TMS note: This piece was posted on the Welcome to Bobbletown blog and is certainly worth a read for any adults considering taking up an instrument.
Have you always wanted to play the guitar? Or learn how to play the piano? There are many benefits of learning a musical instrument as an adult. This post isn’t trying to prove that it is better to learn music as an adult (vs. a child). It simply states that learning as an adult definitely has benefits.
(1) Adults Can Increase Their Brain Plasticity
Their what? Increased brain plasticity means the nervous system has adapted to change… found new ways of learning… sometimes after an injury or a stroke… but more commonly after acquiring a new skill. Studies have shown that younger brains may change more readily. However, according to Science Magazine older brains have definitely not lost the capacity to change.
Researchers have examined whether there are critical periods in the development of specific skills like music. A study of violinists was conducted in 1995 by Thomas Elbert of the University of Konstanz in Germany and Edward Taub of the University of Alabama. It included musicians who started before the age of 12, musicians who started as adults, and non-musicians. The scientists found that the left hand (which requires more dexterity than the right when playing the violin) of all string musicians is represented by a larger area in the brain’s touch sensing region than the left hand of non-musicians. The touch sensing region in the musicians who learned as children was larger than those who learned as adults, possibly indicating that the brain is more receptive to musical training earlier in life. However, in all cases the brain had changed! This shows an increase in circuitry and neurotransmitters regardless of when the skill was learned. An awakening of the brain. Thomas Elbert summarizes his study in his own words,
“Twenty years ago people thought that the structure of the brain develops during childhood and once that organisation in the brain has been developed that there is very little room for changes and for plastic alterations. Now we know that there is enormous capacity.”
Essentially this proves that learning a musical instrument as an adult is not only possible, but it may also improve your cognitive abilities.
Lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles. Now draw the number 6 in the air with your right hand. For most people their foot changes direction (mine does!). Keep working on it and you will increase your Brain Plasticity.
(2) Adults are Goal-Oriented
Adults are more focused and more goal-oriented than children. Adults are self-driven (is that a word?). Adults are learning because they want to – not because mom is making them.
(3) Adults Can Understand the “Why”
Children who start very young usually learn scales at an age at which they really don’t understand why they are being asked to do them. I can honestly tell you that when I was 5 years old I had no idea why I had to play all those scales. Adults can easily understand the theory behind music… and why practice makes perfect.
(4) Stress Relief!
I have been playing the piano since I was 2 (so I’ve been told). I have been playing the violin for 2 months. When I’m playing the piano, there is still room for thoughts to enter my head like “what should I make for dinner?”, “did I pay that bill?”, “why am I a loser?”. When I am playing the violin, it is honestly so hard for me that nothing else can enter my mind. I can completely forget about everything, and I feel totally refreshed and stress-free after about 30 minutes of “playing”.
A groundbreaking study in the February 2005 Issue of the Medical Science Monitor showed that playing a musical instrument can reverse “multiple components of the human stress response on the genomic level”. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds good. The study stated that this is the same effect that meditation has. And we all know that meditation relieves stress.
(5) Improved Quality of Life
Some of the greatest benefits of music include group classes and performances… especially for anyone living alone or retired. A 1999 study, “Music Making and Wellness”, sponsored by the International Music Products Association (of course – ha!), found that seniors who participated in group keyboard lessons reported significantly decreased feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness. They also showed an increase in human growth hormone (hGH), which has been linked to positive effects on aging such as increased energy levels, decreased wrinkling (okay, really? I need to see more info on that.), lower chance of osteoporosis, increased muscle mass, and fewer aches and pains.
Additionally, preliminary results of an on-going George Washington University study of adults 65 and over indicated that those who took part in a senior chorale group fared better in a variety of social, behavioral, quality of life and mental health measures than did those in a control group who did not take part in musical instruction. The chorale group in fact reported better overall health including fewer doctor visits, fewer falls, fewer hip fractures, lower levels of depression, less loneliness and better morale. Wow! As if that isn’t enough they also reported fewer vision problems than they had at the start of study, and increased their overall level of activity.
