“My status as a musician hasn’t been a large part of my public identity since the beginning of high school. I took lessons and practiced at home, and that was it. But even that yielded other, more private lessons that my flute seemed to teach me. Those lessons will stay with me for much longer,” says Gina Goosby, one of the young people whose early experiences with music are described in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide. Four years have passed since the book went to press and so we decided to check in with some of them to see how they are doing.
Gina is now a sophomore at Swarthmore College heading toward majoring in Japanese, with a computer science minor. Flute is still part of her life, but she hasn’t joined a college ensemble. “These days, I don’t practice much. Although I still run through fingerings of pieces almost unconsciously all the time. When I do pick up my flute, my fingers still know where to go.”
She started on music at age six with Suzuki violin lessons and switched to flute at age ten. Her siblings do music too: older brother Randall, a violinist, is in his senior year at Juilliard; younger brother Miles, a high school cellist, played with the NYO2 youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall this summer. “Of the three, I was the least devoted to musicianship. In high school, neither my school ensembles nor the Memphis Youth Symphony Orchestra appealed to me as much as my academic work. By my junior year, I put flute aside to focus on school. Even so, having that musical training throughout my younger years has had far-reaching benefits.”
Gina feels that practicing flute “instilled in me patience and, as strange as it may sound, humility. Despite my precocious leanings in many areas of my life, including music, I still had to start slowly and work my way up to faster speeds. There were fingerings I couldn’t get on the first, second, or fifth try. They weren’t like facts and figures in school that I could memorize. I had to work to perfect my technique. And sometimes even then I wasn’t up to scratch.” In spite of—or perhaps because of—the effort it took to master flute, she notes, “I have gained immense personal fulfillment. If I felt stressed or overwhelmed by my work, I would bust out my flute and practice. A familiar piece would give me a well-needed confidence boost and a brain break.” She adds that she has made good friends through music and she studies to music. “Knowing that I too can create music adds to the experience of enjoying music as a listener.”
Kurt Carpenter has also found that playing an instrument—cello, which he started at age three—helps him in many non-musical ways. He continued playing cello while at Georgia Tech, performing in the college orchestra for two years. After graduating this year, he landed a job with a top tech firm and hopes to join a community orchestra to play with in his spare time. Through music, he says, “I developed a degree of focus and discipline which fed self-confidence.” He adds that music has social benefits as well. “As someone in a career other than music, it remains a great way to meet people, an interesting topic of conversation, and an enabler of understanding.”
“Playing in jazz bands taught me skills for effective teamwork—how to be a small piece of a larger puzzle,” says Noah Nathan, a new political science assistant professor and sometime saxophonist. “The experience of practicing makes you realize that challenges in new fields aren’t insurmountable. Take statistics or another subject with a lot of jargon. From the outside it seems impenetrable, but experience with music makes you realize that if you take time and apply yourself bit by bit, it will become as easy as playing a complex piece you could barely sightread at the outset, but eventually learned through practice.”
These three young adults chose not to pursue music as a career, as have several others whose childhood music experiences are described in the music parents’ book. Others featured in the book are pursuing music as a career, either by currently studying at a conservatory, teaching, freelancing, or, for a lucky few, performing with a professional orchestra. They would be expected to feel positively about their experiences with music, and their follow-up reports will appear in a later blog post. But the fact that those who aren’t aiming for music careers also feel they gained much from music shows the power music can have in kids’ lives. Neuroscience researchers have uncovered other benefits that go way beyond those that Gina, Kurt, and Noah describe. Research reports show that playing a musical instrument changes the brain for the better and that those changes appear to last a lifetime.
Ever since Harvard neuroscientists reported more than twenty years ago that musicians’ brains differ from those of non-musicians by having a larger corpus callosum, researchers have been exploring the cognitive benefits that may arise from that anatomical difference. The corpus callosum serves as a bridge between the brain’s right and left sections, suggesting that a musician’s brain engages in greater than normal communication among its different regions. Of course, there could be something that predisposes a person to do music that accounts for the brain differences, but some research indicates that making music is in fact the cause. In addition, scientists have found that musicians enjoy impressive cognitive benefits, such as being better than non-musicians at multi-tasking and at doing things that involve planning, flexibility, and problem solving. Playing an instrument also seems to yield crossover benefits for kids in improving reading ability. Special mental abilities that musicians have seem to persist even after they stopped playing an instrument for decades. Moreover, playing a musical instrument may lessen or delay some of the mental decline of aging.
For a quick overview of neuroscience music research, check out educator Anita Collins’ online TEDEd Talk video—How Playing an Instrument Benefits your Brain—or scroll through a slide show on the website of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. The benefits described in these online presentations—combined with those noted by Gina, Kurt, and Noah—show that starting kids on music can indeed be a lifetime gift.
As Isabel Trautwein, violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra, observes in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide: “We know that being on a softball team is good for kids. . . .We don’t worry about whether the kids are going to become professional softball players. I wish we would do the same with music. Having a kid make music with other kids is just good. If the love for music captures the kid, fine. If not, then it’s OK that they try something else.” But in the meantime, the kids will have had “songs and music in their minds. That’s a friend for life.”
Featured image: “Cello” by Mathew Bajoras. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.