It seems a shame to have children learn how to play a musical instrument for years, costing huge amounts of money, not to speak of parental energy, only for them to give it up - without a second thought - a few years down the line. Yet, the reality is that this is what almost ALWAYS happens. Should you ever decide to poll your adult friends, you would find that many have abandoned, once fervently- practised instruments, to gather dust. Very few still pick up their instrument. So what is the point?
Would it not be more sensible to forego the whole palavah in the first place? To never spend the hours chauffeuring them to and fro, not to mention the time spent first asking, then pleading, then begging which often escalates into negotiating, and finally giving the whole thing up?
Hmm, - no!
Admittedly, it is a struggle getting children to practise their instruments; to persevere when learning endless scales. Sometimes it is a struggle just to find the time and the money for all this. However, apart from physical activity, this is the most constructive extra-curricular enrichment you can provide your children with, and unfortunately there are no shortcuts available.
Learning an instrument benefits your child in so many ways, and we are not talking about the Victorian ideal of “a young lady needs to play an instrument” – mostly the piano or the harp - to be considered “accomplished.”
Beyond the obvious benefit of listening to music – while playing it – learning to play an instrument has multiple other benefits too.
• Playing a musical instrument improves both cognitive and non-cognitive skills to a greater extent than almost any other activity a person can engage in, and the positive effects of this last for many years after the person has stopped playing the instrument. It helps significantly with coordination, due to the repeated movements. Reading music, interpreting it and turning it into sound on an instrument requires several areas of the brain, located in both the left and right hemispheres, to work together. It is the ultimate multisensory experience, giving both auditory and kinaesthetic input at the same time.
As far back as in 2003, a study, Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard scientist conducted, found that the brains of adult professional musicians had a larger volume of grey matter than the brains of people who did not play any instruments. Later research done in 2011 (by Hanna-Pladdy) proved that in a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests, adults with over ten years of experience of playing a musical instrument (at some point in their lives) still out-performed their peers once they were in their sixties and beyond in skills requiring non-verbal and visual-spatial memory, in naming objects, and taking in and adapting new information.
Schlaug and colleagues also found that musical training in childhood leads to subtle structural brain changes, improving motor and auditory skills. It was found that the greatest benefit was experienced by those who started their musical training before the age of 9 and kept it up for a minimum of 10 years.
"Playing a musical instrument is a multisensory and motor experience that creates emotions and motions — from finger tapping to dancing — and engages pleasure and reward systems in the brain. It has the potential to change brain function and structure when done over a long period of time," Gottfried Schlaug, MD, PhD, from Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Boston, Massachusetts), an expert on music, neuroimaging, and brain plasticity, said in a conference statement.
• As learning to play an instrument involves patience and perseverance, it TEACHES these, little by little. No one, who has ever been confronted with a new and more difficult piece of music, ever felt that it was easy or unchallenging. Yet they got on with it, stumbled and often felt like giving up. Learning to get past that and conquering the piece is a skill in itself. Especially in our high speed world of instant gratification, these are very valuable skills, hardly taught anymore, which are, nonetheless, indispensible in life
• Getting to grips with an instrument requires lots of discipline and sacrifice. As a child progresses in his or her musical studies, the practice time they are expected to put in each day increases. This obviously involves giving up some of their otherwise “free” time. They need to make this additionally required time in their busy lives; this involves discipline and fewer opportunities for delay or procrastination. Making this choice and sticking to it are very important lessons with lasting benefit in other aspects of the child’s life. Learning to do something, even when the mood does not take them or when other, more exciting things are happening too, requires maturity and hard work.
• The effect on the self-confidence of a child who has a skill that most other adults do not is huge. Even socially less adept children can revel in the admiration of their listeners when they are given opportunities to perform at school concerts or at family gatherings. Getting over the butterflies created when performing in front of an audience is of significant value to people who may need to speak in public or in front of a group of their peers.
When considering music lessons do not automatically exclude a child with ADHD or other learning differences. Give them the opportunity and encourage them. Music may hold the key to helping them, using skills that other areas of their lives are not able to tap into so readily. Children with Learning Differences, often struggle in the area of working memory, which is what enables a person to hold information in their memory, manipulate it and use it in various tasks. There is increasing evidence that learning to play a musical instrument exercises and strengthens this area, which in turn may benefit other areas of learning a child may encounter.
If due to various pressures - time or finances - an activity has to be dropped from your child’s schedule, if at all possible, try not to make it the music lessons. The gift of music is one your child may carry with them for the rest of their life.
Agnes Holly has worked for more than 25 years in education ranging from university to nursery, and everything in-between. She is a qualified SEN teacher and has worked extensively with children who have dyslexia and ADHD. She has additional practical experience in the form of five of her own children aged between 6 and 23.