So, if you been thinking of taking up guitar or piano or any musical activity after all these years… it looks like it’s a great idea!
Medical Benefits of Playing Music Fact Sheet
was produced by NAMM and I got it from: http://www.openmicaustin.com/p/music-health.html.
Medical Benefits of Playing Music Fact Sheet According to a recent Gallup survey, the majority (64 percent) of Americans agree they would be more likely to participate in music making, if scientific research found that it improved their health. You may be surprised at the numerous documented psychological and physiological health benefits that can be derived from playing a musical instrument, especially those that can help with coping with stress and anxiety. Following are just some of the latest scientific findings that support the health benefits of playing music to treat conditions such as:
Playing Music = Less Stress
- Parkinson’s Disease and Stroke
- Chronic Pain
- Alzheimer’s Disease and brain injuries
- Anger management
- Depression/Job burnout
Music therapy was recently found to reduce psychological stress in a study of 236 pregnant women (College of Nursing at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan)
Playing music reduces stress and has been shown to reverse the body’s response to stress at the DNA level (Dr. Barry Bittman).
Playing music "significantly" lowered the heart rates and calmed and regulated the blood pressures and respiration rates of patients who had undergone surgery (Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Neb., and St. Mary's Hospital in Mequon, Wis.)
Blood samples from participants of an hour-long drumming session revealed a reversal of the hormonal stress response and an increase in natural killer cell activity (Bittman, Berk, Felten, Westengard, Simonton, Pappas, Ninehouser, 2001, Alternative Therapies, vol. 7, no. 1).
The non-verbal and non-threatening nature of music makes it useful in reaching autistic children. This is especially true of many autistic children that seem to have a special fascination, and at times an unusual sensitivity to music. Pairing music with speech can help increase word usage and more natural inflections in autistic children. Pairing music with games and movement can help to increase socialization and decrease the isolation of autistic individuals.
Catherine Lord, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan specializing in autism research, says, "We know that music therapy treatment is associated with improvement, but we don't know what the cause of that improvement is."
Vanya Green, a board-certified music therapist at Mattel Children’s Hospital Child Life/Child Development Services who specializes in facilitating creative expression and anxiety reduction/increased relaxation through music therapy, explained that music can express both an idea and emotion simultaneously.
“I think whereas words are oftentimes symbols of something that you want to express, especially if you want to express a certain emotion, music is sort of a direct expression of that, and I think people feel that when they hear music,” Green said.
In an innovative study led by Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a researcher at the UCLA Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity, music will be used as a tool to explore the ability of children with ASD to identify emotions in musical excerpts and facial expressions.
"Music has long been known to touch autistic children," Molnar-Szakacs said. "Studies from the early days of autism research have already shown us that music provokes engagement and interest in kids with ASD. More recently, such things as musical memory and pitch abilities in children with ASD have been found to be as good as or better than in typically developing children."
Parkinson’s Disease and Stroke
Rhythmic cues can help retrain the brain after a stroke or other neurological impairment, according to Michael Thaurt, director of Colorado State University’s Center of Biomedical Research in Music. Researchers have also discovered that hearing slow, steady rhythms, such as drumbeats, helps Parkinson patients move more steadily (Friedman, Healing Power of the Drum, 1994).
Subjects who participated in a clinical trial using the HealthRhythms protocol showed an increase in natural killer cell activity and an enhanced immune system. While this does not indicate a cure for cancer, such results may be of benefit for those facing this disease. (Bittman, Berk, Felten, Westengard, Simonton, Pappas, Ninehouser, 2001, Alternative Therapies, vol. 7, no. 1).
