I’m really, really rusty, but I played classical piano for many years growing up. I even did a few competitions, but learned the hard way that stage fright and having to have all your stuff memorized wasn’t a very successful combination for me. Now that I’m starting to play a little with my daughter – and by ‘play’, I mean ‘try to show her some stuff while she climbs on me and bangs on the keys’ – I’m remembering some of the things I loved about learning to play when I was a kid.
My first piano teacher did not have a minimum age at which she would take students, she had a minimum skill level. She would accept students as soon as they could read. Her philosophy was that if you can read words, you can read music. And so I started taking lessons, along with all my older siblings, around age four or five. We worked through the standard Bastien books, but she also had some wonderful games to help young kids learn music. I remember a musical version of monopoly, lining up laminated cards to form various scales, and sticking felt notes on the right spot on each clef.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning a new language. I was also developing math skills, critical thinking skills and discovering my own flavor of creativity. Music requires so many parts of the brain to work together. Counting, rhythm, reading notes, planning ahead, coordinating hands and feet, volume levels, and even reading instructions in Italian. Remembering what key you are in, and making the mental shift when that changes, requires some serious thought and attention to detail. Add to all that the emotions and nuances of musicality and creativity, and making music becomes one of the most complex things you can do. And that’s just classical music – improv types such as jazz add a whole new layer and skill set to the mix.
Playing music is a wonderfully educational thing, and it builds skills and pathways in the brain that can be directly applied to STEM fields. Scientists, engineers, programmers, architects – all these types of fields require both academic smarts and creativity. The arts are frequently looked down on by those who want to focus on hard sciences and disciplines, but I would argue that we really need both to succeed. Standard courses won’t normally teach you to think outside the box, but playing around with a guitar or a piano can let you practice that skill.
I know my years of music training gave me a valuable set of life skills, and even helped me beat some of my terrible stage fright by high school. I also still turn to the piano as an outlet when I’ve had a particularly bad day. It’s hard to still be angry by the end of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, and Chopin’s Berceuse is the most soothing song I know for when I’m sad. So for parents of geeks who want to encourage their kids to take an interest in the sciences, I ask you not to forget the arts. I never would have made it through two engineering degrees without both the creative outlet and the foundation musical training laid in my brain.