As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.


Life Lesson #14- How to Play a Musical Instrument

Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies. Bill Murray’s character, weatherman Phil Connors, is magically trapped in Groundhog Day, forced to relieve it repeatedly. Only he knows what is happening and can recall previous iterations – for everyone else it’s always a brand new day.

Eventually, Phil views his plight not as a curse but as a gift. He takes advantage of his immortality to master things he never had time to learn, including the piano. In a great sequence, Phil sits with a piano teacher and improves with every session, even though to her each time is his start (“You say this is your first lesson?”).

Why would Phil devote a chunk of his eternity to tickling the ivories? His reasons are probably similar to why I want my sons to learn a musical instrument before they move out of the house. Playing an instrument has many cognitive and developmental benefits, as does having a deep appreciation of music in general.

One of the cool things about our brains is that experiences can shape them, which relates to a concept known as neuroplasticity. Research has demonstrated that music changes the brain. Learning to play music alters the functional organization of a developing brain.

For example, music training improves verbal memory in children, possibly due to neuroanatomical changes in the left temporal lobe where language abilities are centered.

An inherent aspect of music education is developing an ear for pitch and being able to hear if a note is flat or sharp. Research has found that music training develops the auditory system for listening challenges beyond music.

Kids with musical training get better at detecting pitch not only in music but in language (which could help with differentiating subtle word sounds, or phonemes).

Music training has been shown to improve reading comprehension, even when controlling for factors like intelligence and time spent reading. So it’s not just that the more disciplined kids who may take up music are going to work harder at reading or have better education; something about music provides a brain boost to reading. Even math skills can improve with music training.

I want my sons to be able to get into the flow, and playing music will help. Flow refers to the mental state of complete immersion in an activity to the point that one loses track of time.

A key element of flow is activity (mental and/or physical); so being a couch potato and zoning out with a movie doesn’t count. Flow enables incredible productivity for schoolwork and career, provides gratification, and boosts self-esteem.

I don’t remember the first time I experienced flow, but I know when I was first aware of it. I was in 9th grade and playing trombone in my school’s symphonic band. We were really good (if I may say so), primarily because of our amazing teacher and conductor, Bill Long.

During a mid-afternoon rehearsal, we collectively got into a groove, cranking out music and hanging on every instruction from Mr. Long. The hour-long class seemed to zoom by in about 5 minutes, and we could have played for hours.

Mr. Long commented that if he hadn’t heard the bell he would have kept on conducting.

Learning music can also reinforce collaboration. My oldest son, Josh, is 14 and has three years with the trombone under his belt (it’s a coincidence that he plays the same instrument I once did). He began in his school’s 6th grade band, moved up to the 7th grade band, and now is in the 8th grade band.

How to Play a Musical Instrument

Bandmates share a goal- to perform songs to their highest potential. That brings a beneficial dose of accountability. If you don’t know your part you are going to drag down everyone else.

That’s a good lesson for even young kids to learn. Josh is an athlete as well (soccer), so his band experience is complementing his becoming a dependable teammate. Ultimately, that will help him in his career, as collaboration has been recognized as a 21st century professional skill.

Learning a musical instrument takes work, and I want my sons to develop discipline and achievement motivation. My middle son, Gabe, is 11 years old and has played piano for several years.

He has weekly half-hour lessons and practices for a few minutes most days. Every few months his music school stages recitals, which puts some healthy pressure on Gabe and others to learn a piece well enough to perform it.

The ante gets raised when Gabe prepares for National Federation Junior Festivals. He has to memorize two pieces and perform them behind closed doors for a group of judges- he then gets a rating. He’s done this twice and both times we’ve had moments of freak-out and tears.

Memorizing the music, playing with dynamics, dealing with nerves, the prospect of judgment- it’s a lot for an 11-year-old to handle, but not too much. In the lead up to his most recent Federation experience, things were not going well.

My wife and I told Gabe that his fate was entirely in his own hands. He could opt out of Federation, he could go forward on his current trajectory and likely get a poor rating, or he could rally. Gabe chose the third option and earned the highest rating, Superior.

How to Play a Musical Instrument

Being musicians has helped Josh and Gabe more deeply appreciate music, which is important in our family. My musical talent pales to that of my wife, who is a gifted and accomplished singer.

Our sons have heard her perform many times (and not just around the house). Playing trombone and piano helps them understand how special it is what their mother can do with her voice. They have a new kind of connection with her.

Music is a way to journal your life. Humans link memories with music. Several years ago I started a tradition of asking everyone in our family to pick their own Song of the Summer.

Invariably, our selections have been hits, but the point is for the song to be something we enjoyed and that we associated with that particular summer. I keep a list of these songs, which are like time capsules for us.

One of biggest challenges for students is learning how to interpret figurative language in literature, such as symbolism. Song lyrics can provide practice with this in an accessible and fun way.

Music has prompted discussion and thought in our family. How does a guitar gently weep? What does it mean to have demons? Why would someone be a rebel just for kicks?

The first thing Gabe does when he gets in the car, before even putting on his seatbelt, is turn on the radio. He has his favorite stations and his choices dominate our rides. I play a little game with him to make sure that he’s thinking, at least a little bit, about song lyrics. I ask him to categorize songs. A lot of popular songs fit into certain types:

  • Be my girlfriend/boyfriend.
  • I don’t want to be your girlfriend/boyfriend.
  • Why don’t you want to be my girlfriend/boyfriend?
  • Please let me be your girlfriend/boyfriend again.
  • I don’t need a girlfriend/boyfriend, hear me roar!

This week likely marks the end of Josh’s musical career. He played in his 8th grade band’s final concert and then will give up the trombone; he wants more time in high school for soccer, studies, and volunteer work (well, at least his mother and I want that).

How to Play a Musical Instrument

There’s no end in sight for Gabe and the piano. How good he gets will be up to him and how much time he wants to devote to it. As for Luke (age 7), we’ve talked with him about what instrument he’d like to start learning.

He says he wants to play the drums. Yikes.

Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!

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Dr. Craig Pohlman
Craig is a learning expert who has helped thousands of struggling students in his psychology career. He’s written extensively about learning issues, including the book How Can My Kid Succeed in School? He has three sons, so he has been up close and personal with things like cramming for tests, scrambling to finish homework, shuttling kids to sports practices, stuffing backpacks, etc. Follow him on Twitter - @DrCraigPohlman


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