Playing music increases human growth hormone (HgH) production among active older Americans. The findings revealed that the test group who took group keyboard lessons showed significantly higher levels of HgH than the control group of people who did not make music (University of Miami)
Chronic pain has a devastating propensity for progressively draining quality of life. Technology and pharmacology are falling short of the mark needed to improve quality of life and reduce pain, according to Dr. Barry Bittman in the “Pain Practitioner.” (Lingerman, H. 1995, “Music and You”. “In the Healing Energies of Music”. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House).
Alzheimer’s Disease and Brain Injuries
According to Clair, Bernstein and Johnson (1995), Alzheimer’s patients who drum can connect better with loved ones. The predictability of rhythm may provide the framework for repetitive responses that make few cognitive demands on people with dementia.
Music therapy can help people identify the emotions that underlie anger and increase the patient’s awareness of these feelings and situations that can trigger them. If a situation or emotion is presented in a song the healthy options for expressing that feeling can be discussed and conflict resolution and problem solving can be practiced in a positive manner. Drumming is also used by music therapists to help patients appropriately vent anger and other emotions. Another use of drumming can be a non-verbal conversation on drums where the ability to listen to the other person’s drumming is needed to “converse” on the drums.
Playing a musical instrument can reverse stress at the molecular level, according to studies conducted by Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems (as published in Medical Science Monitor)
Depression and Job Burnout
Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a study with 30 depressed people over 80 years of age and found that participants in a weekly music therapy group were less anxious, less distressed and had higher self-esteem (Friedman, Healing Power of the Drum, 1994).
Making music can help reduce job burnout and improve your mood, according to a study exposing 112 long-term care workers to six recreational music-making sessions of group drumming and keyboard accompaniment. (As published in “Advances in Mind-Body Medicine”)
Engaging in playing music reduces depression. Recent research with long-term care workers showed reduced depression (21.8 percent) six weeks after the completion of a music making program consisting of one hour per week. (Source: A 2003 study conducted by Trip Umbach Healthcare Consulting, Inc.)
Talent: Art's romantic "red herring"
After reading Part I of Talent: Art's romantic "red herring"
you are probably wondering why I am so adamant about the talent myth. Well, it is because the notion of pre-ordained talent, while it may be Romantically and intuitively attractive, creates needless barriers to anyone who really wants to participate in creative activities, be it music or anything else, but who isn't necessarily a "quick study." It also lets a lot of people, many of them teachers, off the hook.
Ascribing musical achievement primarily to talent is troubling because it discounts the hours of dedication and hard work that goes into achieving success: hours of study and practice EVERY successful musician must put in. The inference is that "talent" gives one a sort free pass to success and it's virtually pointless for the so-called "lesser talented" or "untalented" student to even make an attempt.
The truth is that motivation and discipline are far more important than so-called talent. There is no prerequisite talent level attached to 10,000-hour rule: it reflects motivation and commitment. I see it consistently among my students - the students who are committed achieve more. They may take longer than others to reach their goal (often because they havea higher goal), but they do reach it and many of them exceed it. In the end, they truly enjoy the pay off more.
Let's be clear, when I say discipline and persistence, I am not advocating mindless practising. We should by now be smarter than previous generations were and realise that there are ways of targeting specific skills and finding engaging ways to teach and acquire them. But discipline and persistence are still requisites. It really is the drive to succeed that separates the successful from the unsuccessful.
But, I also believe we need to have some broader definitions of success. Should musical success defined solely by fame and finacial success? Is every musician who doesn't have an renowned recording career a failure? Of course not, but it does seem to be the growing paradigm. We need to make distinctions between training aimed at music as a profession and music learned for the intrinsic joys and benefits it provides - true amateurism. These are not necessarily distinctions of skill, but rather of aims.
