The benefits of music lessons

On a Sunday evening in mid-June, about 40 violin students, some as young as 4, crowded onto a stage in a St. Petersburg hotel.

While most had never before played together, they launched into “Musette in D,” a teacher leading them through Bach’s sweet, slow amble. With the notes rising and falling during the “Play-In” — the traditional beginning to summer camp for Suzuki students across the country — the Hilton ballroom normally reserved for conventioneers blossomed into a meadow, with 40 little wildflowers swaying in the breeze.

“I’ve been doing them since I was three and it never, ever gets less magical,” Aileen Robertson, a University of Miami Frost School of Music graduate and Suzuki teacher, later said. “It never looses its awesomeness.”

Clearly, music in the hands of children can swell our hearts. But more and more, research tells us it can do something else, too: nurture their brains.

In recent years, studies have directly linked learning music to improved cognitive powers, higher verbal ability, sharper reading skills and better school performance. One study even argued that music training can raise children’s IQs. Yet around the nation, music education is on the decline. A 2011 National Endowment for the Arts report found that childhood music education had dropped dramatically, by nearly 30 percent, between 1982 and 2008.

But to argue that music is disappearing would be wrong, said UM associate professor Carlos R. Abril, the director of undergraduate music education.

“This narrative that we hear often in the popular media — that the arts are in a state of decline, that needs to be teased out further,” he said. “The arts are thriving. Here in Miami, we see what’s going on in Wynwood. People are finding ways to make art. So the narrative comes from decidedly high culture, from classical music and museum attendance.”

When public schools first began teaching music in Boston in 1838, composer and teacher Lowell Mason argued that students needed to understand music so they could sing in church. In a monolithic society, everyone agreed. But by the mid 1900s, educators were beginning to worry.

“In the ‘60s, my dad remembers going to a meeting about ‘what are we going to do, we don’t have any string players and our orchestras are all going to fall apart.’ It was an emergency meeting,” said Carrie Reuning-Hummel, a lecturer at Ithaca College and author of Time to Practice: A Companion for Parents, whose father, Sanford Reuning, helped create the Suzuki Association of the Americas.

Shinichi Suzuki’s method was first introduced to the United States in a 1964 Philadelphia concert. Suzuki believed that music, viewed as a language and not an inherent talent, could be taught to anyone, including very young children.

In the years since, researchers have compiled a growing body of evidence validating these larger effects of music. More recent studies have allowed researchers to pinpoint exactly what music does to the brain.

Last year, Northwestern University researchers recorded the auditory brainstem responses of college students. Those who had early childhood music education had better responses to complex sounds, suggesting that musical training can affect the brain long after people stop playing.

In 2011, Canadian researchers studied 48 children between ages 4-6. Half were given music training that concentrated on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic concept. The other half took part in a visual-arts program. While the children in the visual-arts program showed no increase in verbal or spatial skills, 90 percent of the music students showed increased verbal intelligence.

That said, finding the right kind of early music training can be daunting for parents.

So when should a child start?

Reuning-Hummel suggests taking children to concerts and playing music for them very early, “so you’re able to add music to their lives before everything else under the sun enters the cacophony.”

For young children, it’s important to find suitable instruments, some of which can be made small to fit them, including most of the stringed instruments like the violin and guitar or the flute.

But, Reuning-Hummel adds, “in truth I would chose the [teacher] over the instrument because the child can always switch or add [instruments], but that personality is so key in keeping their interest.”

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