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The Zen of Music Practice

Wednesday, September 30, 2020 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Healthy Music

It seems to be common knowledge these days that music practice is incredibly good for you. People marvel at the amazing benefits they hear and read about, and indeed, the list is impressive and wide-ranging. The usual attention-grabbers are: it improves math and other STEM skills, aids in language and auditory development, trains hand-eye coordination, imparts discipline and dedication, staves of age-related mental truly goes on and on! 


Music is an all-in-one powerhouse of valuable attributes. You could do numerous, separate tasks in the categories listed above in order to make progress in each, but it’s hard to deny how attractive it is to have a single way in which to achieve simultaneous, overall improvement. One-stop shopping, after all, is the ultimate convenience we Alaskans who frequent Freddy’s can all attest to! What’s more, you reap the touted rewards through just the act of focused, goal-centered practice with the intention to continually improve upon skills while learning an art. Those rewards aren’t contingent on pursuing the highest levels of virtuosity with the aim to become a world-class performer; the benefits will come regardless. 


Thousands of studies have confirmed the many ways in which music helps people become better thinkers, and the evidence supplies endless reasons for anybody wondering whether taking up an instrument will pay off. There are extensive sources that can provide further detail, and a quick Google search will give you all the insight and reading on the topic you can handle—no need for another lap on well-trod ground here. 


But there is another area that doesn’t get quite as much of the spotlight when up against heavy contenders such as helping to grasp geometry and edging up I.Q. The special and unique way in which music provides respite and ritual could be considered music’s greatest gift to the practicer. This is the sheer “om” factor of making music.


Soothing yet productive, music practice provides a type of stress relief that speaks to our souls while it entertains our spirit. It requires enough brain power so as to distract the mind away from everyday stressors while replacing the noisy chatter with perfectly ordered sound. In a society that increasingly exacts more time, energy, and effort from us mere mortals, music promises to refill our cups and help us transcend the melee of the pedestrian world.


How does this work? Consider first that stopping to spend some time practicing music can feel like actually “Stopping Time”. The pacing and the aligning effect of music gives the sense of an actual pause of the world. A curious mind matched with a melody to develop or some chords to improvise with can take one down a rabbit hole where time and space become relative, and an unveiled labyrinthine landscape of sound and motion can only be navigated by equal parts imagination and music theory. Not to get all metaphysical, but you truly do get lost in the creation of music to the point that it’s as if you have been transported, but after which you get the perk of feeling centered and revitalized, post-excursion. 


How can all this lofty mumbo jumbo help people? 


Let’s start with the chaos of adulthood. The escalating pace of society along with the demands of our personal and professional lives leave our heads spinning, and we need to hit reset every so often. Adults, as often as kids, can easily fall victim to the minefield of devices and screens that do nothing for true spiritual restoration while they also threaten to blow up all productivity should we plan to tackle a few more items on the to-do list when “me-time” is over. Want to put down the smartphone and do something for yourself, despite realistically only being able to afford 20-30 minutes for a total rebalance of mind, body, and soul? You’re in luck: the music benefit cornucopia cascades forth its riches in record time!


The moment you begin to play, beat and rhythm begin regulating your breathing and heart rate, equalizing your brainwaves, and even boosting your immunity! Should you choose to tinker with something slow and contemplative, or up-tempo and jazzy, you will begin to resonate with the particular vibration signature, your body’s 65% water content conducting the sound waves throughout your organs and limbs. If you involve singing (no matter your ability), you can really supercharge the coupled meditative aspects and health benefits due to the increased oxygenation of your blood, boosted lung capacity, and strengthening of your core and diaphragm, all of which are accompanied by a release of endorphins. Together, these effects create a similar outcome of cardiovascular exercise, conscious breathing, and other mental clarity exercises, all-in-one style. Habitual multi-taskers, rejoice!


Now, what about kids? Besides music’s ability to make kids scholastically competitive, there are positive physiological effects for them as well. The life of a typical school-age child involves managing homework loads, standardized testing, tutoring, social issues, and extra-curricula. With so much pressure to juggle and excel in everything, the long days can get pretty rough and exhausting. Having a readily accessible refuge (other than a digital escape) is a welcome way for kids to get a breather. 


Still, we know all too well the insistent pull of the video game and the difficulty in prying all manner of flashing screens from the hands of kids during any downtime. Conveniently, practicing music provides stimulation and requires problem solving in an engaging, recreational medium—just like those infamous games! Creating their own music presents challenges to kids, but allows for multiple solutions. Conversely, pre-written songs require kids to puzzle out each new level of complexity with exactness. Once mastery is achieved, those skills are applied to the next more intricately composed song, similar to the process of leveling-up in a game. Unlike with video games, kids can easily slip out of music practice and back into the normal groove. And as a bonus, there are lasting cognitive effects that carry over to the next task you take up—a reason I often suggest my students take a homework break and insert their music practice. When they return to the books, they are refreshed and refocused. Win-win!