Unfortunately, some teachers reinforce unrealistic expectations by focusing on public performance rather than the acquisiting of skill and musical knowledge for its own sake. It makes me livid when I hear stories of teacher's blowing off students because they have difficulties. The stories of students being told "not to sing and just move your lips" in the choir or fake playing in the band may be cliches, but similar instances are far more common than we would like to admit. I have known teachers who have ditched students because they didn't want to spend the time and effort to find a way of teaching them. They felt the student's "lack of success" reflected on them as teachers (and they say surgeons bury their mistakes). But then what is teaching? I measure a teacher's worth by how they rise to the challenge, see potential and reach the student who learns differently or more slowly.
For myself , I will teach any student who shows a serious interest in learning, and if it doesn't come "easily" it is my job to find the appropriate approach that makes it "easier." I am also realistic enough not to blame my failures on my students' abilities.
I suppose when it comes down to it I really do divide the students into two groups: the students who want to play guitar and the students who want to learn to play guitar. That distinction will always have more weight than so-called talent.
"Being a natural born musician is about as probable as being a natural born brain surgeon or a natural born parking lot attendant."
Talent: Art's romantic "red herring"
One of the most persistant and frustrating "red herrings" in the world of music is the notion of talent. Talent carries a lot of freight: for prospective musicians, especially adults. It is an indeterminable "sword of Democles" hanging over their heads.
But what is this thing that we call talent? Coming up with a specific definition sometimes seems like trying to herd cats in a particular direction. There are wide variances relating to our ntotions of talent. We make a distinctions: "natural talent," for example, where the "talentee" achieves success with little or no effort; hidden or undevelopped talent that has to be coaxed out of a possessor who is unaware of its existence, and there is wasted talent where possessor knows it exists but fails to act.
In all cases though, this thing called talent is thought to manifest itself as a predetermined ability existing independently in some individuals but not in others. For the religious among us, it is a "God given gift." For those of a more secular viewpoint it is the "gift" of genetics or evolution.
I must confess I'm a bit unclear about the essential evolutionary benefits of playing the trombone, tuba or violin; but then I would also have to wonder about heaven-sent endowments in someone who is otherwise a complete loss as a human being as some in the pantheon of musical greatness have been.
When researchers studied the success of elite musicians four common factors were found: opportunity, positive support and feedback, desire to play and the amount of time spent actually playing (the so-called 10,000 hour rule).
You'll notice that "talent" is not one of the factors. Of course, one could argue that talent is a given amongst elite performers. Certainly we wouldn't expect anyone who is "untalented" to make it into the ranks of elite musicians. But, the so-called 10,000-hour rule, indicates that all talent is undevelopped. I have a hard time believing that someone could dedicate that much effort and yet remain unaccomplished at some level.
Essentially, genetically based talent is an advantage that can provide a technical headstart, but over time the advantage diminishes as others gain experience. Take a 7 year-old child prodigy for example. When compared to other children of similar age the difference in accomplishment is seen as enormous. A significant part of that difference is explained by the fact that child prodigies have usually put in more of their 10,000 hours earlier than other children, but may also be due to a higher initial technical proficiency as well.
Interestingly though, the proficiency gap narrows considerably between the prodigy and the serious student who isn't a prodigy by the time both are in their 20s. The tortoise catches up to the hare.
That "natural" or "intuitive" understanding of music and its particular relationships, beyond technical skill, which so often awes us, is at first blush more difficult to explain. But almost without exception early exposure to a rich musical environment is its basis. It is the same "learning by osmosis" effect that children experience in their acquisition of language. That understanding of how children learn forms the foundation of the Shinichi Suzuki's international renowned teaching method, among others.
We don't often acknowledge that people are learning about music long before they begin to study music. (I have the same difficulty getting students to believe that they learn more between classes than during them.) But, the truth be known, it is the musical environment in which one is immersed that accounts in great measure for "inherent differences" in so-called levels of talent. That is in part why talent seems to run in families. But, how is it amazing that you would be adept at something in which those closest to you are interested; when they have amply exposed you to it; when they have encouraged your interest and praised your achievements in it. It doesn't matter if you are a musician, a politician or a plumber - under such conditions you are bound to develop an advantage in the field. As one writer framed it: Why is it that you have be "chosen" to be a musician, but just need advanced training to be a neuro-surgeon?
