Besides just the fun of knowing and mastering a musical instrument, there are a lot of far reaching benefits to the study of music. The so called "Mozart effect" is well studied and documented. The studies suggest that listening to and studying music increases cognitive ability and increases test scores, especially in math. Music students were also much more likely to attend college and succeed in completing their degrees. The ancient Greeks recognized it as an equal with mathematics and geometry and it was a part of all curriculums or Quadrivium. In our era of budget cuts and cuts to education, music study, which for thousands of years was considered necessary, is often seen as an "extra" when study after study show that the cognitive abilities gained through music lessons impact all other studies. Below are some other benefits that you may not have thought about.
Training children to cope with pressure
"Pressure" is a word which seems to be attached mostly to sports heroes. Making the shot at the final buzzer. Positioning yourself to catch a ball that has been hit high into the glare of the floodlights. In itself, pressure is actually neutral - it's inherently neither good nor bad. It is simply a logical consequence of caring deeply about the outcome of a situation, while simultaneously being in a position where your actions can directly determine that outcome. All adults know that pressure is a regular part of our professional lives, no matter what career we follow.
Music students are in the unusual position of having to confront pressure at an early age, and having to confront it often. And despite the encouragement we are given to reduce stress in our lives, this early exposure to pressure is actually a priceless advantage. Why? It means that when these music students are adults, pressure will feel like a familiar sparring partner, rather than a terrifying Portent of Doom. They will have faced it - and defeated it - in countless exams, concerts, workshops and lessons. They learn to have it work for them, rather than sabotaging their best efforts. And, they learn to accept it as a natural part of doing things that matter.
Our music lessons won't immunize them from being nervous at an important job interview or presentation. But the skills they acquired in working with nerves for their various music performances are transferable - control of breathing, frame the situation positively, focus on the job at hand rather than the consequences. And do not go too fast!
So we are not merely music teachers. We conduct weekly workshops in dealing with pressure and responsibility, and the skills we teach last for life.
Training children to deal with criticism
Despite music teachers' focus on the positives, music lessons are often largely about reshaping things that are NOT working so well. This means we have to tell it like is sometimes. The music is not fast enough, there is not enough contrast, it could be more expressive, etc. The end result is that music students learn at an early age to regularly accept advice and feedback from people more knowledgeable than themselves. They experience, first hand, the value of implementing that advice, and come back each week ready for more. In doing so, they learn the age-old combination for self improvement - hard work, and acting on the counsel of a mentor. It is sad, but plenty of children are not exposed to this process in the normal course of growing up - not through any shortcoming of the parents, but because having a mentor who supervises the development of a new skill does not just happen. Parents have to sign up for it.
Why is this process so valuable? It produces adults who are more willing to consider the views of those around them, and who will know when to wisely defer to those who have demonstrated a greater mastery of the subject at hand. They will consult more often, refine their ideas based on trusted feedback from others, and produce better results. In eight years of lessons, music students would have had their work under scrutiny over three hundred occasions. One on one, so there is no sidestepping criticisms. The positive impact of this goes way beyond music, and stays with them permanently.
Training children to work - even when they do not feel like it.
Much has been made of the excellent academic results that many music students achieve. The often talked about "Mozart Effect" may be responsible, but there is almost certainly another contributing factor.
Music students have a LOT of preparation to get through in order to be ready for a recital. The traditional half an hour a day is actually three and a half hours a week. The thing to keep in mind is that there is no way any student will feel like doing that amount of practice ALL the time.
But with the Big Recital Day drawing ever closer, Most of them actually do the work anyway. The reason may be a fear of making a complete goose of themselves is often a big motivation factor for getting the work done - but somehow, somewhere, a lot of work goes on that the student perhaps does not feel like doing.
At school, projects, quizzes and mid term papers are just other performances to get ready for. They won't feel like working on those either. But music lessons will have helped them confront the reality that you Just Do It Anyway.
Getting Back on the Horse.
If you give enough performances, sooner or later you will have a disaster. A memory lapse that brings the whole recital crashing down around your ears. Forgetting to take a repeat that the rest of the ensemble observes, and getting hopelessly lost. Starting too fast, and having the presto section skid, and then disintegrate into a thousand smoldering sixteenth notes. Ouch. Just ask me, I have played or listened to thousands of concerts and have some great stories. Great, NOW, not then!!
The battle actually starts not at the performance itself, but in those weeks afterwards. How will the player react? And more importantly, how do you get them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and focus on the next concert?
Performances end up being metaphors for countless situations music students will face in their later life, and they will experience the same mixture of triumphs and setbacks that we all do.
By the time they have completed a decade of music lessons, they will have had to bounce back from plenty of disappointments. But they will also have experienced many more successes, helping them to get a snapshot of a valuable big picture that has become a cliche that few adults truly understand: The important thing is not that they fell, but how quickly they got back on the horse.
