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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 1

Music Lesson

by Susan Spier / September 3, 2003

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Despite numerous writings about the demise of classical music, (and with apologies to Mark Twain), I believe that 'reports of its death are greatly exaggerated'. While school music budgets have unfortunately been cut or substantially diminished, interest in studying music has not waned. Parents still encourage their progeny to play instruments; adults are active in amateur chamber groups and community orchestras; and there are hundreds of music schools, summer camps, private teachers and group programs catering to students of all ages and abilities. Classic Music is alive and kicking!

Reasons for studying music, both intellectual and emotional, are overwhelmingly positive: it enhances the quality of life, fosters personal development, and improves self-esteem. Research by psychologists has demonstrated that music, even at an elementary level, stimulates the brain. The Coalition for Music Education in Canada, http://www.coalitionformusiced.ca/, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about music and advocating its importance in the school curriculum, offers documentation on recent studies. The quotes below are from a study done by The Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University:

" . . . even the sound of a child's voice singing a simple song activated brain activity, linking different cranial areas. Therefore, music does not have to be technically advanced or complex in order to have an effect on the brain."

Personal motivation depends on your age and perspective, the best being an innate desire to make music. Children may ask for lessons because their interest or curiosity is piqued by a live or recorded concert, or through a friend. Elementary school students love to bring their instruments to school and share newly acquired musical skills with classmates. Parents play a vital role by encouraging musical exposure at home. Some want their children (often also active in sports or second languages) to experience different options to see where a deeper interest lies; others appreciate music as an important educational component and constructive creative outlet.

" . . . music not only produces feelings of pleasure, but also effectively utilizes brain resources. Simply put, music acts as a special 'fuel' that fires up millions of brain nerves that would otherwise remain dormant and undeveloped."

Adults and seniors are excellent candidates for music lessons that offer a break from daily activities, provide a rewarding social activity, or are the fulfillment of a dream. "It makes me forget all my troubles," said one of my adult students.

The McGill study confirms: " . . . during moments of musical euphoria, blood traveled through the brain to areas where sex, chocolate and champagne can produce feelings of contentment and joy and traveled away from brain cell areas associated with depression and fear."

Another motivator for lessons is the availability of an instrument. If the violin inherited from Uncle Arthur rekindles fond memories, that may be enough impetus to give it a try. Karen Quinton, Head of the Piano Department at the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School in Toronto, as well as a substitute teacher in Newfoundland, discovered that only two children in her regular third grade class were taking music lessons. When asked if they wanted to try the piano, the entire class enthusiastically responded, all eagerly awaiting their turns.

Peer pressure can also be a motivator. Introduced to ensemble playing through schools, students may wish to improve their abilities with private lessons or participate in outside examinations or music festivals. The satisfaction and accomplishment gained from even such modest achievements as performing in a recital can increase self-confidence and nurture higher aspirations. One caveat here: exceptional talent will be evident to an experienced teacher, but discovery of another "little Mozart" is as rare as that antique violin turning out to be a genuine Strad.

Maybe this is your year to pursue lessons. Music encourages use of your brain, provides you with a sense of accomplishment, and more important it's fun!

A few guidelines

Once you have decided on lessons, it is important to follow a plan. It can take months to develop rapport with your teacher, and honestly evaluate your interest, commitment and ability. If you just want to "try it out," register near the end of a session, or take occasional lessons over the summer.

The best age to start individual lessons is between five and twelve. To benefit most, a child should have a grasp of basic concepts (e.g. high/low), be able to count (and preferably read) and have a sense of responsibility. Therefore very young children are better suited to group classes focussing on songs and rhythmic movements. Available for babies, tots and toddlers, these and specialized instrumental programs such as Suzuki often require active parent/caregiver participation (http://www.suzuki-music.com/ is a good starting point if you have questions about this method).

Children learn at different rates and may be most receptive at nine or ten, but starting as a teenager is certainly not too late unless you are planning a professional career. Although practising may be relegated to the back burner in favour of dating, it can resurface later and studying music can be "cool." Adults are most successful if they have played previously, however little or long ago, and patience is required. Classical training is the basis for other kinds of music, so if jazz is your bag, traditional lessons are a good place to start. Other musical options are choirs or appreciation courses.

Beginners often prefer to start on the piano: it sounds acceptable immediately and incorporates both treble and bass clefs, providing an introduction to harmonic fundamentals. Other good choices are violin, cello, or flute, depending on your age and inclination (do you prefer to bow or blow?) and most of these are available on monthly rental from music stores. Other costs are music, a stand, strings, reeds, piano tuning, etc. If you enjoy languages, why not try vocal training, which is also a wonderful way to develop your ear?

The most important element in lessons is finding a teacher. Regardless of prestige, qualifications, or specialization, without empathy the novelty will soon wear thin, so seek someone with whom you feel comfortable. Enthusiasm, trust and good communication are vital to the learning process. You might prefer a school or feel more at ease with a private instructor. Some even offer an introductory class without charge. The studio should have space for a parent to observe lessons and be located in your general neighbourhood if children are to attend lessons unaccompanied.

Prices depend on length and frequency of lessons, teacher's qualifications, and the market. Ask about policies on payment, missed or cancelled lessons, refunds, and inclusions: recitals, accompanists, and ensemble opportunities. Group lessons are less expensive than private ones, but do inquire about the group size.

When you consider the hours of pleasure you reap from one session, you will realize that music lessons are a bargain. The joys and rewards, particularly once you master the rudiments, will last a lifetime.

Susan Spier lives in Toronto, where she runs Creative Strings violin studio. She has taught at the Toronto French School, and is a past Music Director at the University Settlement Music & Arts School.

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