Let’s take a trip back in time and visit grade 12 Madeleine. She’s applying for one too many theatre programs (which require one too many in-person auditions), she has no spares, and she’s involved in an extracurricular or two. Oh, and she’s determined to do her Royal Conservatory of Music grade 8 piano exam in the spring. Needless to say, of all those things, piano fell by the wayside—way by the wayside—to the point where she squeaked by and managed to just pass the exam on one fretful June afternoon in a Scarborough church.
Thus, I finished my high school career, equally happy to bid adieu to my musical career. I started to play piano at six years old, making my way through the Music for Young Children music education program and then onwards through the RCM curricular. However, my memories of those experiences include more tears of frustration and cries of “I don’t want to practice!” than joy. It was only seeing my mother’s own pleasure in playing piano and growing up with my father blasting music on his stereo at ungodly hours of the day (and night) that made me feel obligated to persevere.
I don’t think my experience with music is particularly individual though. Consider little Bart Collins and his horrible piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, in Dr. Seuss’s movie The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. (If you haven’t seen it, you have to—it’s Dr. Seuss, for Pete’s sake!) Or what about Arthur from the PBS children’s series of the same name? I still have nightmares about those fingerless gloves of Dr. Fugue’s, the strict piano teacher in the episode “Arthur Plays the Blues”.
In addition to piano, I picked up the baritone from grade 7 onwards, taking lessons at home and playing in my high school’s concert band. Despite the inexplicable coldness of the music teacher who conducted the band, that musical experience was slightly more pleasurable. I’d happily practice my baritone, often glancing over at my family piano with scorn. However, I also stopped playing it at the end of high school.
It wasn’t until last fall, when I was asked to play an Alberta folk song for a school production, that I picked it up again. And, suddenly it all came back to me, like Proust and his infamous madeleine (the cake this time). I remembered the thrill of finally getting a tough rhythm and the pride of holding a high G for more than a beat after hours of practice. That same fall, I had to take a singing course for my specialist, and in rehearing those pieces I was reunited with my dear old friend the piano. To my surprise, the three-year hiatus had repaired our relationship.
We don’t spend quite as many hours together as we once did, but the piano and I have continued to keep in touch since last fall. We’re on “playing” terms now. In fact, it was sight-reading a new piece last week that made me realize how other UTM students should consider revisiting their childhood instrument or even learn how to play one for the first time.
“University students would greatly benefit from revisiting their childhood instrument or even picking up a new instrument, as the ability to make music is a birthright, and one can begin to play an instrument or learn to sing at any age,” says Bina John, the CTEP coordinator at the U of T Faculty of Music.
It’s a rewarding pastime, and the more hours you put in, the more results you see. To my knowledge, nothing really comes of putting an extended amount of time into Facebook (and I’ve put plenty in). Playing an instrument offers a similar tactile experience to playing a video game or surfing the Internet. This physical component, I believe, helps provide a healthy distraction or break from hours in front of a textbook or computer screen. When playing an instrument, you put yourself in a very separate environment.
John also describes this aspect of the pastime: “The experience of making music is so rewarding in itself because it enables a very unique form of communication, it is a powerful way to express yourself, it is therapeutic, and it affirms your place in the world community of music makers,” she says.
Who necessarily needs to perform in public or post videos online? There’s a sort of success in being able to reinterpret a song that, up to that point, you’ve only ever listened to. Perhaps you’ll find that you have a similar effect on another person as the piece did on you originally. Our lives are so text-based—this form of communication that John speaks about is honestly a bit of a relief. Even with singing, I would argue that although words are involved, its figurative quality and its context still provide a similar freedom.
Aside from music’s communicative and therapeutic benefits, there is also scientific evidence of what it can do for our health. “Neuroscientists have studied the brain when people are engaged in music-making (as opposed to listening to music),” says Boyanna Toyich of the U of T Faculty of Music, president and CEO of Toyich International Projects. “The result is a kaleidoscope of fireworks that go off in the brain, simultaneously engaging multiple areas working together: creativity, melody, rhythm, mental focus, attention to the minutiae of detail, problem solving, and cognitive and emotional areas, to name a few.”
These results are long-lasting too. “Patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s often retain their ability to perform music long after some of their cognitive abilities decline,” says John.
Similarly, researchers at McGill found that seniors could not only reverse some effects of aging, but also improve their immune system by regularly participating in drumming circles, as explained in a CBC News article from 2013 titled “Music as medicine has huge potential, study suggests”. Playing music, for most, is a more approachable and less intimidating way to adopt a healthier lifestyle than a new diet or going to the gym. The price of renting a basic keyboard from such music retailers as Long & McQuade is equal to that of a gym membership and investing in athletic wear, or committing to buying healthier products at the grocery store. (That said, exercise and eating well are not to be ignored!)
Being able to play an instrument never set you back. If anything, it makes a great conservation starter and can bulk out that dreaded “Interests” section of your resume. “Playing music is like a full-body workout and the many skills that are developed through studying an instrument are applicable to every aspect of study and work in any field of endeavor,” says Toyich.
I can attest to music’s ability to ingrain discipline and commitment. And from a knowledge perspective, the more pieces and composers you expose yourself to, the more you learn about the history and culture of the world. You can travel through time and place when playing a piece from the past. It’s a far more enjoyable way to learn than through a textbook.
So throw your apprehensions aside and connect (or, like myself, reconnect) with music. No matter how painful your university experience, will you simply toss away everything you’ve learned these past four years? Likely not. So why do the same with an instrument? Or as John suggested, if you didn’t play an instrument growing up, why deny your “birthright” to play music and not learn how to?
Release your inner musician. She’s waiting.