Sunday, July 10, 2016

Benefits of Making Music

We hear over and over again depressing stories about the sufferings of musicians: airlines that destroy your instrument or won't even let you on board, declining record sales, aging audiences, and worst of all, the pop musicians make all the money!

But there are lots of benefits to being a musician too. A recent story in the Pacific Standard talks about Another Brain Benefit of Music Lessons.
The term “cognitive inhibition” doesn’t sound particularly attractive, but it describes a vitally important mental process. It refers to our capability to tune out irrelevant information and focus our attention on the matter at hand.
Obviously, this ability to concentrate is more important than ever, in a world where we are constantly beckoned by a wide range of distractions. So how can you help your child develop it?
New research suggests one answer is music lessons.
Yes, absolutely. Learning to play music is quite a demanding discipline and one that seems almost immune to the worst recent trends in education that seem to priorize indoctrination over traditional skills like memorization. One of the things that music students have to learn to do is play from memory and this is something that demands a high level of focus and concentration. You have to really look very closely at the score and repeat it over and over again. And you have to keep doing this day after day until you have it perfectly from memory. Where else in our educational system do we do anything even vaguely similar?
So making music hones the ability to focus and ignore distractions, which can pay enormous dividends in educational settings, and throughout one’s life. School boards and administrators: Does cutting music programs still seem like such a great way to balance the budget?
I was chatting with a friend the other day and I mentioned that in my many years in the music business I had encountered very few really nasty people. Sociopaths, it seems, are rare among musicians. I proposed a theory as to why this might be the case. Every musician, I explained, at some point in their career, usually very early on and recurring regularly, finds themselves completely alone in a practice studio containing just four things.

  1. A chair 
  2. A music stand 
  3. a musical instrument 
  4. and a piece of music by J. S. Bach 
and you, of course. 

What you have to do is learn how to play the piece by Bach on your instrument. As every musician discovers, this is quite difficult. In order to do it you have to adopt a very strict discipline. If you do a sloppy job, as well you might at first, your teacher will quickly inform you of that at your next lesson. So, back to the practice studio, this time taking it a good deal more slowly and paying more attention to the tuning, the rhythm, the tone-color and so on. Once you get those down you can try and get a grasp of the phrasing and interpretation. At first you think, wow, this will take weeks! But as time goes on you realize that it will actually take years. Finally you realize that playing Bach is the challenge of a lifetime and you will never really master this piece. (Ok, yes, a few, a very few, do.) Learning to play Bach is one of the best antidotes to unentitled arrogance that I know of.

I think that anyone with sociopathic tendencies will not be able to handle this kind of challenge. Here is a page that lists the characteristics of a sociopathic mind.
  • Glibness and charm? Alone in the studio, who you gonna charm?
  • Manipulative and cunning? Again, alone in the studio. And music students trying to pass off poor preparation on their music teacher don't get very far
  • Grandiose sense of self. This is the one that really gets hit. Bach trims us all down to size!
  • Pathological lying. To whom? To Bach?
  • Lack of remorse, shame or guilt. The only person you could possibly victimize is yourself, alone in the studio.
  • Shallow emotions. I suspect that playing music is a great way to get past shallow emotions.
I could go on, but I think I have made the point. Bach (and other demanding composers) provides a kind of litmus test of your character. You are alone in the studio. There is no-one you can con, fool, deceive or trick. Bach is there as a kind of transcendent, impartial judge of your work. All you can do is keep trying. Or give up. I imagine that most sociopathic personalities will flee the practice studio as soon as they can.

Sure, musicians can have many faults. But these are not them. The only really nasty person I met in my whole career was, wait for it, a record company executive.

Now let's listen to that piece by Bach, the first movement of the Sonata No. II in A minor for solo violin. This is the Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti who has mastered the piece:


Marc said...

'Yes, absolutely', indeed. The wholesale repudiation by the 'government schools' of the traditional liberal education founded upon the trivium and quadrivium, even in the enervated form I experienced (60s, 70s in the Midwest of the US), has left generations now of children, future citizens, with all sorts of disabilities, tsk. And this-- "[f]inally you realize that playing Bach is the challenge of a lifetime and you will never really master this piece"-- teaches the student a lesson also about his relative place in the order of things, doesn't it? the world doesn't orbit around me and is in fact wonderfully great than I am.

It must be so difficult as even a well-intentioned kid out there these days, tsk. There was a large group of high school students, choral students for the most part (so not exactly the solo artist in the practice room but still...), here in Eugene for the OBF-- presumably the best of intentions, hard working, receptive to the Muse and to being trained, very successful at the projects they were involved in: but from a closer vantage, an observer could see that they are, many of them, infected (am being purposefully diagnostic not to say melodramatic) by the pop music culture with its attendant openness to coarseness and incivility, to the use of commercial platitudes in the place of reasonable conversation. And so forth.

Jeph said...

We used to have to memorize sonnets and poems back in the old days.
It's so great when you're teaching kids, and you see that incredulous look of horror when you first ask them to memorize a piece. We spent three weeks drilling "Frere Jacques", breaking down, falling apart. Then it clicked in week four, and it was such an amazing confidence boost for everyone.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wish I could have seen that incredulous look of horror!! I'll bet it was a treat. "You want us to what!!! Memorize something?!??!" As if you had recommended grilling babies or putting puppies in the blender.