In my gauzy grammar school memory, I can still remember him pulling up to the front curb every Saturday afternoon.
He was probably younger than I am now. But given that I was a little kid, and that he was stout, balding and drove an enormous olive green sedan, I thought of him as old. He was, also, always patient and polite, and seemed truly happy to be at our little house.
He was Mr. Muma (MOO-ma), and he was my violin teacher.
For about seven years, panting up our walkway carrying his own case and instrument in hand, he taught my older brother and me—a half hour each, individually, in our modest living room at $10 a pop—how to master this not-all-that-easy instrument. My mother would putter around the kitchen washing dishes or planning dinner, not exactly hovering but always listening, even if the only sounds our bows made in the beginning were scratchy squeals.
Mr. Muma—and he was always Mister; in fact, I can’t even recall his first name—definitely gave us an advantage when it came to our school orchestra ranking. (This, at a time when even the poorest elementary schools boasted full ensembles, replete with holiday concerts.) I never got to first chair because, frankly, I didn’t have the kind of passion that was needed. But by middle school, I was good enough to sit in the first chair section, and later, Mr. Muma told me I had a terrific vibrato.
But eventually, I felt like a super dork playing a super dorky instrument, and I hated, absolutely HATED, having to spend time practicing stupid scales, stupid repetitive exercises and stupid classical minuets.
Mr. Muma was pretty upset when I finally quit the summer after 10th grade.
By then, I knew that Mr. Muma had once made his living playing with the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra, and that his wife was a retired showgirl. I also knew that they weren’t exactly rolling in dough; they rented a spartan one-bedroom apartment, and they had never had children.
He told me that he loved me, and then he promised to play for me at my wedding.
I don’t regret the decision to give up violin—and I sort of kept at it a little bit by playing a note here and there in the circus—but what I mostly don’t regret now is that my mother pushed me to take those lessons.
Now, some fascinating new studies are proving that my mom was right all along… more right than she could have possibly known.
For example, an incredibly comprehensive 2013 study by the German Socio-Economic Panel (those with an academic bent can read the entire report at www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw_01.c.429221.de/diw_sp0591.pdf) has concluded that music lessons for kids improve both cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theatre or dance. The report also says that kids who take lessons are more conscientious, open and ambitious.
That’s the tip of the iceberg.
Here in the United States, researchers at Northwestern University have concluded that the five crucial skills that help us master language are actually exercised and strengthened by music lessons. (If you’re wondering, those components are phonological awareness, speech-in-noise perception, rhythm perception, auditory working memory and the ability to learn sound patterns.) In fact, kiddos in this study who were randomly assigned to music lessons performed much better than those who received other forms of non-musical stimulation, including painting or other visual arts.
The benefits go on, including a 2007 study from the University of Kansas.
Here, a music educator and music therapy professor by the name of Christopher Johnson discovered that children enrolled in primary schools that offered superior music programs scored around 22 percent higher in English scores, and 20 percent higher in math scores, on standardized tests compared to schools with not-so-great music programs. A 2013 study out of Canada came to the same conclusion.
It turns out that because playing music puts a high level of demand on one’s working (or short-term) memory, the sharper that memory becomes. Indeed, the Psychology Today article that articulated this conclusion says, too, that the memory abilities of musicians affects non-musical realms as well, helping them to recall more content from speeches, lectures and soundtracks.
Other studies—and there are several dozen to choose from—show that musicians generally have higher IQs than non-musicians; that childhood lessons slow the effects of aging, and that lessons also enhance both self-confidence and self-esteem.
What’s my conclusion?
Despite the fact that I live in a school district that seems to mostly ignore what scientists are saying, music lessons should never, ever, be “an extra” when it comes to our kids’ education.
For the record, I believe that exposing a child to music lessons is an absolutely essential tool to becoming a terrific adult, one with creativity, imagination and the ability to solve problems in an increasingly complicated world. Thinking about it, perhaps it’s no coincidence that I fell in love with and married a music educator, a teacher who can even get strapping high school athletes to play a mean ukulele.
Mr. Muma, I’m sorry that you never got to play at my wedding.
I love you, too.
Did you take music lessons as a child? Did they influence the adult you are now? And if you never took lessons, do you wish you had? I’d love to hear from you!