate neural dance inside your brain, where different areas or lobes trade information and create the music that eventually emerges from the piano. It happens in milliseconds!
The amazing thing is that the more you practice, and the longer you continue lessons, the better it is for your brain and all the ancillary things that music influences. A longitudinal study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that children who took lessons for 15 months demonstrated anatomical changes in cortical and auditory areas of the brain. Brain- or neuro- plasticity means the ability of neural networks in the brain to grow, reorganize, change and adapt as a result of experience and input. From research, particularly over the past two decades, we are learning that music is one of the most significant sources of new “wiring” for our brains. At any age!
Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music (a great read that I highly recommend!), reminds us that our brains are made up of one hundred billion neurons. All of them are connected to other neurons in a vastly complex system. The more musical involvement you give yourself, the more active your brain is and the more neural networks you develop. This leads to accelerated cognitive development. It’s an exponential process – the more active your brain is on music, the faster you learn and the more it develops in different ways.
Is it ever too late to start this process? Not at all. I’ve started students in their 70s and the Center has had many people in their 80s and 90s in lessons and ensembles. Our concert band was started by a 72-year-old retired physician who always wanted to play the clarinet. She started lessons and decided that we needed a band. (So now we have the CMA Community Band!)
#2: Music supports learning in other subjects.
Music supports learning in other subjects because of the heightened neural activity involved in learning and practicing music, learning a language, or developing critical thinking and reasoning skills. Howard Gardner, author of Art, Mind and Brain, points out that musicians have superior spatial reasoning skills (the ability to think about and remember objects three-dimensionally). This skill has all sorts of implications, from increased geometry understanding to being expert at Lego construction.
Music supports and enhances math learning. Music and mathematics are intertwined, from rhythm and meter to pitch to the harmonic series. Intervals are numeric, pitch and frequency are mathematical, making music itself is an intricate combination of art and mathematics. The American Mathematical Society has a great collection of videos addressing the connection between math and music, which are well worth watching.
Music supports language learning. Here’s where neuroplasticity shows up again. Because music engages so many regions of the brain, learning the syntax and sound of a new language is supported by the increased cognitive functioning that music supports. When we learn to play an instrument, we develop the ability to associate sounds and symbols, and this enhances our ability to grasp the sounds and patterns of language. This includes increased facility with our native language and well as the ability to quickly learn and remember the intricacies of a new language.
#3: The human thing: music fosters connection.
Music connects us. We learn about each other through music. Music fosters understanding and respect of and between people of different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, races. We get to know one another by learning, singing, playing, and dancing to each other’s music. And the one-on-one mentorship relationship cultivated in the studio has lifelong effects, where we learn not just music from our teachers, but how to be good people as well. Music expresses the inexpressible, and that is something we carry with us for our lifetimes, whether we choose a path in music or not. Most Center for Musical Arts students go on to other careers but remain active in music, playing in community ensembles, going to concerts, or taking their kids to Music Together classes and lessons.