Much has been written about recent research on the beneficial effects of piano lessons and other types of music lessons. The top benefits include:
- Improved abilities in math, reading comprehension, and puzzle solving; sharpened concentration and attention span. Neural connections made through the act of playing an instrument provide a defense against cognitive decline and memory loss that last a lifetime.
- Emotional and developmental advantages. Playing the piano provides an outlet to release and express emotions, plus being exposed to different genres of music can help us recognize and feel a diverse palette of emotions.
- Studies reveal that playing the piano can shut down the body’s stress response and help us relax, regardless of a person’s skill level. Playing an instrument for one hour per week for at least six weeks can effectively lower the body’s stress response.
- Improved confidence: discovering that consistent effort (practicing piano) brings a desired result (ability to play a piece well) is a gift that can be applied in all areas of life.
Having taught piano for 30+ years, I’ve observed some other benefits that may not be so obvious. Here are some fine points that my students and I have learned along the way:
The Fine Art of Balance
Playing an instrument helps us to learn how to balance discipline and freedom. There are so many aspects of technique to master: accuracy of notes, rhythm, phrasing, articulation – and it can take hours of practice to execute it all well. But to really make music, there needs to be freedom, too. We need to let go, and allow ourselves to express the emotions and meaning in the music. One of my students likes to think of the right and left sides of the brain as he plays. If the left side is dominating, it’s robot-music. If the right side is in control, the music can be chaotic, over-emotional. When both sides work together equally, the music is perfectly balanced, no one side dominating.
How open are we to new sounds, new genres of music? When a very young child experiments at the piano keyboard, she is completely free to combine notes with no judgment. Gradually, as we hear more and more music based on conventional harmonies, dissonant sounds may become unacceptable to us. Some students cringe when they hear a chord with two notes next to one another; other students love “weird” dissonant chords. If put in the context of a science fiction movie, we accept those sounds, so sometimes I will have a student create them on purpose as a soundtrack to an imagined movie. We have an opportunity as musicians to explore beyond usual harmonies and genres, to delve into the music of other countries and cultures, and gain an understanding of them through music. We are all connected through the universal language of music – what a gift to be open to the many variations of expression that music provides!
Deep listening is perhaps the most precious gift that music provides us. When we involve ourselves in learning to play an instrument, we are training our ears to listen in a new way, to a new language. It’s a language of subtle sounds that carry shades of emotion in a sonic world, not the everyday world of words we are used to. As we listen deeply, we hear the pitch of a note, and the embedded harmonics; we hear the rhythms that we play, the legato or staccato articulations, we hear the dynamics and shades of loud and soft; we hear not only the melody of our right-hand but the accompaniment of our left hand; we may hear multiple lines of music simultaneously, and quickly changing chords. The form of the music reveals itself as we play; it could be a simple A B A form; it could be call and response or a sonata form. The rise and fall of the melody through the form tells a story, and this mixes in with the physical and emotional effects that each pitch and combination of pitches has on us. Our focus becomes intense as we learn to play this piece and as we develop a relationship with it. We enter a place where there is no time, where there is only sound. This is deep listening.
We’ve all heard instances when two or more people played together with this kind of listening. Nonverbal communication at this level connects people profoundly and the music that results can be sublime. Perhaps you’ve even experienced a conversation in which people listened to one another in this deep way. Music can show us the way to listen to the tone, rhythm, pitch, emotion and the meaning beneath our words.
Going back to the image of a young child experimenting on the piano keyboard – there is no concept of mistakes to him. The child is immersed in the world of sound and discovering what happens when different combinations are made. Fast forward a few years to the child’s first piano lesson. Once note reading is introduced, so is the idea of mistakes, especially if note reading is the only avenue of teaching. Why do mistakes have to be thought of as something bad, something to be avoided? A mistake is feedback, plain and simple. We have a goal, for example to play a piece of music as written. Along the way we are going to go off on some tangent trails – that’s the process of learning. So let’s make lots of mistakes! Lots and lots and lots of them. Some of those mistakes are going to sound really good – those will be discoveries that could lead to some interesting music. Another avenue of teaching is improvisation. Why is it that when art is taught to children, they are encouraged to paint their own original paintings, not to copy the paintings of others. Yet in music lessons, often children are asked only to play music from a book. There is a lot to be gained from exploring – as a matter of fact, traditional note reading skills and improvisation go hand-in-hand. When you improvise, there are no wrong notes; when you play a note you don’t care for, just change the next one and go off in a different direction. Knowing you can do this gives you confidence and versatility. You get to use the music theory you’re learning in your lesson. Playing music becomes alive. All of the composers in the 18th and 19th centuries were able to improvise from the music they wrote. So instead of a mistake being a terrible thing to be avoided, music teaches us to embrace the mistake, to make the most of it. To play the spirit of the music, as Beethoven recommended. And if after all the practice we’ve done on a piece, we still make a glitch in performance, perhaps that is a lesson in accepting all of ourselves.
As you keep up your practice of music, you may begin to notice benefits in your own life. It may not be noticeable right away, but when you look back after one year, faint changes may begin to take shape. After two years those shapes will start to fill in and be more recognizable, and after several years of playing, you just might notice that you are different in subtle ways because of your music practice.