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Winter Letter 2014

Let the music play...

Lately, I've been wondering whether I've overscheduled my fifth grader – with a lineup of soccer, karate, piano, Russian math, jazz band and Sunday school.

I considered letting something go – the easiest thing would have been to cancel piano. Private lessons are expensive and he doesn't practice as much as he should. But when I proposed this, he told me he wanted to stick with it. I'm glad because I don't like him to quit, and I recently learned about new research concerning music and children.

A new study from the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University shows childhood music lessons may help children become better readers and lifelong learners. Study authors compared a group of students who had musical lessons early in life to those who didn't. Those with lessons had a better sense of rhythm and were more easily able to process complex sounds. What that indicates, researchers say, is musical training keeps the brain biologically younger and strengthens language and reading skills. By exercising the part of the brain that links hearing, rhythm and language, musical training also seems to sharpen attention and memory skills. Even when lessons stop, benefits appear to last long into adulthood.

While this makes the case for music lessons, I decided not to force lessons or practice on my son. I don't want him to dread piano or any other instrument. I want him to learn to play for fun and for himself. So, I've backed off a bit with reminding him to practice 20 minutes every day. What I notice is that he's doing it his way in short spurts. Several times a day, he runs over to the piano and practices for five minutes or so. Overall, I think he comes close to the recommended practice time.

He's developed an affinity for jazz pieces. It's so much fun to hear him bang out "Love Potion Number 9," "Boogie Blast" and "Santa Baby." Recently, a small crowd gathered at my father's assisted living facility as he played Carole King's "It's Too Late." Very cool – at least in the mind of an 11-year-old preteen.

I'm grateful that when I gave my son the option of quitting piano lessons, he kept it up. We both understand he needs to play for his own enjoyment – not because I think it would be good for him. But with good evidence that musical training in childhood may help kids become better learners and provide long-lasting benefits, you can be sure I won't complain when writing the check for his private lessons.

Best Wishes,

Linda Ciampa, RN