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Monday, January 19, 2015

Science Just Discovered Something Amazing About What Childhood Piano Lessons Did to You

This is a repost of an article by Tom Barnes that can be found here.

If your parents forced you to practice your scales by saying it would "build character," they were onto something. The Washington Post reports that one of the largest scientific studies into music's effect on the brain has found something striking: Musical training doesn't just affect your musical ability — it provides tremendous benefits to children's emotional and behavioral maturation.

The study by the University of Vermont College of Medicine found that even those who never made it past nursery rhyme songs and do-re-mi's likely received some major developmental benefits just from playing. The study provides even more evidence as to why providing children with high-quality music education may be one of the most effective ways to ensure their success in life.

Source: Steve Russell/Getty Images

The study: James Hudziak and his colleagues analyzed the brain scans of 232 children ages 6 to 18, looking for relationships between cortical thickness and musical training. Previous studies the team had performed revealed that anxiety, depression, attention problems and aggression correspond with changes to cortical thickness. Hudziak and his team sought to discover whether a "positive activity" like musical training could affect the opposite changes in young minds.

"What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument," Hudziak told the Washington Post, "it accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control."

The study found increased thickness in parts of the brain responsible for executive functioning, which includes working memory, attentional control and organizational skills. In short, music actually helped kids become more well-rounded. Not only that, they believe that musical training could serve as a powerful treatment of cognitive disorders like ADHD.

Source: Getty Images

We need this sort of proof now more than ever. In presenting their findings, the authors reveal a terrifying truth about the American education system: Three-quarters of high school students "rarely or never" receive extracurricular lessons in the music or the arts. And that's depriving kids of way more than just knowing an instrument.

School systems that don't dedicate adequate time and resources to musical training are robbing their kids of so much. Prior research proves that learning music can help children develop spatiotemporal faculties, which then aid their ability to solve complex math. It can also help children improve their reading comprehension and verbal abilities, especially for those who speak English as a second language.

In these ways music can be a powerful tool in helping to close the achievement gaps that have plagued American schools for so long. It's even been shown that children who receive musical training in school also tend to be more civically engaged and maintain higher grade-point averages than children who don't. In short, musical education can address many of the systemic problems in American education.

Hudziak's research is an important addition to the field because it shows that music helps us become better people, too. One thing is clear: Learning music is one of the best things a person can do. Who knows — running scales may have changed your life. And it could change the lives of future generations too.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Upcoming Performance

I'm playing with Johnny Cowan on Saturday down at the Rose Wagner Theater. Here's the poster!!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pain-free Technique

Pain-free Technique

Relying on back and neck muscles to play may stave off injury
By Laura Sanders Web edition : Monday, November 15th, 2010

SAN DIEGO — A strong back may be the key to tickling the ivories pain-free. Highly skilled pianists suffering from playing-related pain use their back and neck muscles less frequently than do players without pain, a new study shows. The result, presented November 14 at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, suggests a way for pianists to prevent injury by beefing up their backs.

Errold Reid of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and colleagues studied piano players who had been playing for at least 10 years. Eleven of the players experienced varying degrees of piano-related discomfort; 21 were pain-free.

No postural differences were evident in the two groups, but the players who were pain-free relied heavily on the strong trapezius muscles that snake from the lower neck while they played C octaves in the lab, the team found. Conversely, players who experienced pain used smaller muscles in their forearms more. Not using the strapping back muscles shifts the work to the smaller, more delicate muscles in the fingers and arms, said study coauthor Preeti Raghavan of New York University School of Medicine. “It’s too hard on those little muscles,” she said …. (you can read the rest at the link above)

My Take - While the study is new and helps to add science to good playing technique, it really just explains what many pianists have known for years. Using your forearms to direct playing instead of relying on finger directed playing not only gives one better control of the sound and overall freedom of playing, it also helps to reduce strain, increase endurance and avoid injury.

Basically, when you use your fingers to direct the playing all of the motion is generated by the muscles in your forearms. These muscles are small and not built for the extended abuse they receive with this type of playing. You get overuse syndrome, carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries. For example, to play loud using finger directed playing, you have to stiffen the fingers, wrist and forearm and use the forearms to hammer the keys. There is not enough strength and weigh in the forearms to create the velocity and force necessary to create a big sound without adding the stiff tension. Tension is where your muscles are actually working and pulling against each other. They wear out very quickly and much of their energy is wasted. If you have a long passage to play loudly, then you have to keep your muscles under strain for long periods of time and they wear out quickly and become much more prone to injury. Plus your sound is awful, wooden and mechanical.

However, when you use your forearms to direct the motion of playing, letting the fingers go along for the ride. The fingers just need to be strong enough to support the weight of the arm. The arms are made for fine movement. The muscles of the neck and shoulders are what control the movement of the arms. They are large and have greater endurance, weight and strength. When you used the weight of the neck and back to play loudly, the forearm, wrist and fingers remain largely loose and tension free. Thus allowing you to play longer and weaken at a slower rate reducing the chance of injury. Plus, your sound is much more round and resonant.

For my cello students and any other instrumentalist out there, this can apply to your instrument as well. Cellists have this problem when they squeeze their fingers and thumb together on the fingerboard or pinch the bow too hard. Same results as pianists, bad sound and higher potential for injury. By using the weight of the back to direct the motion of the bow and buy using the whole arm to pull the fingers back into the fingerboard you can get the same effect as these pianists, nice sound and less injury. Again, something good cellists already knew and now have science to back them up.

If you compare the amount of work required to the capability of the muscle, you find that you are only using a part of what these larger muscles have to offer. Under finger directed playing, the muscles of the forearm are constantly running at the limits of their ability. So when I harp on using your arms at lessons, know that it isn't just because I want it to sound nice, but also because I don't want you to injure yourself.

Monday, November 8, 2010



Every once in a while and more so in the last few years, I get people that are interested in taking lessons but do not understand that practice is necessary. They usually come in two types: adults that think learning an instrument is more of an academic exercise like reading a book, and parents that have over-scheduled their child and want a teacher that's "good enough" to make their child good with only 2-3 days of practice instead of 5 or 6. The tough thing is to tell these prospective students that it doesn't work that way. As a music teacher, you sometimes have to teach things other than music reading and counting. Sometime you have to help people understand why.

First, most people are not born knowing how to practice. You actually have to learn how to practice. It is an art that is learned right along with the other aspects of playing an instrument. Many new or inexperienced teachers will do a great job of teaching music reading, playing technique and musicality, but will not help students learn how to practice. Good practice will help students learn and progress quickly. Practice shouldn't be a drudge, but a time of enjoyment. Yes, practice can get tedious at times, but with the right attitude, even that can be a source of enjoyment.

Practice needs to be done everyday, even if just for a few minutes. If you are going to learn how to play an instrument, you actually have to "play" it. You only get better by spending time playing it. It doesn't really matter what you play, as long as you play. While having a lesson or reading a book about playing an instrument may help you understand the theory behind it, you have to have the constant hands on playing experience to really learn it. Playing an instrument is physical almost more than mental. You have to feel it and touch it and move with it. If you are not playing your instrument consistently, then you will not gain that experience.

So when your teacher gives you a bad time about not practicing, realize that they are just concerned that you aren't spending the time with your instrument that you need to truly love it. Just as we spend time with the people we love, we have to spend time with the instruments we love as well.