Thursday, September 18, 2008

Music to the ears (and brain)

Today, I'm going to extol the virtues of music, or rather why kids should learn music. Admittedly, I'm a little biased because I grew up learning the piano and I found it to be a great form of distraction and relaxation later on in life, to be able to play. In the early years though when it was tough going (especially learning all those scales), it was always tempting to quit. Thankfully, my parents didn't give me that option. Actually, I quite commonly hear people say things like "I really wish I could play the piano! But I quit before I reached Grade 2 and now I regret it".

The problem back then (and maybe even now) was that the focus was mostly on exams. Learning the piano was yet another thing on a kid's achievement score-card, so parents could boast to their friends, "My son passed his Grade 8 at age 12!" or some ridiculous notion like that. The music itself often took a backseat. I know my own father said, "After you finish your Grade 8, you won't need the piano anymore, we can sell it." I was dumbfounded. It's like saying after you pass your driving test, you don't need a car anymore.

Anyway, I went on to do my diploma with Trinity College and after marriage, splurged on a S$7,000 made-in-Germany Dresden (S$7,000 back then was a lot of dough, for someone who only earned S$2,000 a month). It was my pride and joy, and the most expensive item in our little two-bedroom apartment.

Today, the Dresden still stands tall in my study-cum-library-cum-office. It was therefore natural that Lesley-Anne went for piano lessons. I had started teaching her informally when she was about 3, just to gauge if she enjoyed playing the piano. She learnt pretty fast and seemed to like it so we sent her for formal lessons when she was 5.

Lesley-Anne is musical, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, her inhibitive nature prevents the talent from fully manifesting itself. A common comment from her teacher is: "She is so afraid of playing the wrong note, the music can't come out!" Lesley-Anne has just passed her Grade 5 practical exam this year and the descriptors written by the examiner throughout the exam sheet were: "musical", "understanding of style", "shapely phrasing" but also peppered with "cautious" and "hesitations". In fact, she's so self-conscious that she will stop playing the piano the minute I enter the room, prompting her teacher to say, "What, you perform only for yourself?"

In the picture above, she's playing for guests at our Christmas party - we started this tradition so all the invited kids who can play also have the opportunity to perform for others.

This is Andre as a toddler at the piano (sorry for bad pic, it's a photo of a photo - no digicam then). Andre surprised me. I had assumed that with his short attention span, he wouldn't be interested in learning the piano, but when he was 5 and seeing his sister play, he started asking me for lessons. I thought it might just be another fleeting interest so I tried to dissuade him with all kinds of threats: "Are you sure? You have to spend a lot of time practising." "Less time for tv." "Once you start, I won't allow you to quit." I thought he would change his mind, but he persisted. So last year, I found him a teacher, whom he calls Uncle Peter. (We wanted to send him to Lesley-Anne's teacher but ferrying him to lessons posed a problem, so we had to look for one that would come to our place).

I'm slightly embarrassed to say that Andre's musicality completely caught me off guard. He has a natural talent, which Uncle Peter cleverly fosters by picking songs that appeal to Andre, like Disney tunes. Within six months of lessons, he was jauntily playing a Grade 2 level Beauty and the Beast. However, he plays largely by ear, meaning he memorises where the notes are and what they sound like. If he stops playing the piece for a while, he won't be able to automatically pick it up again because it would mean actually having to read the notes. True to character, Andre dislikes the learning process but he thrives on performance. Theory bores him to tears.

After both their practical exams this year, I'm putting a temporary hold on piano exams and just letting them focus on playing for enjoyment.

I'm for kids learning music because I think music is such an integral part of being human. It doesn't have to be the piano, it could be the violin, flute, voice or even the drums (if you can tahan the noise). But if you ever need a compelling reason for letting your kids learn an instrument, here it is: music helps with maths. Qualifier: doesn't mean you start your kid on music lessons and he or she immediately gets A for maths. But it has been repeatedly found in studies that music does trigger spatial-temporal reasoning abilities in the brain, which is considered crucial in maths.

So if your kids are not yet learning music, I hope you will consider it for its inherent benefits. If not, then at least for the hope that it will help them with maths!


Alcovelet said...

Wow Monica, I really like your emphasis on no exams. Maybe that's why I disliked it so much when I was young. Andre sounds so gregarious and outgoing that he probably would enjoy playing music for everyone to enjoy! said...

It's great to read a post about the benefits of music that sites practical, real life examples rather than overly relying on studies about higher IQ's and test scores. Nice job!

bACk in GERMANY said...

O yes, music appreciation certainly adds quality to life or at the very least, acts as an outlet for an overly stressed place e.g. Sg.

Gotta send Mr Andre to some music drama performing group. Bet he'll love it given his natural extroversion!

I was in performing arts CCAs both in primary and secondary school days. Backstage and rehearsals screw-ups were always so fun and memorable! Give anything to be young and foolish again! :)

monlim said...

Thanks for all your comments! I did notice that adults who said they hated piano lessons were those who dreaded exams. Exams serve as a good benchmark but ultimately, it shd be about the music.

Bk In Ger- I agree totally with the school day performances!

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