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Constance Alexander: Studying music at a young age leads to a lifetime of skill and satisfaction

BOOM-boom-boom-boom. BOOM-boom-boom-boom. Those are the opening measures of my first recital piece, “Indian Drum,” by Katherine K. Davis. Playing it today, so many years later, I understand why my piano practice was limited to the hours when Daddy was at work. My stalwart, stay-at-home mother endured the worst of it by turning up the volume on her radio soap operas to drown out those early musical efforts.

Since then, the piano has been an integral part of life. Wherever I’ve lived, my piano accompanied me, regardless of the inconvenience. The house would be incomplete without it, which is why I was sad when my piano tuner informed me that piano lessons had gone out of style, and that it is hard to find homes for old pianos that are still in good shape.

Another nail in the coffin of piano obsolescence is embedded in this quote from a January 2015 article in The Guardian: “People are interested in things that don’t take much effort, so the idea of sitting and playing an hour a day to learn piano is not what kids want.”

According to Murray State University Department Chair Lucia Unrau, there is ample scientific data associated with taking music lessons. Dr. Unrau, whose piano performances have been lauded for “pointed, bravura playing,” declares that developing special technical skills through piano instruction is only part of the story.

“There are emotional benefits too,” she says, adding that the piano offers a particular advantage because you get to play every voice while acquiring self-discipline.

Playing with a group, like an orchestra or an ensemble, presents its own learning opportunities. “But it’s not like a sports team,” Dr. Unrau explains. “No one sits on the bench. Everyone participates.”

As chair of the Music Department, Dr. Unrau sees many other advantages played out in the hard work of faculty and students. Leadership skills, critical thinking, decision-making and problem solving are essential for solo and group performers.

The study of a musical instrument also helps people express thoughts and feelings that cannot be expressed in words. Dr. Unrau remembers her student days when learning about a particular composer helped her relate to a piece she was studying, inspiring her empathy and adding to the dynamics of her performance.

Her own musical heroes include Leonard Bernstein, because of the range of his genius; and YoYo Ma, world class cellist whose exploration of music as a means of cross-cultural communication is admired around the world.

Murray Perahia, however, heads the pianist pantheon, according to Dr. Unrau. “The first time I saw him perform,” she says, “I felt transported to another planet. I wanted to have his children!”

A recent study from researchers at MIT’s McGovern Institute concluded that piano lessons can help young children enhance their language processing skills. Moreover, early exposure to piano practice aids the processing of sounds that extend not only from music, but also into language, according to Prof. John Gabrieli.

In 1697, William Congreve in the Mourning Bride praised music’s charms to “soothe a savage breast,/ To soften rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.” Besides that, music has been shown to be beneficial to students’ achievement in four categories: success in society, success in school, success in developing intelligence, and success in life.

For more information about the MIT study, log on to news.mit.edu. An article about the benefits of music to kids’ development is available on www.parents.com.

Last but not least, to hear the BOOM-boom-boom-boom of Katherine K. Davis’ “Indian Drum,” check out the video below:

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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