Instrumental music as brain food


Benefits go well beyond the first screeching notes By Heather Cunningham

Frank Pinc/Chicago Parent Members of the Alegre Strings perform onstage, led by Shalisa Kline Ugaz, as part of Merit School of Music's 12-hour "Performathon" in Chicago.

For the past two years I have taught piano lessons. There have been 13 students ranging in age from 5 to 12 and one common experience: watching them fall in love, not just with the music, but also with themselves as musicians.

It happens at some point in the beginning. After many, many weeks of disembodied plunking, they come to the realization that they can harness the energy of the instrument all on their own. They look at me with the glint-eyed expression of a conqueror the first time they read the music with their own eyes, plink the tune with their own fingers and pull from the scribbles on the page a song, a rhythm, an accomplishment.

Just like a child who masters a soccer play, math problem or gymnastics sequence after long effort, I am watching the building of self-esteem.

If that were all music instruction could accomplish, it still would be a worthwhile pursuit for most children, says psychologist Frances Rauscher, associate professor of child development at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. "It can be very frustrating, very difficult, and only with much practice can a child learn to master a musical instrument," she says. "But seeing their improvement over time, realizing that they are doing something well, the mastery of it is something that they will carry with them their entire life."

This is the time of year when third- and fourth-graders are often introduced to instruments at school with the idea they will choose something to play in the fall and become part of the instrumental music program. So, as you take the time to consider the years of squeaks and scratches ahead of you, it's important to think about the myriad of things music will teach your child. But it's also key to know that if you have a younger child, according to some research, third grade is almost too late to start if you want your child to get the maximum benefits of music-instrumentally speaking.

Take note: benefits but no pressure Learning to play an instrument is just the beginning of what music study can do, Rauscher says. In the last 10 years, she has researched children who study music and found these musicians excel in abstract reasoning abilities, especially those needed to process math and science concepts.

One study looked at preschoolers who took piano lessons vs. those who studied the computer or who received no instruction of any kind. She found the pianists outscored their peers by 34 percent. "Spatial temporal abilities are what we use to solve complex math ratios and fractions," says Rauscher. "They are what engineers and navigators use to conduct their work, and what musicians use to make music. It is all the same."

Other studies also laud music instruction. Stanford University psychologists found that students who learn to control musical rhythm and tempo as part of a group will perform routine tasks more efficiently. The journal Neuropsychology published research that shows young musicians have better verbal memory skills even years after their instruction ends. A 10-year study of 25,000 students at the University of California at Los Angeles found those with some musical instruction scored higher on SAT tests than those who had none.

Brian Shepard, director of marketing and public relations for the Music Teachers National Association, believes learning music gives an advantage to children on almost every level. "Music develops cultural awareness and motor skill development," he says. "[And it] provides a vehicle for individual expression that helps children develop social skills."

While this news may send parents running to the nearest music studio to enroll Susie in violin lessons or sign up Junior to play trombone in the school band, the experts agree on one more thing: the no-pressure approach.

"If you stress your child out about music lessons and they don't like the experience, they will learn nothing from it. It needs to be fun," says Rauscher. At the same time, she says: "Every single child can benefit from a music education. Even those who think their child seems unmusical need to know there is no way that they can be, because any child can learn to love and appreciate music."

What age is right? Rauscher studied the effects of musical instruction on children as young as 3, following their progress for at least four years. "The bottom line is that we found to get the boost to spatial temporal abilities, students needed to have started music lessons before the age of 6 or 7, and continued them for at least two years," she says.

Rauscher says she believes the brain development that occurs during those particular years makes a child sensitive to the suggestion of musical instruction. "If music lessons start at this point and continue for several years, they will very likely transfer to increased math abilities, as well as greater proficiency completing tasks that require concentration, like writing," says Rauscher.

Lucretia Luscombe, owner of Luscombe Music in Elmhurst since 1975, agrees. Her store carries a full range of musical instruments and offers private music instruction. "I suggest that girls start music lessons any time after age 4, and boys between the ages of 6 and 7," she says. "Before then, make sure that your child is listening to music at home. There are wonderful children's musical tapes and CDs out there or have Mozart and Beethoven playing softly in the background at home. They will absorb it."

So what if your home has not been swelling with the sounds of the classical greats and your second-grader misses the age cutoff? Is there a moment when it becomes too late to tap into music's intellectual benefits?

"If a child starts music instruction after that point, it does not mean they won't reap other benefits," Rauscher says. "The advantages music offers go beyond the cognitive alone-it introduces children to art at an early age and emphasizes perseverance and competence. "

Do-re-mi now If you are ready to start your child young, there are a variety of places to begin. Chicago area programs such as Kindermusik and Music Together expose preschoolers to music concepts early-before committing to private music instruction. "I like programs like these because they offer parents the opportunity to sing with their child, move their bodies to the music and interact musically," says Rauscher.

Other outlets will offer private or group lessons focused on a specific instrument for children as young as 4. The Suzuki method of music education is a program that originated in Japan and bases beginning learning on repetition rather than note-reading. It was designed for pre-readers as young as 2. Those such as the Chicago Music Academy offer a full range of classes in violin, guitar, cello, piano, voice and drums for the preschool set.

All the experts agree that knowing your child is key to knowing what type of class works best for him or her. "If you want to pursue private or group instrument instruction, great," says Rauscher. "But if your child is too squirmy, wait. Most children are able to sit for 20 minutes at a time by the age of 6, and it might work better for your child then."

She also reminds parents that research is always changing. "We don't know yet if the spatial temporal benefits we see in children will last indefinitely, and if other children will eventually catch up, but if they start lessons at age 15 and don't get that particular advantage, will it really matter? I don't think so."

