Together with nurturing multilingual learning, I believe that promoting musical ability in children builds their intelligence and a broad-minded character. The goal is not to produce future professional musicians (although that will be great as well), but to instil abilities and habits that are crucial for success in a globalized world.
Although there are many benefits found in music, I will focus here on three that transfer in useful ways to other activities.
1 Our children learn self-discipline, focus, and memory skills that are transferable to other activities (i.e., learning a language, studying for exams, finishing projects that they start, etc.)
Self-descipline: To learn how to play an instrument to the level that you can join community orchestras or a band is not attainable without commitment. It requires practicing every day with purpose. Through making music, our children learn self discipline–opening their instrument case, practicing, then cleaning and replacing their instrument in the case. Everyday.
Focus: Playing music means being present in the moment. It requires focusing on each and every body movement and its relationship to the sound you make. It requires athletic focus and intellectual focus at the same time, a habit with wide application which children acquire ever more strongly the more they practice.
Memory: Whether you choose the common method of reading musical notation right away or the Suzuki method that starts with listening and playing music, eventually children learn to play from memory. They will learn to memorize by using multiple cues–visual memory, ear memory, and muscle memory. Whether they learn to play a whole song or a whole concerto from memory, learning music involves the mind and body and all the senses working together, creating memory skills that go beyond the intellectual.
Each of these crucial skills (self-discipline, focus and memory) are powerful when applied to other activities, and become foundational for success in any field they choose to pursue.
2. Our children learn how to overcome challenges
Even more than the skills outlined above, our children acquire the quality of perseverance. There will be musical phrases that they can’t play right away. Acquiring new abilities often involves plateaus with sudden leaps. Today, they couldn’t play it right. Tomorrow and the day after they might continue to struggle. But seemingly out of nowhere after a week or two or ten, they will suddenly get it right. Only with perseverance and by not giving up will they learn to play better. It seems to be a simple thing to learn to work hard and not give up, but it is a lesson that is hard to instil when our daily lives are so busy. Musical practice provides a structure for teaching and learning this essential life lesson, a way to augment our daily parenting and help build a perseverance that lasts a lifetime.
3. Our children experience the world through beautiful melodies and rhythms, and share in the timeless power of music to transcend time and space
Our daily lives are surrounded by noise…an increasingly unpleasant cacophony of blaring voices hawking and selling wares. Although classical music pieces are not alone in being beautiful, they have proven over the centuries to encapsulate some of the many timeless qualities of music. It is a gift to our children for them to experience first hand the melodies and rhythms of beautiful music.
When our children learn classical music, they learn that even though most of the composers of the music they learn are dead, their songs are still played and listened to all over the world. The life of a great piece of music is so much longer than a person’s life, and it transcends geographical boundaries. In today’s society, where shiny toys and easy entertainment surround them, our children can become passive and pampered consumers, giving them the illusion that a fleeting desire for things is the meaning of life. As they themselves learn to make music, and to turn raw sounds into music, they create a connection both cognitively and through their feelings with the effects that music has had on human beings throughout time. The fulfilment of playing music and feeling its timelessness offers a profound alternative to the fleeting emptiness of material consumption. Through experiencing the timeless quality of music, they come to understand their particular place as a singular voice able to partake in a beauty which transcends time and space.
How playing music, like speaking multiple languages, can help your child find a belonging no matter where they go around the world
When I was four years old, our family moved to Australia (Brisbane) from Tokyo. My sister was 11, and my brother was 9. Australia at that time was not very open to “Orientals.” Anti-Asian racism was still ubiquitous in our everyday life, and not speaking English well didn’t help us fit in, either. But music did. When people heard us play music (my sister on the piano; my brother on the cello, and me on the violin), everything changed. People could hear and feel our voices through the music we played even when they could not understand the words we spoke. We felt a sense of belonging. Soon, we were able to learn to speak and understand English, but being accepted as part of a musical community in Brisbane accelerated our learning of the language and culture.
When I later went back to Japan during elementary school, it was very hard to fit back into Japanese culture. I couldn’t speak or write Japanese very well, and I stood out as strangely mute and deaf even though I looked like everyone else. But playing violin again helped me overcome linguistic and cultural obstacles.
Even when I was older, after college in Japan, music helped me find belonging when I moved to new places. I went to Toronto to pursue my Master’s degree. Toronto was cold (in many ways, beyond the weather), and I knew nobody. Everybody seemed depressed in the winter. I was too. I joined the university orchestra, which saved me from becoming detached from the world. I was making beautiful music together with people I had never met before. This immediate connection from playing music together was so precious and helped sustain me through those difficult first few months in a new place.
Even if there isn’t a local symphony orchestra that plays classical music, there is a confidence in knowing that by pulling out your violin, or whichever instrument, and begin playing, that people can hear your voice through the melodies you play. Even if you don’t know anybody in your new location or don’t know the local language yet, music is a universal language that helps you immediately connect to people in a new place. Because of music, I am comfortable in my own skin wherever I go. And this feeling of self assurance regardless of time and place is what children given the gift of music carry with them wherever they go.
Music transcends racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic barriers. Music is a universal language that developed as our ancestors’ brains evolved, perhaps even before spoken language. When our children find their own musical voices through playing an instrument, they learn to converse in the universal language of the world.