The important skills of project management, and coping with deadlines
Much has been make of the two basic realities of life being death and taxes, but there is actually a third Unavoidable. Deadlines. There are two tyyounger age than is demanded by school or any other activity.
1. The Long Term Campaign
An exam or a major recital doesn't just happen. They are often first planned a year or more in advance of the actual date. Pieces are chosen, mini deadlines are set, and a strategy for getting it all done in time is established. Quality control checkpoints are built in along the way in the form of play throughs at weekly lessons, workshops, mini recitals, play throughs for the family at gatherings, etc. The end result? Very young students are able to build quite epic events one small step at a time, and become used to the idea that what they do today prepares them for tomorrow - and sometimes for a tomorrow that is actually twelve months away. I do not think I need to list some non-musical examples of how this will help them later, and it makes a lie of the notion that kids are only ever focused on short term gratification.
2. The short term deadline
No chance to mount a steady campaign for this type of deadline. Instead, it's a case of take a deep breath, put your head down, and swim like a lunatic until you get to the finish line. These are the short-notice concerts, filling in at church suddenly, one that pop up at school, or filling in for someone who is called away or has fallen ill.
If a manager needs to look around for someone who will cope with a sudden burst of intense work, and a ridiculously short deadline, they would do well to ask each staff member how many years of music lessons have they had.
Learning that progress is not always linear
Which is just a fancy way of saying that we do not always improve at a constant rate. But it is an essential lesson to learn as early as possible.
How does it play itself out in music lessons? Some months will fell like Golden Ages, where the student will pick up new ideas with ease, and where the notes will fall well for them every time they play. they will get more done in fifteen minutes of practice than they would normally achieve in a few days.
Two months later, and they are struggling a little, the Midas touch having deserted them as they plod from lesson to lesson.
The idea that some months will be better than others is not a new concept for most students. In fact, they are probably even ready to embrace the flip-side idea that for this to be possible, at other times progress will have to be slower. What comes as a shock is that sometimes they will actually go backwards! Weeks so unproductive that they are sure that their playing was in better shape a couple of months ago. But backward progress not only is ok, it is actually quite normal. Even within a practice session, there can be a ten minute block where everything the student attempts goes wrong. Why would there not be days or even weeks where the stars feel similarly badly aligned?
It is not really a backward step - it is just an inevitable part of long term progress. But it sure as heck FEELS like a backward step, and that's where the danger resides.
People who do not have the opportunity to learn this lesson early in life can sometimes become so discouraged at the first appearance of a backward step that they mark down the activity as too hard, and give up completely. In equipping our students with an awareness of the likelihood of accasional backward steps, we are not only steeling their resolve of music lessons, we are toughening them for hundreds of other activities that they have not ever met yet.
Developing many gears of focus
Whenever I hear someone say that children cannot concentrate, I want to strap them down and make them watch a student recital.
In the course of even a short piece the child will have to closely supervise hundreds of individual decisions: Which note comes next? How loud should I be playing? How can I recover from that little slip I just made? How staccato should the middle section be? How long should I hold this fermata before moving on to the next note? Have I already done the repeat or not? How can I improve my intonation right now? The room is silent, all attention is focused on them, and all their attention is focused on the moment. It can be quite moving to watch, and makes you wonder what else these children would be capable of.
But what is most exciting is that the concentration exhibited in the performance itself is actually just the tip of a much larger iceberg. For this performance to occur at all, the same child had to be still and focused in dozens of lessons and hundreds of practice sessions. The audience never gets to see these, but we are talking about many, many hours of intense application that would not have happened without music lessons.
They also become used to the idea that focus comes in different gears. It is not as though they have to be concentrating until the veins stand out on their neck all the time. There will be moments in the lesson in which they can joke about what happened on the weekend, and others where they will need every last reserve of focus. This ratio will gently shift as the big recital day nears.
So it is not just that they know how to focus - they also learn WHEN. This helps ensure that they can not only deliver their best when it is needed, but that they do not turn themselves into stresspots in the process of deadlines that music students become very experienced at managing and they do this at a much earlier age.
The Greatest benefit.
Most music students are not destined to become concert artists. When we teach a child to play a musical instrument, we are showing them how to become good at something. This is the greatest gift of music lessons.
Most of the advice we give for them to achieve this has has very little to do with music itself. Break apart big jobs into little jobs. Start early if you have a big project to undertake. Stay calm and focused under pressure. Analyze your work for weaknesses and then target the things that are not so strong. Persist in the face of difficulties. Allocate the time that the job requires. Work wheather you feel like it or not. Listen to your teacher, and respect your peers. And enjoy what you do, for none of it is worth pursuing unless it makes you smile from time to time.
They may not end up being concert artists, but these children can apply these skills to just about anything that they want to end up being good at.