Can’t you just download an app (or apps) for all this? Nope, not this powerful. And to prove my point in the event that practicing music seems a quaint throwback in comparison to our many hypnotic games and sophisticated biofeedback of our mind/body-awareness app’s, just take note of what you’re hearing when you launch many of these games and apps. Is it original music written specially to enhance the activity on the screen, by chance? Probably. Does the cool theme in the background make you want to learn to play it? Naturally! No matter how fancy the graphics, the sounds and the music draw you deeply into that state of flow, illustrating how connected we are to music and how it can create an elevated, meditative, zen state. 


Find your own musical haven apart from the everyday clamor, and begin reaping the unique, meditative rewards that only music practice can bestow!

Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, November 2018

QUITTER'S CLIFF: Advice for Avoiding a Dreaded Fate

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 by Cara Walsh Dorman | Staying the Course

In my line of work, a specific confession is routinely offered up when someone finds out I’m a music teacher: “When I was a kid I didn’t practice.” I can see the guilty party getting ready to wince, almost expecting me to whip out a ruler at this admission. Without fail, what immediately follows is, “But I wish I would have stuck with it so that now I could really play!” That last part is usually said in total earnest and (I’m pretty sure) not just to escape the whack of the ruler.

The specter of the missed opportunity to become a good player haunts many “ex”-music students. Those who gave up their instrument will readily admit not having the discipline to have kept up on practice, yet seem to honestly regret the fateful--and maybe premature-- decision to quit altogether. 

Truth is, there are dozens of obstacles a music student will encounter on the journey that threaten to imperil their enthusiasm for music practice. New activities, seasonal sports, and social events often get prioritized for the short or long-term and will disrupt music studies. School work and family life, both of which must take precedence over all else during certain periods, can end up having unintended consequences on a student’s practice regimen. One week’s faltering leads to resisting parents’ urges to “please go practice”, and not long after comes the fatal blow of a resounding, “I quit!” The tragic scenario plays out again, and as their parents did before them, another generation of children falls to their music education demise, the end.

But is it really fated? Is your child destined to be swept into the abyss as well? Naturally, I’m going to say “no” in the same breath as I say “but”, and that’s because it is necessary to be informed about potential pitfalls that lie in the path of the music student which can derail practice and lead to straight to that cliff.

What could cause your kid’s dedication to waver? Here are two common culprits. 

A biggie these days is overscheduling. Kids are expected to pack a lot of productivity into their days and the sheer number of hours already spoken for can leave little time and energy for music. If your child has a standard school day and homework load, plus a single activity/sport involving 3-5 weekly practices in addition to games, meets, etc. a significant portion of their time is already dedicated. Family commitments, time for friends, and downtime must be factored in as well. If your kid is overbooked, the first thing to go is almost always music practice.

Conversely, some kids have the time but aren’t the best at managing it. While school hours and sports practices occur at preset times, music practice does not. Interestingly, the solution for both the too-busy and the too-distracted is to independently preset time for music practice. I provide both a practice planner and a tracker at the outset of lessons to handle this task. Outside of the weekly 30 to 60-minute lesson, most teachers recommend 20-45 minutes of daily practice with a day or two off. I require a minimum 5 days’ practice and usually tell kids to front-load the practice week according to when the lesson occurs for best retention. This translates to practicing at least the first 3 days after the lesson before taking a day off, then getting two more practices in. 

Sometimes a simple solution is to let practicality win out, however, so I’ll recommend kids pinpoint the two busiest days in the week and plan for practice all other days. It doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective!

Kids do need to have some brainpower and alertness for quality practice, so timing is key to make sure they have the energy for it. In other words, don’t leave it until nearly bedtime (unless you enjoy unwinding with your practice). One regular suggestion I make is to fit it in with homework: before, between, or after. Music requires mental focus, but is active as well. Doing practice just before homework can make for a natural segue into preparing to “hit the books”. Or for some kids, it works to make music practice a break between homework sessions. Kids find the activity of music practice refreshes them while keeping their brain “on” and able to return to homework. Music can go after homework as well. For kids who look forward to their time on the instrument, saving it for after homework is a satisfying and pleasant wrap up for the daily to-do list. But my strongest suggestion for planning practice? Experiment! Be open to trying out one time for a while, then switching it up if it’s not working. 

Another HUGE detriment to music practice (for any age student, but particularly for kids) is inconsistent lesson attendance. We’re not talking about the occasional sickness, or important and unavoidable school obligation. This pertains more to blowing off lessons just a little too often. By the same token, routinely coming late cuts into lesson time so that little gets accomplished and starts to have a cumulative effect on motivation and morale. Lesson time is precious and we try to cram an entire week’s material into 30 short minutes. Missing a lesson means a student doesn’t get feedback or help for half a month! Whether a kid is anxious to pass a nearly completed song, or is totally stalled out in some cryptic notation in measure 14, absolutely nothing torpedoes progress for a music student like chronically missing lessons.

The take away? You CAN break the cycle of abandoned musical pursuits! Plan your practice, get to your lessons, and keep at it! After all, I’ve never yet heard anyone say, “I wish I would have quit sooner so I wouldn’t have gotten as good as I did.” No one ever regrets continuing their music adventure!

Originally published in edited form in Echo Magazine, April 2018