Why students should play an instrument

Sunday, November 24, 2019 - 2:19pm

Zachary M.S. Waarala

Zachary M.S. Waarala Buy this photo
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By my mother’s sleight of hand, I began to play piano at the age of nine, and I quickly caught on to the instrument. I participated in all of the state-wide “competitions” that resulted in most candidates receiving a “superior” rating, regardless of our actual musical ability. Of course, at that point, the scores weren’t really the point. We were being prepared for the experience of studying for exams and being tested by judges.

Once I got to high school, I pulled away from the standardized piano competitions and turned to my own compositions and free-playing. I took the basic theory and structural lifelines of Mozart and Debussy and incorporated them into my own pieces, just based on what sounded good to me. I never got to writing them down or performing them for anyone, though I wish I had.

Once I got to college, I started picking up guitar after figuring out that pianos do not fit so nicely in dorm rooms. I sprinted from fumbling on an acoustic guitar to recording some of my own pieces on a Fender Stratocaster, trying to emulate the electric phrasings of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Now, one of my favorite ways to procrastinate is by exploring and experimenting with music. I must be one of the few RAs at the University who has been told to turn my music down by my residents instead of vice versa.

There is something about producing sound that is incredibly satisfying. Perhaps it is the act of physically putting these sound waves into the air that provides some false bravado of musical expertise.

As it turns out, my method of procrastination might actually be somewhat helpful to my academic goals.

A 2017 article from The Journal of Neuroscience reports that sound-making actions, such as playing instruments, lead to neuroplasticity changes that might be beneficial for the learning process. Neuroplasticity is an interesting phenomenon of the brain that maintains that neurons and neuronal connections are moldable and subject to change. Learning how to walk, how to talk and how to do calculus are all dependent on the plasticity of the brain. The journal article demonstrates that the same patterns of neuroplasticity for general learning are expressed in different situations of sound-making, such as pressing on keys or ringing a bell.

As I am playing a guitar or a piano or any instrument, I am actively learning about how that particular instrument works: how it is built, what sounds good, what sounds bad. Whether I am trying to or not, I have to learn about the instrument while playing it; neurologically it would be impossible not to.

I have been playing instruments — piano or guitar — my entire life, and have only really seen it as a way to procrastinate or as something I had to do to get a “superior” rating. And as it turns out, it might have helped my learning process all these years. Playing music might be the wings to the mind.