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Today's Family Magazine

Learning to play a musical instrument can help improve cognitive and social skills

By Nina Polien Light

Eighth-grader Brett Zawatsky doesn’t allow one instrument to define him as a musician.  The Beachwood Middle School student took up the clarinet and saxophone in elementary school, but later decided to switch musical families.  Undeterred by a delayed start as a percussionist, Brett practiced faithfully and now is accomplished on a range of percussion instruments from the marimba and xylophone to suspended and crash cymbals and timpani.  Recently, his interests have expanded to include piano and ukulele, which he is teaching himself with the help of YouTube videos.

“As a parent, it’s fascinating to watch his self-exploration,” says his mother, Jodi Zawatsky.  “It’s also amazing that aside from band at school and practice at home, he’s done this on his own without any private instruction.  We’re excited to see his love of music continue as he participates in the high school marching band.”

Like Brett, Matthew Charboneau, chair of The Center for Music at The Music Settlement in University Circle, sometimes turns to online platforms like YouTube for tutorials.  However, he cautions there’s no substitute for in-person instruction.

“The important thing that learning music online can’t offer is having someone in the room with you to give constructive feedback, troubleshoot and make corrections in your technique immediately so that bad habits aren’t developed,” he says.  “Correcting poor technique is very hard to overcome once it is learned.”

Technique aside, experts say children like Brett get so much more out of playing musical instruments than the ability to entertain—which is, in and of itself, gratifying.  Whether children aspire to become concert pianists or simply enjoy strumming a guitar on a lazy day, playing an instrument can:
  • Boost memory, concentration and problem-solving skills, which, in turn, strengthens math and science grades
  • Enhance creativity and self-expression
  • Promote perseverance and self-discipline, as children push through a difficult piece of music and adhere to a practice schedule
  • Provide a social network of like-minded friends through participation in marching band, school orchestras and other groups
  • Teach children the importance of contributing to a group
  • Improve eye-hand or eye-foot coordination by reading sheet music and responding with hands (such as drawing a bow across a violin) or feet (pressing a foot pedal on a drum)Increase self-esteem when receiving positive feedback from a performance
  • Reach individuals with developmental or cognitive disabilities, as physical and psychological/neurological conditions often have no bearing on a person’s capacity to play or enjoy music
  • Help keep kids off the streets and give hope to those whose home lives may be less than ideal
Youngsters needn’t be inherently talented to reap these benefits, says Charboneau.

“Different people reach different levels technically, but it’s more about the process of finding your voice and expressing yourself,” he says.  “Level of skill doesn’t affect that.”
“Research shows it’s about the amount of engagement you have,” adds his colleague Ronna Kaplan, chair of the Center for Music Therapy.

Parents should expose children to different types of music at an early age.  Many music centers, schools and community organizations offer parent-child programs that introduce children as young as six months to musical concepts, such as rhythm and melody.  As they move toward the preschool years and beyond, programs such as Dalcroze eurythmics and the Suzuki method for teaching instrumental music can be helpful.

Formal programs, however, are not necessary to pique a child’s desire to play an instrument.  Casual exposure can be just as effective.  Take youngsters to live performances of jazz, orchestral, band, country, rock or other types of music.  Listen to different genres on the car radio or in your home.  Ask children which instrument appeal most to them.

It’s often helpful to start on the piano before progressing to other instruments, says Maryann Messina, who is on the piano faculty at The Fine Arts Association in Willoughby.

“The piano can create the whole orchestra,” she explains.  “You have all the instrumental scales and depth and range on the piano.  And music theory is taught easily on the piano.  It just makes more sense. The guitar is second to the piano because you can do harmony and chordal things, unlike an instrument like a clarinet, which is beautiful, but you can only read one clef.”

Once children learn basic skills on an instrument, don’t fret if they express an interest in switching instruments.  Think of it in these terms: Parents may register elementary-age youngsters for soccer, gymnastics, basketball and ice-skating programs, but kids may realize they only enjoy basketball and prefer to concentrate solely on that sport.  It doesn’t mean they failed at the other activities.

“I was pushed into playing clarinet at age 10,” says Charboneau.  “I only played until 16 or 17, then I was inspired to pick up bass.  Now, I’ve been playing bass for 30 years.”

Until children commit to a specific instrument, it may be prudent to rent rather than buy.  This is especially true for band instruments or for those that children may outgrow, such as violins that are available in scaled-down sizes for smaller bodies.  A digital keyboard may be fine to gage a student’s interest in piano, but after about six months of instruction, it’s time for families to consider purchasing a piano.

“A good teacher should be able to help you find a good instrument,” Messina says.  “Then the teacher knows what the child will practice on.”

Pursuing an instrument requires a financial investment, but there are ways to defray the cost.  Group lessons are more affordable than private instruction.  Most public schools offer instruction in band and orchestral instruments.  And institutions like The Music Settlement and Fine Arts Association offer financial aid and scholarships—some are based on need and some on ability.

The Music Settlement

The Fine Arts Association