When Ryan Voldstad was a toddler, he’d pick up a badminton racket and pretend it was a guitar. Weekdays would find him performing impromptu concerts for his friends at daycare, serenading them with his own rendition of “Little Bunny Fu Fu.” By second grade, it became apparent Ryan should play an instrument, so his parents enrolled in him in Austin’s Childbloom Guitar Center — a move they say changed both his, and the entire family’s, lives.
“Guitar playing provided me a great source of self-confidence at an early age,” Ryan says. “Guitar served as a retreat from the stress of school work and responsibilities.”
Over the years, Ryan received Outstanding Performer awards in all four Texas State Solo and Ensemble Contests in which he participated; he also received fourth place at the Guitar Foundation of America older youth competition in San Francisco in 2008.
But his biggest accomplishment of all, at least in his mother’s eyes, was his acceptance to Stanford University.
That, she believes, was a direct result of his musical training.
Interest in playing a musical instrument is at an all-time high in the U.S. right now. A recent poll conducted by the National Association of Music Merchants revealed that 58% of respondents —roughly three in five— had a household member who played an instrument. By contrast, just 37% of people in the U.K., and 35% of people in Australia, have a family member who plays an instrument.
Even more significant is the number of people who believe music plays an important role in children’s lives: 61% of respondents said they believed music plays a significant role in preschool development, and 63% strongly agree that it is important for children to engage is musical activities in a preschool setting.
“This says a lot about the public's growing awareness,” says Scott Robertson, Director of Marketing and Communications at NAMM, “of research linking music making with increased brain development in young children and student success in school.”
Children benefit cognitively from music in many ways, says Dr. Terry Bilhartz, an associate professor at Sam Houston State University. A well-rounded musical experience can expand vocabulary, enhance quantitative reasoning, and develop pattern analysis skills. Not only that, but reading and writing music keeps pathways in the brain open for enhancing one’s native language as well as learning new mathematical and foreign languages.
“Our research demonstrated a strong linkage between both early musical exposure and developed musical skills and at least one form of intelligence that involves visual analysis, visual imagery, visual memory, sequencing and clustering strategies,” he says. Specifically, children who passed the vocal exam by successfully matching a variety of pitches showed improvement on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test in the areas of Quantitative Reasoning and Bead Memory. “Children whose care-givers spent time with them outside of the music class reinforcing musical concepts taught in class showed significant score improvement in Vocabulary, Pattern Analysis, and Quantitative Reasoning,” he adds.
Another study, spearheaded by Dr. Joseph Piro at Long Island University in 2009, also found that early musical experiences benefit children cognitively. Dr. Piro looked at the effects of piano study on the literacy skills of children from two different but comparable schools. Children in the treatment group received music lessons twice per week for three years from kindergarten to third grade. Children in the control group did not experience any sustained involvement in music outside of the general curriculum in their school.
“At the end of the third year of the study, students in the treatment group significantly outperformed those in the control group on two measures of language development, vocabulary and verbal sequencing,” Dr. Piro says.
What’s more, the study suggests that participating in an organized music program over a period of time may assist students in developing sharper auditory attention skills because responding to musical events like note pitches and music timbres can enhance how students listen to sounds in general.
“The ear training they receive during music instruction might also make them better at hearing sounds of the alphabet, at word recognition, or just in overall listening comprehension, in understanding what people say,” Dr. Piro says. “This improvement of auditory attention skills may, therefore, help their communication skills and this, in turn, may help general performance.”
Dr. Bharath Chandrasekaran, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says this is probably the most fascinating musical finding in recent times: that even ancient parts of the brain show enhanced processing of sound in musicians. This means that even if the musician isn’t focusing on the sound, his brain automatically ‘cleans it up’, enhancing what is relevant and de-emphasizing what is irrelevant.
“This is one of the reasons why musicians are better at understanding speech in noisy environments,” he says. “It is surprising that music training provides such practical benefits that one can use in everyday life.
Even more fascinating for parents, perhaps, is that the effects of musical training can be seen on brain development by the age of four or five, says Dr. Laurel Trainor, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior McMaster University. This is why Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the book Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten: Raise IQ by Up to 30 Points and Turn on Your Child's Smart Genes, recommends that children learn to play an instrument, including reading music, by four years old.
“Music students are far better at understanding the relationships of objects both in space and time,” he says, “skills particularly useful later on in diverse areas including reading comprehension and mathematical ability.”
While academic achievement is an interesting byproduct of musical education, the real benefits for the mind probably lie beyond the reach of tests, says Dr. Philip Ball, author of the book The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without it.
