Learning to play the cello

I love music. I play several musical instruments. I play none of them really well. The bass clarinet, almost as tall as I am, was my constant companion through high school and for several years at the university. I play the recorder, a tin whistle and have attempted to learn the harmonica. I quit piano lessons after one year and can play just enough to pick out a simple song. The only stringed instrument I have ever played is the guitar. Well, maybe “playing” is overstating my ability with the instrument.

I have always loved the sound of the cello. I have said for many years that, someday, I was going to learn to play the over-sized violin. About two years ago, I decided someday had better be soon since I am now closer to the end of my life than the beginning. I bought an inexpensive cello and talked a friend into giving me some beginning lessons.

I haven’t gone many days without playing my big, golden, curvy cello since. In spite of the difficulty of learning to play her, the effort makes me happy.

Many studies show the benefits of older people learning new things. The mental and physical challenges of learning to play a musical instrument exercises your brain as well as your muscles. Some studies show that learning to play music, solving puzzles and challenging your mind can slow the onset of age related dementia and perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease.

When I first started to play, I couldn’t remember what string played which note. There are no keys or even frets on a cello to mark where your finger has to be to play a particular note. Your muscles need to remember where your hand should be and your ears need to tell you if you are playing in tune. Your hands have to move in separate but coordinated ways. Playing the cello requires your brain, your eyes, your ears, your body, and even your heart.

If learning to play a musical instrument is good for older people like me, there must be also be benefits for children. There is a violin professor at the University of Indiana in Bloomington who thinks so. She noticed that students who excelled at playing the violin also tended to be doing well academically. She questioned whether smarter kids made better violinists or whether learning to play the violin at a young age improved a child’s IQ. To study the connection between music and other learning she began a program called “Fairview Violin” in an inner city Bloomington elementary school. With 65 donated violins, Brenda Brenner and her violin teaching students are giving the school’s first graders violin lessons.

Fairview Elementary school is in an economically poor neighborhood. Ninety percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Regular instrumental music lessons are not offered in school until the fifth or sixth grade. Few of the students would be able to afford a violin, much less private music lessons. Some of Brenner’s fellow musicians even questioned the wisdom of putting expensive musical instruments in these particular kids’ hands. There was concern that the children might damage or even steal the violins. Classroom behavior tended to be chaotic at best.
Brenner and her students teach the first graders in large and small groups several times a week. She and school officials will be monitoring the children’s school attendance, attitudes about school and how their reading and math skills change as compared to another school in the Bloomington school system. None of the violins have been smashed or stolen. Often the most disruptive children are the most eager violin students.

If these little violinists continue to play the violin beyond the first grade remains to be seen. Brenner and her Indiana University students plan to continue to provide free lesson to the children who want to keep playing and are seeking the support of others to continue the program.

I found a YouTube video of a concert by Ms. Brenner’s first grade students. With great self-confidence these musicians tucked their mini violin’s expertly under their chins and played. Their music was in tune, on time and not unpleasant to listen to. The most wonderful part of all was the looks on their faces. Playing music made them happy.

Music can excite children to be in school, give them a feeling that they can succeed at something difficult and improve their ability to concentrate and learn other things. What a shame that the first things cut when schools find themselves in financial trouble are music and art as if these subjects are frills. Perhaps Brenner’s research can provide concrete evidence to justify keeping music as a part of elementary school children’s day. Or, maybe we just keep teaching children music for music’s sake. Do we really need other reasons?

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson