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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

2/7/2013 Putting Music in the Heart

I am going to let you in on a deep dark secret. This is one that music teachers and music shop owners almost never discuss outside of their own circles. This may be counter to my own best interests but it has troubled me for too long and I am going to take a shot at it, but you will have to read on a bit before I reveal it.

As we have discussed previously, there are so many benefits to learning a musical instrument. For one thing, it makes people smarter – especially children. I am not overstating this or being an intellectual snob. It is true and has been proven by extensive research that children perform better in school and on IQ tests if they are involved in learning to play a musical instrument. It is aerobics for the brain. I am planning to do a two or three part blog on just this subject – music and the brain. I will give all the footnoted particulars but for now just trust me. It is an established psychological fact that learning a musical instrument increases cognitive function, especially in children but also adults. This is especially true in mathematics and the sciences.

Besides the aid in academics it has been shown to be beneficial in many other ways. It helps to develop social intelligence. It is certainly a boost for self-esteem. Musicians tend to be popular and many who play in bands, orchestras and ensembles are able to form lasting and satisfying friendships with other musicians. I am told that crime is almost non-existent for children and youths who are taking music in school or private lessons. It is a great way to relax after a hard day’s work. It is also an aid to stave off senility and Alzheimer’s for those advancing in age (yeah, they are going to have to change my hair color on my driver’s license to gray). I know of many profoundly competent musicians that play well into their eighties. On top of it all, playing a musical instrument is just fun.

Alright, we all agree that learning to play an instrument is a really good thing on many different levels. So what is this deep dark secret that we have been keeping from you? I am sure that you are already somewhat aware of it. Quite simply, many people and especially many children that take up an instrument do not continue with it. With all the benefits, with all the untapped joy of making music why do so many instruments gather dust in the closet? I have some theories.

First, you have to get over the hump. There is a gap between asking, “so how do I hold this thing?” and being able to play a few simple songs with a reasonable degree of competence. This period can literally be a couple weeks or a couple years. When passenger jets take off they point their noses at the sky and pour on the fuel. If you ever fly you know that those babies will push you back in the seat for the first few minutes. They are getting altitude and getting in quickly. Once they reach cruising altitude they trim way back on the fuel because it doesn’t take nearly as much. I think that we need to pour it on when we first try to learn a musical instrument. It is a lot more fun to actually play a song than to learn where the C note is. As parents, the first few months that children are beginning to learn are absolutely critical when it comes to our enthusiasm and encouragement. Get their eyes on the prize. Let them know that it won’t always take this much effort to get things going but they have to put a little more sweat in at the front end to get the achievement at the back end.

I’ve said it before. Make sure that the instrument is properly set up. Few things are harder than trying to learn to play on a lousy, poorly set up instrument. Make sure that there is a decent set of strings on the instrument and not the cheapest in the store. Make sure that it stays in tune. If it needs adjustment take it back to the shop and have it adjusted. Make sure that it is the right size and that it is comfortable. Make sure that the shoulder rest and chin rest are comfortable. Don’t buy your instrument on one of the reseller websites – period. Bona fide music stores that sell on the Internet are different but check their feedback. I have never heard anyone say, “I bought my violin on eBazon and it sounds wonderful and plays perfectly.” I’ve lost track of the horror stories I’ve heard.

Make sure that the teacher and your child have a connection in the lesson. Is the teacher enthusiastic about their progress? Most teachers work their backsides off but makes sure that the child and teacher are a good fit. If your child is just taking music in public school he or she will need more challenge and instruction than the school setting can provide. That is not a dis against the school music teachers. They just cannot give a lot of personalized attention and enthusiasm with a class of 35 and only 45 or 50 minutes to play. Be reasonable. In this situation you will need to spend some time working personally with you kids. It would be great if you could also get them some private lessons but this is not feasible for all families. There are some good self-help resources, instruction books with DVDs and also some videos on the Internet to give your child a boost. Consider learning an instrument along side your child.

The instrument should be easily accessible to you or the child, maybe even on a stand if you have a safe place. Easily available instruments are played more often. Have a specific time set aside for practice. Give some rewards – even to yourself if you are the student. We are human beings, not machines or automatons. Get the music in your heart (or your child’s). This means taking ownership of it. We do not have audio recording of the way that the classical master’s played their music (audio recording technology wasn’t readily available until the start of the twentieth century). Therefore, there is no one right interpretation for a piece of music so make it your own. The latest release by the recording artist Beck wasn’t a recording at all. It was sheet music. He wanted other musicians to come up with their own interpretations…and they’ve come up with a diverse lot. Finally, the learner should not be afraid to try their hand at making up their own melodies. All composers and songwriters started somewhere. It may not be Beethoven’s ninth but it might be Sally Smith’s first song and you never know how much fun that might be until you’ve tried it.

Keep playing

Craig Birchfield

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