Such connexions were more explicit before romantic interpretations of genius and talent began to take hold of the arts during the mid to late Renaissance. Artists, musicians, jewellers, stonemasons et alia were understood to be craftspeople who learned their skills by apprenticeship from a master -- accessing accumulated, shared knowledge and experienced direction. There weren't any entrance exams or portfolios submitted, and not much consideration of special aptitude before becoming an apprentice. You would be learning a skill set and a discipline. It was accepted that once an apprentice had put in the effort of acquiring those skills one could eventually become a master.
The pragmatism of that outlook has been submerged by our elevation of artistic freedom and self-expression. Our cultural bent for specialisation and the unique has conditioned us to believe that " some of us are born with it and some of us ain't."
I'll examine that more closely in "Talent: Art's Romantic Red Herring, Part II"
No one is "unmusical"
I love music. I love to play. I love to write it. I love to listen to it. I love to teach it. In all my years in music - more than 40 now - I have yet to meet someone who is truly "unmusical." Now, I have met people who aren't interested in music; people who haven't had the opportunity to study music or have been told they are "unmusical," but I have never met someone who truly was "unmusical." When I say "unmusical" I mean someone who has no inherent sense of pitch or rhythm. I don't know how someone could exist and function in society thus afflicted.
You may have heard the adage attributed to Zimbabwean lore:
"If you can talk you can sing.
If you can walk you can dance."
Well, Zimbabwean or not, there is a fundamental truth in that. There is pitch and rhythm is our everyday speech. We could not communicate without pitch and rhythm. How would you know if some was asking you a question if you couldn't hear the rise in pitch at the end of the phrase? How could you pronounce a multi-syllable word without a sense of rhythm. You and everyone talking to you would sound like those droning robots in 1960s scifi films.
I've never met a natural robo-talker. I do hear people using "sing-song" speech when they talk to small children and pets, or in more emphatic form while cursing a driver that has just cut them off. Some of those people then turn around and tell me that they are "tone deaf" or "can't carry a tune."
Of course, people don't recognise this as musicality. When they say they are "unmusical" or its sidekick "untalented," they mean they believe they can't sing or play an instrument usually after having been told so by some jerk - usually a family member or so-called teacher.
Now, I am not saying everyone can sing like k.d. Lang or Ben Heppner, or play piano like Oscar Peterson or Glenn Gould. Not everyone has the opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours to become an elite performer. But, those musicians are, or were, at the top level of professional performance. There are a myriad of other performance levels.
The performers I have mentioned have benefitted from opportunity, positive feedback and support, direction either formally or informally from a teacher or mentor and the discipline needed to put in untold hours of practice to achieve an elite level. But the elite level is not the only level of satisfactory musical competence.
John Powell, in his book "How Music Works," points out that people don't consider themselves "unpotterly" if they can't make a clay pot, or "unknitty" if they can't knit. They recognise that throwing a clay pot or knitting a curling sweater are simply skills they haven't acquired: but could if they really wanted to.
When it comes to music, as with the other "fine arts," we are still hostage to 19th century Romantic notions of innate talent and genius. But, that my friend is a topic for another posting...
Welcome to The Ta'MaSam Guitar Workshop's "Music Ink." I use this space to discuss events, trends and ideas that affect our understanding and appreciation of music. I hope to explode a few myths about music and music-making, examine research and critical analyses relating to music, and explore new ideas about music. Of course, I also hope to prompt thought and discussion amongst our readers. I try not to get wedded to my natural biases in this space, and I'll certainly let you all know about any revelations that cause me to see something in a new light. In some ways writing this blog is like going on a road trip: it's not the destination that's so interesting as much as the getting there.