The best thing about learning to play the violin - or any other musical instrument - is that after all those lessons and practice, you can play the violin! But that long learning process also confers undeniable benefits in other areas of life. It's important to acknowledge and sing the praises of those benefits, too, especially in a time where instrumental music education is routinely dismissed as an "extra."
No other activity offers the union of skills and disciplines that instrumental music does, requiring physical coordination, communication, math, discipline, memory and more. In fact, scientific studies have shown that playing an instrument literally "engages every major part of the central nervous system," using both the right and left sides of the brain.
Here are a few of the specific ways that learning an instrument can affect one's overall abilities and life perspective.
Tackling Difficult Problems, Step-by-Step
"That's too hard!" Learning a musical instrument presents a constant series of tasks that seem too difficult. Just producing a sound can be difficult - making something other than a scratch on a violin, blowing into a flute in a way that produces a pitch, or making any kind of sound at all with a French horn. And it just gets more difficult from there: fingerings, rhythms, pitch - impossible! And then, step-by-step, it becomes possible. The thing that was impossible in the beginning is laughably simple a year later - but then there is a new "impossible" challenge to master. Progress is slow and incremental.
It's helpful to be aware of that building process, and the way it can apply to other seemingly insurmountable problems in life. With time, patience, practice, persistence, the "impossible" IS possible.
Music is mathematics in motion, simply put. A precise number of notes must fit into a precise amount of time, and often it's a very complicated equation. If that weren't enough, we then layer those notes: the violin's notes fit with the notes of a piano, or the notes of another violin. Or we put dozens of instruments together, all playing their own set of notes that must synchronize in perfect time with the whole. The counting, subdividing and fitting your notes with other notes -- is constant.
Learning to juggle these equations in real-time sharpens the mind and make it a bit more nimble, when quick mathematical assessments come up in other life situations.
No question: an instrumental musician is a small-muscle athlete. This is true for any instrument, but I'll talk about the violin, which certainly requires a high level of coordination. One must hold the instrument on the shoulder, place the fingers on the fingerboard, shift with precision, cultivate a vibrato motion, produce tone with a variety of bow strokes -- and then get the balance of all of it "just-so."
The learning curve for certain motions can sometimes appear to bend entirely uphill. The first time someone tries vibrato, or certain wrist motions in bowing, or a complicated double-stop finger placement - the motion is elusive. With work, there is finally an "AHA!" moment -- then a second later it might be lost entirely. One has to get the message from brain to fingers or wrist, and at first, it takes a long time. It can feel like the opposite of being coordinated. But then with practice and persistence, that message between brain and fingers grows stronger and faster. The coordination comes, and it stays. It might get rusty with disuse, but it's much easier to get it back than to learn it in the first place. And all those learned motions create a generally higher level of small-muscle coordination in students of instrumental music.
Another Language to Read and "Speak"
It's amazing that a group of musicians can sit down together, and with the help of written music, they can accurately and convincingly play something they've never heard before. And in fact, every musician in the group might have different notes written on that music, but it all coordinates perfectly. Of course, the quality of the music produced on this first-read depends on whether this group is comprised of beginning high school orchestra students or professional musicians, but the organizing factor remains the same: a common language of written music.
Learning to read music is a little like learning a foreign language, but it's also simply its own skill. One must learn the concepts, conventions and specific symbols of music, such as: pitches in various clefs, note values, intervals, measures, time signatures, key signatures, scales, modes, dynamics, articulations and more.
After you learn all that, your leader might throw on another layer, "We're swinging this" - and you suddenly need to know, for example, that today the straight rhythms are going go a little asymmetric. So there is also the equivalent of local accents and colloquialisms in this language.
As with learning a foreign language, learning to read music - and exercising that knowledge - opens one's mind to different thought patterns and ways of organizing ideas.
When playing music, there is so much one can "say" without words. Music can feel expansive, busy, still, stressful, happy, sad, murky, clear -- it gets across these feelings, moods and emotions directly through sound and gesture. It just adds one more way that a human being can effectively express complicated feelings.
Discipline and Devotion
Generally, learning an instrument is a long-term project. When it comes to the violin, an average student doesn't really start "sounding good" until about five years of consistent practice and progress. In order to reach that point, a person has to develop a devotion to practicing as well as the courage to keep pushing the boundaries and exploring unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. That habit of perseverance and discipline can serve many areas of life.
Learning music trains one to hear more, and it can make a person more curious about the sounds around them. A student of music hears the doorbell - but he or she may also be able to identify the pitch of the doorbell. They hear the song on the radio and may also figure out its time signature, or its key signature. What is cool about that pop song? Maybe it's the chord progression, or the fact that it's in 6/8 - but a musician can identify it. What kind of bird is that? It definitely has its own song. Musicians tend to have "good accents' when they learn languages other than their own, because they hear the subtleties in spoken language. Studying music cultivates a sensitivity toward sound, and the meaning behind it.
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In what ways has learning music benefited your life? Has it enhanced your skills in non-musical areas? I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.
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