Having Music In My Life: what music did for me

In Singapore many kids would have had the experience of learning a musical instrument during their childhood days. I also had that same experience. My parents sent me for piano lessons when I was in Primary 5 at my request.

Learning a musical instrument can yield several benefits. It keeps my fingers nimble and helps me tune into that part of the brain where I can roam around in creativity. I also found out later that music does help the brain to learn things in a less structured manner too.

When I first started piano lessons, I could only grapple with the basics, like figuring out the notes, tempo, rhythm and how to play with both hands. After a while, my tutor said I was good enough to skip one junior grade and move up to another grade, because I could comprehend the music jargon well enough.

That didn’t help me grasp music comfortably though. In the beginning, I struggled a lot to ‘hear’ the music in my mind. I only knew I was banging out note after note without understanding what I was playing. I was trying to be technically perfect, but plain boring. Even simple pieces – like nursery rhymes – do not sound as nice as they ought to. My fingers were too stiff to create music that flows.

What did my teacher suggest? She suggested a few things I could do. The first is to rely on external aids like metronomes to improve my grasp of rhythm. This also frees up my mind from having to deal with rhythm while attempting to get a grip on the other musical skills.

The second thing I should do is to play music exercise pieces. These are pieces written to improve the dexterity of our fingers and get our fingers used to different hand combinations. Music exercises also help me to improve my range of hand motions across the entire keyboard.

The third thing I should do is to practise tuning my inner ear to the music pieces I am playing. What does this mean? It means learning to string the notes together into a coherent whole, to understand and appreciate what I am hearing. By way of analogy, it is like comprehending the individual words that form a sentence, and the individual sentences that form a paragraph.

I don’t play music actively today, but the skills I learnt from there have kind of transferred to other aspects of life. As with learning anything, we can apply the skills we learn to different areas.

1. Learn A New Instrument. This is a direct benefit of learning music theory. Once you are familiar with the rudiments of music, you can read music scores of any instrument. From there you can learn any instrument. So I have picked up the harmonica and guitar after the piano. Knowledge about music theory helps me pick up these instruments quickly. I just need to focus on getting the technical skills up to speed.

2. Look Into Music Programming For The School. When I took up the role of school leadership, one thing I have to do is watch over curricular programming for the whole school. While there are subject experts to look into the different areas, knowing music helps me explore deeper with my teachers what we can do for different student cohorts. It is the same as having content knowledge in art, the humanities, sciences and so on. You get to steer the professional conversation and contribute at a deeper level.

3. Being Focused On The Overall Picture. An indirect benefit from learning music is that you have to focus on producing music for the audience while following the details in the music score. This helps me in my work especially. I learnt to keep an eye on the developments in education, society and environment, while looking intently at the development of school-based policies at the same time. All these with a view towards playing the right notes and creating the right music simultaneously.

4. Learning To Be Disciplined. One trait I developed from learning music is discipline. You don’t have a choice on what to play when you go through the music curriculum. Of course I get to choose if I want to play music pieces I like, but you don’t have a choice when preparing for exams. The pieces may not suit my preference, nor are they familiar composers I love. So going through different pieces with varied technical skills required has trained me to be disciplined in going through the grind.

I have dabbled less with music since I started work. It’s not just work, but different areas of life that also called me away from music. Was the investment by my parents wasted in that sense? Not quite. At least I have transferred the learning to other areas of life.

I believe learning is and should be transferable. It is more a matter of thinking how to transfer the learning and apply to other areas. Hence I try and apply ideas I learnt from different areas in the course of my work whenever I can.

Have you picked up music before? What do you think you have benefited from learning music? How do you apply musical skills in your life?

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