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“Music lessons promise life lived in song” – The benefits of studying music

26th November 2014

With timid strokes, Alix Hilburn, 9, filled a mostly empty classroom with the familiar strains of “Go, Tell Aunt Rhody” on her violin.

Her teacher, Maria Lyon, waited patiently until Alix finished and reached up to show her a new way to hold the bow.

“You’re so speedy,” she joked. “There’s a fiddler in you. I love the way you play that.”

Alix’s mother, Holly Hilburn, said her husband attended a physics conference two years ago, learned about the benefits of music education there and returned excited to get Alix into it. They’ve been working with Lyon for about a year and a half.

“I think she enjoys it,” Hilburn said, smiling, adding that getting her daughter to practice can be a challenge.

It doesn’t take much digging to find yourself buried in research extolling the benefits of music education. Many trees have given their lives to the publication of studies describing how learning to play music improves lives: intellectually, socially, physically and emotionally — from cradle to grave.

For example, SAT takers with musical experience score higher than students without it. A Stanford University study showed learning a musical instrument improved language development. A Harvard study found practicing improves verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning.

In a study published in 2013, a neuropsychologist in Atlanta found that any musical training before the age of 9 increased verbal working memory in people between the ages of 60 and 83, including naming objects and learning new things — even if those people hadn’t played music in decades. This study and others were described in a January story in National Geographic.

A Harvard neurologist found that professional musicians actually have more gray matter in their brains, and improved motor and auditory skills appear after just 15 months of musical training in early childhood.

It’s never too late to start. National Institutes of Health studies found benefits to amateur musical study for adults, including greater emotional well-being and improved immune function. A University of South Florida study found improved memory, planning ability, verbal fluency and other cognitive function after adults studied music for just six months.

None of this surprises Mary Beth Armes, lifelong singer and current piano and voice teacher at the Porreco College. As part of the Edinboro University Community Music School, she has students that range from early childhood to those of retirement age.

“Isn’t music the basis of language?” she asked. “It’s what the birds do. It’s based in math, science. Everybody has music in them because it’s so basic.”

LeAnne Wistrom, director of the Edinboro program and principal flute in the Erie Philharmonic, agrees.

“It’s the only activity in which you’re physically doing something while you’re reading and listening and adjusting what your body is doing,” she said. “It undertakes all the senses except smell. It’s more complicated than playing a sport.

“It’s one of the best mental things you can do.”

Roza Benke, 10, started studying with Maria Lyon this fall.

“She’s very excited to learn violin,” Lyon said, with Roza nodding and grinning as she held her instrument, eager to show off what she’d learned that week.

As she started to play an exercise, rich tones brought happy murmurs from her teacher.

“You make a wonderful sound,” Lyon said. “You actually made the violin ring.”

Roza’s mother, Erzebet Szabo-Benke, said she is thrilled to have both Roza and her son, Benci, taking music lessons at Porreco.

“When I was a child in Hungary, my parents did not belong to the Communist Party, so I was refused admission to music school,” she said. “I always wanted to learn music, and I wanted my children to experience that.”

Szabo-Benke cautions parents that music lessons aren’t just something you buy.

“It is a commitment,” she said. “You have to be actively involved and learning with your child. You have to have half an hour of time each day” in addition to the lesson itself.

She home schools her children and said music lessons are a crucial part of their education.

“They will live in a generation of computers, focused on technology,” she said. “This gives them a chance to get in touch with the other side of their brains.”

The departure from the electronic world is part of the reason Vincent Dunsworth studies acoustic guitar at the age of 55.

“It’s kind of like building something,” Dunsworth said. “It’s not like Nintendo where you get instant reward. It’s a challenge.”

Dunsworth said he studied guitar when he was a child and played in the high school band, but he dropped it when “life happened.”

A few years ago, he said, he saw Al Petteway, a Grammy-winning guitar player, on a Ken Burns documentary and was inspired to pick it back up.

“That was a pretty good motivation right there to play some of that stuff,” he said.

Dunsworth said he practices every day from half an hour to an hour and loves every minute of it.

“It’s a good way to relax in the evening,” he said. “I’m not trying to make it a career path or anything. But as long as I’m able, I’ll probably do this.”

Adults take to music lessons a bit differently than children, according to Charlie Meyer, who teaches piano, trumpet and guitar at World of Music.

“Adults are more impatient,” he said. “They want to learn it today. They learn quicker, they’re more adept and more coordinated, but they will hit a wall if they aren’t patient.”

Come to think of it, though, kids are kind of the same way, and learning to work through challenges is one of the benefits of studying, Wistrom said.

“I didn’t enjoy it as a beginner,” she said. “I really wanted to play the flute. I loved how it sounded, but all I could do was puff away and barely sustain these notes. That’s pretty boring.”

She said parents and students of all ages need to expect that and work through it.

“I’ve met many adults who were allowed to stop when they were 10, and they regret it,” Wistrom said. “It took me about three years. I found it boring until I got to be good, and then I couldn’t stop.”

She said parents and frustrated students should try different types of music, try positive reinforcement, should try changing tones of voice, approaches, anything it takes to make daily practice happen.

“The more they stay with it, the more fun it is,” Wistrom said.

Fresh from school, Madalyn and Matthew Matlock, twins who are 8, bounded into the Summer Cottage on the Porreco grounds, and Armes welcomed them with laughter. The Matlocks take their lesson together, in a room with two pianos, and as one receives instruction, the other practices.

“I told my mom I wanted to take lessons since my friends were talking about how fun it was,” Madalyn said before sitting down to plunk out “Merrily We Roll Along.”

“It’s a very nice instrument,” Matthew said of the piano, adding that he also enjoys the guitar.

Their mother, Cheryl Matlock, explained that she and her husband — before they were even married — decided their children would learn to swim and to play music.

“We would not force them into anything else,” she said, with a laugh.

So far, she hasn’t had to force anything. She said the kids argue about who gets more practice time on the piano at home.

“It’s exciting for me to see how in such a short time all they’ve picked up, and that they’re understanding and reading the music. I never get tired of hearing it.”

No one knows enough music, according to Cheryl Trost, 66, retired music teacher from Conneaut Area City School District in Ohio, and a flute player in several community ensembles.

She’s been playing for more than 50 years and still takes lessons from Wistrom.

“There’s always so much more to learn and new directions to take,” Trost said. “It makes me feel better, stretches me and keeps me thinking about new things.

“I’m working on a piece right now I’ve never played before. It’s exciting to approach it with new skills and get out of my comfort zone.

“It’s good therapy for everyday life.”

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