Updated: Mar 28
There is no need for me to recount how the arts have been de-emphasized in most of the mainstream public education systems in the US over the last few decades. That being the case, I know that there is no need to convince you that the arts are important in supporting healthy human development. It is my belief that anyone reading this newsletter already has an appreciation for that truth.
What I find in my conversations with people these days, from new teachers to parents of young students, to homeschooling parent-educators, is that some art forms are easier to incorporate than others. It seems the visual arts are the easiest to incorporate. Most people, even if they do not feel like they are experts in the visual arts, are willing to give it a try. They will draw and they will paint. Also, the visual arts are probably the most natural art forms for children to just take up on their own. In short, there is not much resistance to drawing and painting.
This shifts as we bring in the musical arts. If it is not ourselves, then we have all surely met others who have had negative associations with trying to sing. Some people go their whole lives, because of one negative comment, delivered with tragic timing, believing "I can't sing." Furthermore, there are plenty of people who think they are "tone deaf"--and certainly this is real for some--but for many it is a trauma that led them to this identification rather than a professional diagnosis. Lastly, there are people who do not believe that they could learn to play an instrument because they believe "I am just not musical."
The worst part of these tragedies...they are too often transmitted to the next generation.
Having taught children and adults for over 25 years in various settings, it is my experience that almost everyone is capable of creating music. I am not talking about becoming and elite musician, a professional, etc. I am talking about a much more basic and simple activity, one that is quite natural to human beings throughout the world, throughout cultures, and throughout virtually all of human history. I know that I will never sing great operatic solos. I know that I will not record a platinum album. I know that I will never wow an audience with my virtuoso musical skills. I also know that I can sing simple songs and play simple songs on instruments and it is fun. It enriches my life and enhances my well-being.
Now I will limit my focus to playing music on an instrument. After all, while both are musical expressions, singing and playing are two distinctly different activities.
As I said, playing music is natural to human beings. Did you know that there are at least four different flutes that have been found and dated to around 40,000 years old? They have been found in various caves in European countries. That puts the creation of musical instruments far earlier in human history than the development of symbolic writing systems, which go back to about the 7th century BC. At most, some scientists suggest the earliest writing might have started about 10,000 years ago. In other words, flutes had already been around for at least 30,000 years before that. I share this historical data as evidence that there was an ancient urge in different cultures to play instruments, an urge that was felt far sooner than the urge to read and write or do math. It is a fundamental human activity, one that has been part of our cultures, throughout the world, for tens of thousands of years. As such, I always feel a need to help others experience the joys of playing music with an instrument, because it is so much a universally human heritage.
There are books written about the benefits of playing instruments. I will not attempt to reiterate all of the findings asserted with such books. However, I will share two aspects that I find to be the most compelling. Of the many benefits of playing music, the two most important for me are the social-emotional and the neurological.
Let's start with the social-emotional benefits of playing an instrument. The arts predominantly activate the human being on the feeling level. Certainly, there are intellectual aspects such as color theory, music theory, and the like. Every artistic discipline has critics and scholars who take a more intellectual approach to the arts. These are fine. Regardless, the value of the arts have always been their abilities to engage the human being's emotions. Songs, movies, plays, dances, sculptures, paintings, photographs, poetry--there is no need to have any training or education in the discipline itself to have a genuine appreciation for art. Anyone can enjoy a song. Anyone can enjoy a painting. Anyone can enjoy a sculpture. This is possible because we all have emotions and because we all have our own "tastes" for what is beautiful or appealing artistically. No one needs to justify their appreciation for a piece of music. Does it "move you"? You can say more, but it is not necessary. This emotional quality extends out from the individual experience. Look what happens when we experience music with others, whether we are playing or listening. We might start to dance. We can feel the joy of making music with others. We build a different kind of connection with others. There is a reason, we have national anthems, after all. Moreover, music offers us the ability to process our own emotional experiences on a deep level. Sure, a person can write a song to express their inner thoughts and feelings. That is an apparent benefit. It is just as true that we have emotional experiences, even moving through things by listening to music. Music has that ability to reach into us, beyond the reach of language. So, when we play an instrument, we become active in an art form that has profound benefits for us on deep levels as individuals as well as benefits for us as members of social groups small and large.
As if this were not enough, modern scientific studies have found evidence that playing an instrument has profound benefits for the human being on a neurological level as well. In 2016, researchers asserted that "playing a musical instrument has been shown to increase cognitive ability through enhanced neuronal communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, resulting in positive effects on learning, memory, fine motor skills, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, resulting in an overall more capable brain..." (Stoklosa 2016).
Another study revealed that the benefits of playing music are not confined to early life, but are experienced at all ages. It was reported in the "Penn Medicine News" that "results from a study of people who started to play piano between the ages of 60 and 85 noted that 'after six months, those who had received piano lessons showed more robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions, as compared with those who had not received lessons'." (Sapega 2017).
The findings go on and on. The best part: It does not have to be an expensive pursuit. It is quite possible to begin playing on a fine quality and easily-affordable instrument, such as a recorder flute. Beginning lessons could be arranged with a teacher, but they can also be done with clear video instructions. Granted, long-term pursuit of an instrument will usually need to involve a live teacher. Either way, the ability to experience the benefits of playing music are not restricted to expensive lessons or the ability to play at a high level. Just the ability to play music, on a basic level, begins the process of experiencing these benefits.
And of course, I must end by pointing out what should always remind us about the wonders of making music. When we name the activity of making music, we say we are PLAYING music. When we have that experience, that music is fun and playful, then we really reap its rewards!
"Instruments of Knowledge: Music and the Brain", Anne R. Stoklosa, The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, Vol 17, 2016
"Playing an Instrument: Better for your Brain than Just Listening", Sally Sapega, Penn Medicine News, Jan 30, 2017
Here is another great article highlighting the benefits of playing music.