“Learning to be discriminating in music and to listen well, learning how to let music move you, and ideally learning how to make your own music —no matter how crudely or haltingly — these are mental skills that will serve you far beyond the pleasures they provide from music itself,” he says.
Music Education Marginalized
Despite its academic, social and, some would argue, health benefits, musical education has suffered under No Child Left Behind, according to Americans for the Arts. Indeed, a 2007 report published by the Center on Education Policy found that 44% of districts nationwide cut non-academic programs, including music. In schools labeled by NCLB as needing improvement, “the average number of minutes per week devoted to art and music is fewest out of all subject areas studied,” the report concluded.
This is a mistake, say researchers who study music’s effects on the brain, because music education may actually benefit learning in schools.
“For one, we know schools are inherently noisy: children, more than adults, are affected by the background noise and this tends to impair their learning,” says Dr. Chandrasekaran. “Music training may help retard the negative effects of noise.”
Not only that: kids are naturally musical. Watch any preschooler and you will notice that they seem to be moving to an internal tune, says Dr. Patricia Shehan Campbell, author of the book Songs in Their Heads. Music and Its Meaning in Children's Lives. Depriving them of music in school means they lose an important means of emotional well being.
“Of course, the development of children's cognitive-intellectual skills is an important educational aim,” she says. “This does not mean, however, that there should be a one-track road to happiness, with the exclusion of attention by parents and teachers to artistic-expressive sensibilities.”
Austin musician Alan Riggs is more blunt: “In my experience, schools that don't make music education a priority by investing in a quality program simply can't provide as well-rounded an educational experience as those that do.”
Because music isn’t a large part of modern school curricula, parents need to fill the void. Musical innovation and creativity should be encouraged at home; it’s no different in its magnitude than learning to draw, playing pretend or developing make believe realms with their toys, says Daniel Eversole, an instructor at the Eversole Violin Studio and violinist for the child-friendly band The Tiny Tin Hearts.
Helping your kids become engaged in music isn’t as hard as it sounds, says Sara Burden-McClure, director of the Austin Girls’ Choir: singing to your child is both simple and free.
“You don’t have to have a fabulous voice! Sing folk songs, hymns, silly songs, opera tunes, anything that you can enjoy together,” she says “Pitch songs high enough that kids can sing with you, rather than having to bellow along below their range.” The point, she says, is to have fun making together, no matter how good or bad. This way, parents give their child the freedom to express himself musically without feeling self-conscious.
While you’re at it, expose your child to all kinds of musical genres. Radio stations KMFA and KUT offer a wide range of musical choices, which you can peruse on the stations’ websites. Taking your children to live musical performances, particularly those by other children, also will pique their interest in music.
Enrolling your child in music lessons on an instrument is another way to help them reap the benefits associated with music. Bear in mind, though, that this requires strong parental involvement in helping the child practice the instrument. For instance, at the Austin Chamber Music Center, children are expected to practice 20 minutes a day to begin with, then increase to 30 minutes and, eventually, to an hour or more as they become more advanced. Parental monitoring of these practice sessions is imperative to ensure that the child develops his or her musical skills.
“Parents who encourage their children to also be creative in practicing can get great results,” says Dr. Michelle Schumann, the artistic director at the Austin Chamber Music Center. “Keeping kids motivated usually takes something outside of themselves. A really involved and excited parent, rather than a strict dictator, is great.”
Interestingly, parental involvement may be the key.
In his study, Dr. Bilhartz found the parental involvement variable was a stronger predictor of cognitive and musical learning than other variables such as socio-economic class or parent educational levels.
Ryan Voldstad’s parents understand this well. Although their son was somewhat of a musical prodigy, they still needed to monitor his practicing — at least when he was younger. They say their involvement in his guitar lessons ended-up enhancing their family life and, in the end, their son’s academic performance.
“As a family we prioritized the commitments our children had with their groups, and spent our child-rearing years attending their activities, including many recitals, Austin Bella Corda [guitar] concerts, regular weekly lessons and rehearsals, plus later on, travel for Bella Corda and various competitions,” his mother, Ann Voldstad says. “Music gave [Ryan] the canvas to express an artistic side we would never have imagined. We loved to hear Ryan play; guitar music from the living room just naturally drew us in.”
Inspired by her son, Ann now takes guitar lessons.
Sugandha Jain is part of the management team at Kids ‘R’ Kids in Avery Ranch. She lives with her family in Austin.