Learn a Musical Instrument -- Early
-- October 5, 2015
Learning a musical instrument is the hardest thing we ask of
kids below about 10. There is more work before you begin to see and
hear satisfying results than almost any other activity. But
eventually you do. And the work habits instilled will stay
with you the
rest of your life.
On October 4, 2015, Tyler Ferrell posted on Facebook a link
to an article. The gist was that kids today give up too
quickly on things they are not good at. Here is my take on
counteracting that effect. It is based on a lot of personal experience
with family members
(admittedly anecdotal), an observation by a
professional recruiter that supports much broader evidence than just
the Tutelman clan, and more recently several
articles including some formal academic research.
a musical instrument! Early! Start at maybe 5 or 6.
Because learning a musical instrument is the hardest thing we ask of
kids below about 10. There is more work before you begin to see and
hear results that are satisfying than almost anything you can do. But
eventually you are able to play music that is recognizable. The work
habits that instills will stay with you the
rest of your life.
Tyler Ferrell: Is that why I quit the clarinet after two
with math, science and athletics?
Around 1980, I was at a party and had a discussion with
someone who was a professional head-hunter (that means "corporate
case this is a cultural term that folks are unfamiliar with). She
specialized in recruiting high-ranking high-tech employees. She stated
that her profession had learned that the single biggest correlation to
success in such jobs is a hobby of playing a musical instrument. We
spent about a half hour trying to figure out why that should be. The
closest we could come was working with unfamiliar notation. We
didn't come up with a convincing answer, but she still insisted that it
was a very strong statistical correlation that her industry used.
Tutelman: Possibly. Though math and science require a
ethic. Here's the story of when I first realized that, and looked
next day, while monitoring my 9-year-old son's piano practice, I
realized why. It was unbelievable
how determined he was to get through
a trouble-spot, despite the obvious huge frustration. He was near
tears, but persisted with "trouble attack" skills until he succeeded.
At one point, he muttered audibly, "I can do this!"
feel strongly that piano
should be a first instrument for every kid. Other
instruments are much easier to learn after piano has
been at least somewhat mastered. There are a couple of reasons why.
my story and I'm sticking to it.
There's a lot of family experience there. My father, sister, brother,
and I all play multiple instruments. So do my sons. For all of us,
piano was the first instrument and established a base from which we
could learn others. And, of course, developed work habits that are
still with us decades later. There is also some serious medical
research and other articles that have recently come to my attention,
which supports the notion and adds more reasons, neurological reasons,
that it should be so. See some of that
at the bottom of this page.
most important parts of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm
(tempo and timing). Yes there are other things, like timbre and
expression, but those first three are head and shoulders above
else. There are very few instruments that teach all three. Drums, for
instance, only teach rhythm of the three. Clarinet (woodwinds, brass,
and most strings in general) teach melody and rhythm, but not harmony;
with enough band play you can learn harmony, but not from solo
practice. The only ones that teach all three are keyboard instruments
(such as piano) and some plucked
string instruments (such as guitar). They produce multiple simultaneous
notes, allowing exploration of both melody and harmony.
is no problem getting the right note out of a piano, and with an
acceptable tone. Just hit a key with your finger. Higher note? Pick a
key more to the right. Multiple notes? Hit multiple keys at the same
time. Very obvious,
intuitive cause and effect. To create one single note on a clarinet
requires embouchure, breath
control, and can take as many as every finger on both hands. It's just
too hard learning to create a single tone -- not enough attention left
actually learn music.
the end of the message. The next part of this article is to brag a
about my family.... Um... Er... To cite references for my
evidence. Yeah, that's the ticket.
photo is our family's photo Xmas card from 1955. The people, L to R,
are me, Dad, sister Ruth, Mom, brother Bob. The caption from our photo album is:
By now, we had branched out to several
instruments. I still played
piano, but Bob played clarinet and Ruth flute. Note that only Bob has
his actual instrument, though Ruth and I could certainly play what we
were photographed holding.
was a Juilliard graduate.
He realized that supporting a family as a classical pianist was very
unlikely, so he also got a teaching degree and was a school teacher and
eventually principal. But he was also a working musician on Friday and
Saturday nights, augmenting his teacher's income until he became an
assistant principal. And while he was teaching, he was always the
school's orchestra director.
after he stopped playing professionally, he continued in music. When
arthritis put an end to playing golf -- too painful -- he kept his
hands limber and exercised playing his grand piano. In retirement in
Sun City AZ (near Phoenix), he founded and led
the Sun City Fine Arts Society, arranging and presenting large concerts
with classical, jazz, and pop performers. The organization carried on
after him until 2011.
