Teaching parents about music

How Playing A Musical Instrument Benefits Your Brain (Concert Program Insert)

This text was written for use in a concert performance program to help educate parents about music learning and brain development as they watch their children perform.

There is now an enormous amount of research that has explored, measured, quantified and illuminated the benefits of music education on cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. Such is the quantity and quality of the research that it is now understood that music education benefits the development of the whole person like no other human activity.

How does it do this? The answer is in the activities that are inherent in reaching the goal of performing a piece of music on an instrument. In order to reach a stage where children can perform a piece in front of an audience, no matter how large or small, they have to master the following skills.

1.     Control of their motor cortex that directs their bodily movements – Getting the right note to come out of a musical instrument at the right time with the right sound is an incredible cognitive accomplishment. This is because the human brain needs to coordinate the motor, visual and auditory cortices to synchronise together to produce just one correct note. Imagine the coordination your child’s brain is achieving after an entire piece or concert.

2.     Control their emotional states and reactions – Rehearsals can be frustrating experiences, mainly because bring a whole piece together is a slow and repetitious process. This is actually an act in learning how to learn slowly and sequentially while controlling our emotional responses when we might get bored or frustrated or want to be anywhere else. This control becomes immeasurably more complicated in a performance situation when you add adrenalin and excitement into the mix. Your child has a huge number of stimuli running around in their bodies while they are up on stage performing, and yet they have to keep their wits about them and keep their emotional responses contained in order to contribute their part to a successful performance.

It is now understood that music education benefits the development of the whole person like no other human activity.

3.     Staying flexible and responding to unforseen events – “Strange things happen in performance” is a common mantra of any musical conductor as well as “you have to be ready for anything”. If the drumkit player is struggling to restrain his excitement and starts getting faster and faster, the rest of the band needs to get faster with him and adjust on the spot to the new tempo. If the cello section miscount for some reason and come in a bar early, the rest of the ensemble need to make a decision right away – do we follow the cellos or look at the conductor and follow them? The ability to adjust our responses is incredibly difficult, because most of the time we just want to start the piece again. But in performance, that just can’t happen and you child is responding in the moment to a given circumstance. Remember, this also all happens without a verbal instruction being spoken.

These are only three of the cognitive activities that your child is managing right in front of your eyes during this concert. Inside their heads, their brains are working really hard to bring you a polished and seemingly flawless performance.

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