Learning Music: what benefits?

Re-reading an ABRSM article from last year (“Libretto” magazine 2015:2) I saw this topic and would like to incorporate its points and add my own. Not every family will be able to offer children the chance to learn to play an instrument, and not every school will be able to do so effectively. In fact, if it is not undertaken in a creative-but-thorough manner, a child can “give it a go” at a superficial level, especially within a club situation, decide he/she has “done” Music and it didn’t work, and give up…

… and thus miss an excellent opportunity.

I feel that learning Music to a reasonable level ennobles a person. There’s no way you can learn to interpret notation without discipline, or learn appropriate style without empathy and a little historical knowledge. Subjecting yourself to the interpretative requirements develops emotional maturity –not such an easy task to tackle if you have a particular student reaching upper grades well before his/her peers, but I found that telling little stories to illustrate each situation they probably have not yet have experienced does often work. Or you can develop definitions eg. “poignant is happy and sad at the same time”.

To learn Music can only make you a better citizen: a student developing sufficient self-control to follow a distant goal and willing to give up the time required to do so. And if the learning experience involves some ensemble work then yes, a whole extra layer of development is on offer: to listen and respond to situations and make allowances for other performers if necessary, and to pass on helpful hints and maybe mentor a peer. It’s the ability to subjugate your own ideas to that of a group effort — yet still to be confident about your role.

Hand-in-glove with this ‘citizenship’ aspect is Music’s offer of an emotional or expressive outlet. A player may delight in the purity of a passage on the flute; a pianist may revel in the ability to think orchestrally and portray all that on one length of keyboard; a teen may just love to “jam” with other players; somebody with a reasonable ego may rise to the challenge to conquer hands, feet and technology in order  to express rather majestic works on an organ.

That’s the recreational aspect, something very necessary in anybody’s life. Sometimes we just need to let off steam in a non-verbal manner, and Music provides one way. What we choose on those occasions will reflect our emotional need. I can remember that while for many years I was spending half of each Saturday as piano accompanist for ballet classes — carefully supplying the tempo, rhythms and moods required — no matter how tired I might be as a result, the minute I got home I just wanted to go to my piano and play my choice for a while (If I’d loved baking I may well have celebrated in the kitchen but no, that’s too much like more hard work). After “letting loose” for a while I was able to spend the remainder of the day seeing to the family’s needs.

There’s the aspect of learning how your body works: muscular responses, glitches in performance and what has caused them (and what might cure them). Co-ordinating your breathing and movements doesn’t just apply to singers or wind instrumentalists: it may have to be discovered how breathing habits can impede ease of performance. You may find that feet matter as much as any other body part, for balance and security while leaning up or down to distant notes. This sort of awareness is very much transferable to other parts of life, in particular — but not only — to sport.

“Metacognition” is a word to do with how we become aware of how our brains work, and how we learn. Attending Music lessons is a way of becoming aware of what works best for you — aural, visual, or haptic/kinaesthetic styles of learning. While it’s good to know which is your preference, it’s also good to be ‘stretched’ by an experience weighted in a different direction. You might be a learner who relies upon memorising, and if so, then it probably relates to your broader life.

Regardless of how familiar a student may be becoming with what his brain and body must do to combine efforts and produce a fine performance, and how he/she must bring physiology to bear upon the instrument so as to produce the desired results, yet few can really appreciate the considerable types and degree of mental, emotional and physical processes which must combine to do so. A lot of work is being done! and relatively little of it is fully understood. Even the teacher will realise there is more yet to learn about learning.

As a teacher I encourage students to put into words what their difficulties are, then to voice a possible solution: if it works, it’s part of their arsenal for life until it’s no longer a difficulty. A music student’s learning is largely independent and relies upon persistence at a private level, though there are ways to use social media and ensemble opportunities to make comparisons and appreciate the performances of others.

In my early teaching days it was a sobering realisation that I was respecting students less if they weren’t visual learners (it seemed to me that they were ‘lazy’). In those days, learning styles were only just becoming recognised. When you know your style you can stand up for yourself better, and you can make recommendations to your school teacher (“Sir, it works better for me if we can have discussion groups” or whatever).

Other social benefits may be simply having a skill that causes others to admire you; self-belief; ability to be relied upon to play your part and stand your ground. Any of these contribute to pointing a student toward becoming a sound and productive adult.

Then there’s the imaginative aspect, fostered by the title of a piece, which opens up the possibility of a musical performance being a form of communication: a depiction of loss, a declaration of love or triumph, a statement of hopes, or simply telling a story. This last is very helpful: assigning a sentence of narrative to each musical phrase so that in total it tells a story (“The hero rides into the forest…Now the trees are dark and thick and he is lost…The weather tries to defeat him…” etc.) is a way to obtain expressiveness that gets the story across.

Thus a myriad of mental, emotional and physical functions begin to combine in the efforts of a student who is given to the task. While producing something creative, the student is re-creating, re-defining, re-stating self. It’s an impressive and well worthwhile process!

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2 thoughts on “Learning Music: what benefits?

  1. Wow! There really are a lot of excellent arguments in favor of children learning music. I wish I’d been taught music properly when I was a child. I had the interest but not the opportunity. I learned to bash out a few songs on a guitar in later years, but though it’s fun, it’s no substitute for proper study in childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it a pity when there’s interest but not opportunity? I had to wait until I was ten, nurturing envy all that time. So my advanced piano study wasn’t until I was married with kids and working to fund lessons. Now I meet people who say “I learned as a kid, wish I’d carried on…”

      Liked by 1 person

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