Flute vs. bassoon I remember wanting to play the oboe in my school band simply because I liked the name. I ended up playing bells because I could already play piano and read music. Rauscher started learning piano at age 4 and, after she was told she had no talent, switched to the cello and fell in love. "Most children will pick out their own instrument," she says. "In our research all of them produced cognitive benefits … piano, singing and rhythm instruments all had positive effects."

Richard Sheeler, director of Chicago Center School for Music, says a child's preferences are often deep-rooted in the examples they see around them. "Typically, if I ask a student what they are interested in playing, many, many times it will be the same instrument as an aunt or uncle, or another family member that plays," he says. "Early on, that family influence is very strong. As children grow older it becomes more common to hear that they watched a friend play a certain musical instrument and were inspired that way."

Whether they are guided by their musical heart or by musical peer pressure, the consensus among experts is that parents should let a child choose what they want to play-within reason. "At our store we let them try the instruments and at first they seem to go for the prettiest ones," says Luscombe. "But eventually children are drawn to the instrument that they will do best with. I think it is because they are attracted to certain sounds, and that it is a natural thing."

The authors of Sound Choices: Guiding Your Child's Musical Experiences agree. The way a child enjoys making music most is very personal. "Some children will love holding a violin or cello, feeling the vibrations as they move the bow across the strings, changing each sound as they form it," author Wilma Machover writes. "Some children will enjoy being alone at the keyboard, can cope with two-staff reading and like the idea that they can play the melody and harmony at the same time."

Others (cover your ears) might be naturally attracted to percussion. "Children that played the drums showed the largest positive benefit to arithmetic reasoning," says Rauscher, who says percussion is an easy carryover for children who love to learn rhythms, shake maracas and otherwise bang around the house. "It is a very temporal skill."

Schoolhouse rhythms For children trying on a musical instrument for size prior to joining the school band or orchestra, it is a time of exploration-and trial and error. "You can tell in about three months whether or not they are really going to take to an instrument, and six months gives an even truer picture," says Luscombe.

During this time period it makes the most sense for parents to rent the instrument if they don't already own it, to give the child a sense that it is OK to change if they find that the instrument doesn't work for them.

"It is good for children to try out different instruments," says Luscombe. "In the end, the instrument shifts that they make are generally slight. I have had kids switch to the cello after playing violin, because its high pitch aggravated them. After that, they take off and do very well."

If your child seems to be floundering in indecision, Sheeler advises looking to match the personality with the instrument. "Sometimes it just takes a little fishing around to narrow down the field," he says. "If they have a theatrical type of personality, a child might enjoy voice lessons; more traditional takers lean to the piano or violin. Children who are looking to be a little different might want to try drums, guitar or again, voice."

Long-term love affair So you have the instrument, the newness has worn off and it is gathering dust in the corner (or in the case of the piano, in the middle of the living room). Now what? The first thing experts stress is not to let your school have sole responsibility for teaching your child to play. "A school orchestra only moves as fast as the slowest player. Most of the time you will find kids in those situations that are very bored," says Luscombe.

Many Chicago area school districts do not offer instruction in orchestral instruments-and the majority omit voice, guitar and piano lessons. Instead, school administrators are forced to take a one-size-fits-all approach to musical learning.

"Kids take a piece of music and have to work on it for eight weeks while everyone gets on board when, for most, four weeks would have been enough," says Luscombe. "In this case, parents are doing the right thing by sending their child to private lessons for a more challenging, one-on-one instruction."

While working with other musicians as part of a group has its benefits in encouraging team-building and collaboration, it can also be a pitfall for a struggling student. "It is very difficult to pick up on everyone's problems when you are only meeting for a half an hour a week and have four children to teach," says Luscombe.

Sheeler also advises parents of preschool musicians to always consider private instruction instead of, or in addition to, the group experience. "For the majority of children, private lessons are the most effective way to teach because they allow teachers to tap into each individual's abilities, weaknesses and strengths. If you analyze it in terms of all education, music instruction is one of the most unique opportunities children will ever get to study as an individual," he says.

Practice makes perfect And with personal instruction, it is almost impossible to avoid the bane of all music students' existence-practicing. If you are not prepared, it shows. But experts agree that even for students in private lessons, at some point practicing may begin to feel like a stale, worn-out responsibility.

"At this point it is important to find out why," says Sheeler. "Occasionally it may not be the right time for them to be taking lessons. If there is too much else going they will have trouble committing themselves to the music."

Other times, Sheeler says: "It might be the personality of the teacher or the method of instruction that frustrates them and makes them not want to practice. That might not come out at first because they are ashamed that they can't get it."

At this point, he says, it is crucial that parents talk to the instructor to let them know their child is struggling, and for the teacher to look at different musical styles to spark the student's interest.

While getting your child to consistently practice might take some effort, Sheeler says the payoff is just as weighty as the cognitive benefits of learning to play. "Practicing teaches kids to exercise efficiency in terms of accomplishing a goal," he says. "I tell my students not to practice more, but to change the way they practice so that in a shorter amount of time they can accomplish the same goals."

In the end, the musical benefits to the brain, the child and the way they look at themselves, should be enough to make every parent look at ways they can encourage their child to love music. That might start with dancing to your favorite melody with your newborn in your arms, and end with watching them play that same song 10 years later at a saxophone recital.

For me, the payoff has come in watching my piano students grow and learn, not just as musicians, but as people. And while you are enjoying your child's musical ride, rest on the research that has proven stimulating the brain is about far more than flashcards and the alphabet. Making music gets to the same destination on what is arguably a more interesting path.



Heather Cunningham is a writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.


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