My brother, sister, and I each started
piano at age six. We wound up with different instruments -- well,
different collections of instruments -- but the first few years of
piano taught us how to learn an instrument and what music was about. My
wife and I repeated this with our two sons. (She regretted never
learning an instrument as a kid, but was a good enough singer to have
the NY All-City High School Chorus.)
I continued piano for
five years, and got tired of practicing the standard stuff. Dad took me
away from the classical piano teacher, and started teaching me music
theory and improvisation. (Think of it as the organized study of
playing by ear.) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and earned some spending
money playing piano when I was in high school and college. As a
teenager, I also hacked around with baritone ukelele and
little woodwinds like recorder and ocarina. I was later able
extend that to banjo and clarinet, but those stories are family-related
and I'll tell them as I go.
brother Bob switched to clarinet
after the basic few years of piano. In fact, he and I would play pop
and jazz together as teenagers, especially if we could find a drummer
to sit in. He also learned and got rather good at guitar, which was
extremely useful for folk singing, a staple of my generation. In our
twenties we both took a lot of ski trips to Vermont. A favorite
activity on the five-hour bus ride was singing, and he was one of two
three guitarists on the bus. I felt we needed something different to
spice up the sound, so I got a banjo and learned to play it so I could
join them. Today, he is retired from engineering, and spends time as a
professional musician on saxophone and clarinet. He is also the musical
director and front man for a big band in San Diego; here's a video of what he does.
sister Ruth was the real musician among us. Yes, she started with piano
stuck with it for a few years. But there were just too many instruments
for her to be so limited. She became outstanding at the flute, and was
flute player in the NY All-City High School Orchestra. But in her own
high school's orchestra, she didn't always play flute (although she was
their best flutist). If they needed piccolo, she played piccolo. On one
occasion, the band teacher told her that the orchestra was going to
play a piece with a prominent cello part -- and nobody played the
cello. He lent her the school cello; she learned how to play it in
about a month, and was the featured cellist in that piece. And that was
her; she played all sorts of instruments well enough to get
recognizable music out of them. At college,
she got a degree in music and went on to Indiana University's highly
school for a masters degree in conducting.
the premise of this article -- that musicians do well at technical
careers -- let me say a little more about Ruth. She lost her husband
tragically young, and found out that teaching music doesn't earn enough
to pay a mortgage and raise a daughter. Seeing an employment ad for
programming trainees, she applied, passed their test, and was hired.
She succeeded very well in software development, including stints as a
team leader and a manager. This despite no formal training in science
nor technology beyond high school; her college degrees were in music.
She retired after a 30-year career in software development.
My sons followed similar trajectories.
The older son (Jeff) started with piano at six. In fifth grade (age
group lessons in school for those who wanted to be in the school band.
He chose clarinet, and continued with it through high school, where he
was in the concert band and the marching band. When he first brought
home the rented clarinet (Tyler, you'll like this), he couldn't get a
sound out of it. Just blowing into it didn't do anything. Since I was
always able to help with piano, he called me in for assistance. Of
had never played a reed instrument and had no idea. But between the two
of us and the textbook he brought home, we figured it out. The
following week, I saw a clarinet at a yard sale and bought it, had it
overhauled, and started praciticing with my
son. When he brought home a piece to practice for the band, there
were usually two clarinet parts. He would play one and I would play the
other -- harmony! Then we'd switch parts. We both learned a lot, and it
was quality time. It ended that summer, when he chose to go to band
camp for two weeks. When he got back, he was much better than I was,
and didn't want to practice with me because I couldn't keep up. In high
addition to the HS bands, he also played electronic keyboards in a
garage rock band. Not much music for him after high school, but I do
approach to integral calculus in college; his "I can do this!" was
identical to the anecdote about piano practice when he was 9.
My younger son (Dan) also started with piano; no big surprise there.
grade came along, he took up saxophone. In junior high, he played
saxophone in the concert band and a smaller performance band, while
getting "certified" in piano by the NJ music teachers society. He
didn't continue in the high school bands; his extra-curricular
activities were the baseball and basketball teams. But he did learn
enough guitar on his own to play in a garage rock band through college,
including a few paying gigs. He still considers himself a
the boys were learning piano, I made it a point to set a good example
for them. I practiced daily myself. I worked on Scott Joplin rags and
even some Gershwin pieces (e.g. "Rhapsody In Blue")
in addition to improvising pop music. During that period, my chops were
the best they ever were. (Chops: slang - the technical skill with which
a jazz or rock musician performs.)
