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Music lessons and kids: power from lesson one

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Her daughter's alarm clock going off at 5:30 a.m., followed shortly by the plinking of piano keys, are the sounds Amy McLaughlin wakes up to in her Houston home.

Sometimes — if 8-year-old Abigail gets up before 10-year-old Emily — the thrums of a violin will be the first to drift through the house, instead.

"The rule is whoever gets out of bed first," McLaughlin said. "We try to get both done in the morning — they like it much better that way. When we are in that routine, we are so much better with it."

Emily and Abigail, the oldest of five children, have both been studying their respective instruments for three years. McLaughlin plans on starting her 6-year-old with music lessons soon.

"I grew up in a home with music. It was something we all did," she said. "What my mom used to say was, 'We don't own a farm, so this is the way to learn to work,' and it's so much work. It's a real refining influence on the kids. They learn to work hard and to have discipline."

For many children, music lessons are one of the blights of childhood. An hour of piano practice a day? Not a chance. However, no matter how difficult it may be for a child to sit down and focus part of their day on learning theory and playing or singing something correctly, research has proved even just one year of musical lessons or involvement leads to better learning and listening skills. Music immersion can have lasting effects that spread even into late adulthood, especially with brain and even social development.

There are many reasons McLaughlin wants her children to receive a musical education, including for personal development throughout life, and not just high performance expectations.

"They don't have to be concert pianists," McLaughlin said. "I want them to be able to perform well and show people their talents."

The key to the keys

Music lessons impact every person differently. Various life skills can be obtained through consistent training and practice, something McLaughlin has already seen with each of her daughters' independent musical training.

The most prominent trait to be amplified has been confidence, she noted. Both of her daughters are more visibly confident, even outside of their music training and each continues to build on other life skills. Abigail's observation skills seem to have improved with violin training, according to her mother.

"My oldest likes to go through and get to the end, but we work on her approach before she goes through a piece," McLaughlin said of Emily. "This is a great way to teach her the processes of learning to come up with a solution. She's learned to have a process for problem solving. I hope as she grows she can use that, because her music has provided an opportunity with that."

Reading, memory, listening, comprehension of sounds and more amplified abilities were found in those who had been actively engaged in musical training at some time in their lives, according to a study done at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Ultimately, the research found that "brain stem response was more robust in adults with musical training compared with those with no past instrumental training," as the participants listened to recordings of complex sounds. The amount of training did not make any difference in responses, though how recent the training was did make an impact.

The purpose of the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in August of 2012, was to see if even just a few years of training made a difference in development of the brain. When it came to picking out essential elements of sound and even those skills needed for reading, most any training helps.

"Skill in appreciating the subtle qualities of sound, even against a complicated and noisy background, turns out to be important not just for a child learning to understand speech and written language, but also for an elderly person struggling with hearing loss," Perri Klass said in a New York Times article about the study.

And as more understanding is gained on the effects of musical education, it may prove to be more beneficial for many different people to be involved, no matter the time of life they are in.

'Music is absolutely necessary'

When Robin Keehn took on three adopted siblings for piano lessons at her studio in Sequim, Wash. — all with fetal alcohol syndrome — she didn't know what the outcomes would be. Though there were numerous challenges along the way, the gifted now-musicians are different people after seven years of learning with Simply Music training, Keehn says.

"You wouldn't know anything was up with them, that they are disabled or developmentally delayed," Keehn said. "Their mom has said to me, on a few occasions now, with tears in her eyes, 'I don't know who they would have been had they not been doing this. I believe it's ordered and organized their brains.'"

Keehn, who has taught early childhood music and movement and piano, for 17 years, concurs.

"Music just gets in where other things just can't," she said. "... They always succeed at everything they are able to do."

Annette Longhurst, a longtime piano teacher and music therapist in Logan, Utah, feels similarly.

"Music is absolutely necessary for anyone to reach their full potential," she said.

"It captivates and maintains attention; for young children and (disabled) children, that's very important. It stimulates and uses many parts of the brain, it's reflective of a person's abilities, provides a context for them to express themselves, helps them memorize. Through music everyone can find a great way to succeed,” Longhurst said.

Due largely to her work with musical therapy, Longhurst has found that one of the most fundamental needs of individuals is to be able to self-express, and that music is one of the best ways to do that. Much of her work has been with disabled and elderly individuals, and she says the changes in them are just as evident — if not more so — than in those without disabilities.

"I have seen elderly individuals be hopeless and depressed, but incorporating them in groups of music-making can help them find meaning in life. Music is the key to help them become a person again," Longhurst said. "When you can belong to a group and feel like you have something to contribute to and are valued in a group — I have seen that change lives."

The social aspect of music can be the saving component of musical education, whether with group lessons or just being able to share and make music with others.

"There's so much you get from being in music lessons," Keehn said. "We have a lot of camaraderie. They are in a group and stay with the same group and love making music together. That's a gift — to get together and make music."

A house needs a foundation

Kathy Damkohler has worked as an educator for years, and has now served as the executive director of Education Through Music in New York City since 1995. There are currently 28 schools with music education been implemented into the curriculum, with help from ETM. Fifty-five percent of schools in the city still have no music instruction, Damkohler said.

"What happens in music class, it builds self-esteem and self-confidence," she said. "It's easier to go into math or reading class and feel you can do anything. In these inner-city schools with children with so much baggage, that may be the only time they feel special. ... Music has been life-changing."

Through research of many of the childrens' musical habits outside of school, long-lasting changes have already been observed for many of the students, according to Damkohler.

The program works only with students up through the eighth grade currently, she said, and attendance at better high schools has been one change for many of the students involved with music education during early schooling years.

"We look at their confidence, their self-esteem, their responsibility, their creativity, their academic motivation," Damkohler said. "We do want their math and reading scores to go up; we really want music to be a part of their lives."

Immersion — whether it's by way of one-on-one training, or music education in classroom curriculum — is one of the essential ways for the effects of music education to really make a difference for children, and those who continue with music throughout adulthood.

Only a small percentage of money is used for music to become a part of education in many schools, according to Damkohler, and oftentimes it is for an enrichment program — performers or instructors from Juilliard or Carnegie Hall — to come for week or so of the school year for basic instruction.

"While they are phenomenal, they only serve one grade and if that's all they get, the children won't be excited about it," she said. "But if you study music as core discipline, by the time an enrichment program comes, they are excited.

"When I go into schools and they tell me about their program for just fourth graders ... I say, 'So if you bring someone from MIT and they show (one grade) things for one week, will the whole school be smarter, better with math, afterwards?' I cannot tell you how many schools just don't value quality music instruction. ... When you build a house, you need a foundation."

Mandy Morgan is an intern for the Deseret News, reporting on issues pertaining to both I family and values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying Journalism and Political Science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.