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A neighbour recently confessed that she'd been given a clarinet many years ago as she'd always wanted to learn. Needless to say, it has spent the last 15 years in the loft. However, over lockdown it made its way out and there was even a small chance it was going to come out of the case. Maybe.

Which gave me an idea.

As much as we may mock it, Zoom has saved many of us in the last few months when face to face contact has been thwarted. I hadn't even heard of Zoom at the beginning of March, but by the end of it, all my teaching, rehearsing, family gatherings and church meetings were happening through this platform.

Although it hardly replaces an in-person rehearsal experience (the time lag being the biggest barrier to any group playing), the mute function allows the players to play along to one other group member, in duet form. (This has worked well for our note-crunching sessions.) I've also been able to play recordings of our band pieces, to which the muted band members can play their part - giving in some small way, a band experience. Of course, it makes the player more autonomous: they have to determine if they're playing their part correctly, as the rehearsal leader can't make such judgements, and that can actually be a positive for the player's aural development and musical discernment.

So what about people who would perhaps like to learn an instrument as a new skill? Adult learners are often inhibited by a crushing lack of confidence, not wanting to appear vulnerable or foolish, but could Zoom offer a solution?

If I ran a beginners' session, players could be on mute and play along while I played the music (unmuted). The learners would need to be able to hear that the notes they were playing were the same as what I was playing, but that's part of the aural development in learning an instrument. I found a free band method online we could use, and I could mix that up with teaching some beginner theory. So after a little call-out on social media, I had 6 definite starters: some absolute beginners, and some who'd not played for many years.

Last week we had our fourth session and I think it's working well. The players have found their motivation and have been practising, while some have learnt aspects of music reading they'd not mastered previously and they are finding their way around the instruments for the first time, or after a long time.

There are significant benefits to learning in instrument as an adult.

If you're returning to the instrument after learning as a child, the research* shows that the enhanced cognition you gained as a child will still be present as an adult, years later. The areas that benefit the most include: memory and recall, and absorbing and processing new information.

If you are beginning an instrument as an adult, the bonuses to your brain function have also been backed up by research. A study in Florida assessed the benefit to people aged 60-85 of learning an instrument. The results concluded that there were "robust gains in memory, verbal fluency, the speed at which they processed information, planning ability, and other cognitive functions".*

It is well recognised that playing music involves both the left and right sides of the brain. Some experts call it a "total workout" for the brain. Playing as an adult can hold back loss of memory and cognitive function**

A further source states:

"Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can't. It's a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is very robust."***

Here is a little True or False quiz about claims of the brain-benefits of playing music***:

  1. Musical training can change the brain structure. T/F

  2. Playing music improves long-term memory. T/F

  3. Musicians are more mentally alert. T/F

  4. Playing a musical instrument increases reaction times. T/F

  5. The corpus callosum, (which is a massive bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two sides of the brain), is larger in musicians. T/F

  6. Playing music increases blood flow to the brain. T/F

  7. Musical training can improve and strengthen executive functioning in both children and adults. T/F

  8. Playing music strengthens reading skills. T/F

  9. Music helps the brain recover. T/F

  10. Playing music integrates multi-sensory information. T/F

All of these are TRUE!

It is rather incredible that playing a musical instrument can do all of this for an individual, but the science doesn't lie!

The people embarking on their instrumental adventure in Prima have so much to gain, the brain benefits alone are staggering - not to mention the improvements to mental health and the sense of achievement gained by embracing the challenge.

I'm so pleased we've been able to get this initiative up and running, and so thankful that the technology exists for us to do so in these times of Covid-19.

Prima rehearses on Zoom every Thursday 8-9pm.

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