Let me end with an anecdote about how the apple does not fall far from
a teenager, I used to drive my dad crazy. Like most teens, I would
ensconce myself in my room, close the door, and listen to rock'n'roll
on the radio at a volume that could be heard outside my room in the
hall. Dad didn't consider rock'n'roll to be music; remember his
classical training and jazz and pop skills. So that was my typical teen
rebellion. And it was
a rebellion! If my parents were not home, I played the music I liked
rather than the music I knew they disliked.
Alone in the apartment, my radio usually played not rock but jazz and
occasionally classical music.
younger son loved not just rock, but heavy metal. Metallica, Guns and
Roses, etc. Since he was a rock guitarist himself, he would play heavy
metal groups incessantly on the stereo. Not my music at all; I
didn't make a fuss about it, but he knew how I felt.
While he was in college (locally, only about 40 minutes away), I went
to his dorm room to drop something off for him. I stopped at
the door and listened to the sound coming from the stereo in his room.
Segovia, playing classical guitar. Sound familiar?
Other endorsements of early music instruction, including serious research
In June of 2017, I got into an email discussion with Irene Simonsen-Davis and
my sister Ruth Disraeli, about how childhood music affects later career
performance. Between them they have three degrees in music
and each has teaching experience as well. They pointed out to me some
neurological reasons that my assertion should be true, and started me
looking for articles in the medical and professional literature. I did
find a few.
Irene's main point was:
The arts are primarily a "right brain"
activity. However, music is the
only one that requires both the left and right brain to work together,
thereby strengthening those neuro connections. This is why kids who
begin music instruction early go on to achieve higher test scores in
reading and math.
With that as the topic, I was able to find a piece of medical research using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that supports the idea that
childhood musical training changes brain activity in a way that
increases math proficiency. They did fMRI studies of subjects with and
without childhood musical instrument experience, while they worked on a
math problem. They saw a decided difference between the two groups in
activation of certain areas of the brain.
As it turns out, there are a bunch of studies like this one, all
supporting the idea that musicians' brains are different. I found an
article on the Healthy Hearing web site citing
quite a few very relevant studies. There was one such study that directly confirms Irene's
assertion that the left-brain/right-brain connection is stronger for
musicians. From that article:
Researchers noted that the differences were especially obvious among
musicians who had started training before the age of seven. Their
corpus callosum, a pathway consisting of millions of nerve fibers that
connect the left and right hemispheres, is 10 to 15 percent thicker
than in non-musicians, or even those who started training later in life.
So it's not enough to just be a musician, but a musician who started before the age of 7.
a personal experience.
In 1977, when I applied for a
job in computer programming (with
absolutely no background, BTW), the man who was eventually my manager
said he'd just read about a study done by IBM examining which college
majors produced the best programmers. Number two was a major in
Computer Science. Number one? Music! He hired me on the spot, luckily,
and I got to retire from that career almost 30 years later.
I was not able to find that IBM study, but I did find an IBM want ad
from as early as 1956, demonstrating they believed the assertion even
back then. The illustration containing the ad was from a blog about the connection between
musicianship and technical employment.
Finally, I found a wonderful and very accessible article on why musicians make the best programmers. Among the points author Kathleen Melymuka makes:
So by now, it seems pretty well accepted by anybody who has seriously
considered the question that learning a musical instrument early is
excellent preparation for a tech career -- and, I would guess, most
careers that require mental discipline and logical, organized thinking.
aptitude is one of the strongest predictors of success in a technical
position. She cites several college placement officers for this
seems to be a high correlation between musical ability and reasoning
skills. It has to do with recognizing and manipulating patterns. That
happens in music and in programming.
- Some say the real
correlation has less to do with discrete aptitudes than with the way
technical people think: they favor spatial/temporal reasoning, or the
ability to visualize. If you're good at one of the higher brain
functions that involve the spatial/temporal aspect, you're going to be
good at the others. To construct a good program, you want to be
able to see the consequences in your head, not just do line by line of
the code. You have to be able to totally visualize it. (Dave
Tutelman note: Just taking myself as an anecdotal data point, I have a
very good professional record in several technical fields, including
programming, electronic engineering, and engineering design of golf
clubs. As for music and spatial visualization: I started piano at age
6, and every assessment I've taken for spatial visualization puts me in
the high-90s percentile.)
changed -- March 26, 2018