A Path to Wellness
An article titled “A Prescription for Music Lessons” , written by Debra Shipman, appears as guest editorial in the Federal Practitioner Journal. This editorial functions like a literature review on the enhancement of wellness due to the physical and mental health benefits of active music making. This article is organized into four categories. They include depression, mind situation, dexterity and PTSD. To appetize your interest I will summarize some of the highlights.
Shipman points to a variety of studies which found that learning to read music and playing the piano enhance mood and certain aspects of the quality of living indicators. More specifically, those who participated in playing music reported improved self-esteem, greater independence, and fewer feelings of isolation. In addition, playing music created a temporary escape from the stress of daily life.
The brain works on a principle of “use it or lose it.” Therefore, exercising the brain is important. Musical training fills that need. To clarify, learning a skill such as playing an instrument reorganizes the brain’s neural pathways. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to change its structure, and engaging older adults in sensory, cognitive, and motor activities creates positive outcomes. Moreover, research also indicates active participation in music lessons creates larger plasticity effects than does passively listening to music.
One study focused on the effects of keyboard playing on 4 older adults with osteoarthritis who over 4 weeks had 30-minute sessions of electronic keyboard playing 4 days per week. The researcher found that participants reported decreased arthritic pain, increased dexterity, and increased finger strength. It is important to note that playing the piano requires both eye and hand coordination, which is essential as a person ages.
Playing the piano can lower cortisol levels and decrease a person’s anxiety level. Researchers compared the activities of piano playing, calligraphy, and clay molding. They found that playing the piano was significantly more effective at lowering stress levels.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Researchers studied Veterans diagnosed with PTSD. The study participants had weekly private guitar lessons for 1 hour and a group learning session. The results showed positive outcomes in both PTSD and depression symptoms after 6 weeks of guitar lessons.
One veteran with PTSD who participated stated, “I came here with some real serious anger issues; this takes my mind off everything.” This veteran noted that as he practiced, a peaceful feeling enveloped him and the memories of trauma faded.
Reading and digesting scientific papers is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is often easier to relate to stories as opposed numbers and statics. For this reason, I posed the following question to a few of my students. “How has your relationship with the piano enhanced your wellness?”. The stories that follow are from advanced pianists who have years of experience with piano lessons. These stories vividly illustrate the findings mentioned above.
I can hardly overstate how much of a positive impact playing piano has had on my wellness and health over the past years. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many changing factors in my life and causes for stress, piano has remained constant. It provides me with a sense of routine and consistency in a time when almost nothing is the same.
Piano allows me to focus on something that brings me joy – something that is not dependent on external factors in the world. When I sit down at the piano bench, I am able to take my mind off of everything else going on in my life and simply focus on playing a scale or a song. All of the stresses in my life are wiped clear; playing piano is almost like a form of mediation.
Finally, taking lessons with a piano teacher gives me the chance to take a step back from worrying about COVID and share the joy of playing piano with someone else.
I like to practice. I like playing scales and arpeggios. I am not a performer but I get great satisfaction from learning the notes of a piece until, over time, the piece becomes true and real. I like the feel of the keys under my fingers, translating notes into patterns. Practising is a type of meditation wherein I lose myself in the music and forget the tumultuous world beyond. Sometimes, I admit, I feel frustration and fumble terribly with the keys. But that aside, the end result of this activity, physically, mentally and emotionally is, almost always, joy.
Return to piano lessons after 22 years. Why?
I returned to piano lessons because I want to, am motivated, and have the time to practice. Previous studies have always been goal –oriented…. piano exams, theory exams, pedagogy training, duet work teaching, etc., and although I enjoyed these at the time, I never really played just for personal enjoyment. Daily living always seemed to take priority over playing the piano. Now that I am totally “retired”, I have the time to indulge myself .
There are many obvious benefits to my return to the piano, not the least of which is learning to be more patient with myself. Playing piano is physically and mentally challenging at any age, and the senior years add a new set of challenges.
Challenges as a Senior
My vision has deteriorated as I have aged, resulting in glaucoma and then in cataracts. Surgery has corrected these problems somewhat, but vision between my eyes and the desktop was limited. The solution was to measure the physical distance from my eyes to the music and to have my optometrist prescribe glasses, which I use only at the piano. This has worked well, as long as my practice time is during the morning when my eyes are not fatigued
My energy levels have always been high, but I have noticed I am slowing down considerably, my short-term memory is nearly non-existent, my hands don`t stretch and I sometimes get frustrated with this aging business!
On the bright side, having started lessons again has given me a great deal of improvement in these areas. Mentally, I feel more relaxed more alert, and more upbeat. Memory is improving using my knowledge of music theory and by taking it slowly. This is a slow process, but there is definitely some progress.
Physical challenges also include arthritis and back issues that are getting less painful as I manage my practice time and correct my posture. Stretching exercises are a must. Taking it slowly is a must. The upside to playing is that I have more energy to be more physically active, and this helps with any physical discomfort.
To sum it up, there are definitely more a benefits than challenges and patience is the key. Having a piano teacher who understands is a bonus!
A Final Word
In her article, Shipman uses the following quote which aptly sums it up.
Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.Plato