Health Benefits of Music Education
By Laura Yeh
My husband is a very fine musician, and as our business has grown, he has had less time to devote to practicing the violin. When he was able to start regularly practicing again recently, he soon found he had lost several pounds.
How could that be? Violin is a very physical instrument. He wasn’t doing any other exercise or diet, so we know his weight loss was from the extra activity of playing.
One of the often-overlooked benefits of playing a musical instrument is how it helps improve overall fitness and health. In my experience teaching music at the St. Louis School of Music, this is one of the wonderful side benefits I see kids getting from music education.
Learning to play violin is not like running a marathon, but it helps kids stay active as they move and use their muscles. Learning a musical instrument requires good posture and the ability to keep certain muscles relaxed while controlling others. Music students strengthen muscles and gain flexibility, both of which contribute to overall health.
With childhood obesity rampant, the added activity kids can get in music lessons can help counteract all that time they spend sitting around eating, playing computer games and watching TV.
Learning an instrument is also great for fine helping students, especially little ones, improve their fine motor skills. As young violin students learn to isolate the muscles to move their fingers independently, for instance, they are building strength that can help protect their hands and fingers from injury.
Another key benefit of playing an instrument is learning how to relax the muscles. I have had several violin students come in with their arms so tense they have been unable to correctly use their bow. We have worked and worked until they are able to relax and loosen up.
Playing a musical instrument won’t do much good for fitness if kids only practice a few minutes a day. But an hour spent playing music every day will help kids stay healthy. At our school we teach group classes along with the private lessons and after two hours of playing, the kids are pretty tired. It has been a workout for them.
Following are some of the health benefits associated with various instruments:
- Stringed instruments: Violin and viola are particularly physical instruments as students stand and bow, often moving their bodies a great deal as they play. Even instruments such as cello that are played sitting down help kids to hone their fine motor skills and strengthen their arm and back muscles.
- Piano: Although it is played sitting down, the piano can be a very physical instrument as players stretch and move from one end of the keyboard to the other. Learning to play the piano also greatly improves arm strength, dexterity and fine motor skills.
- Wind instruments: The main benefit of these instruments is how they improve children’s ability to control their breathing, in addition to improved finger dexterity. Kids who play in a marching band get the added benefit of physical exertion as they play.
I teach and write instruction books for the ocarina, a palm-sized wind instrument that is easy to learn and well-suited for young children. Even though it is usually small, lightweight and can be played anywhere, the ocarina has shown me some surprising health benefits.
With ocarina you have to be able to control your breathing. Lower notes require lighter air flow and higher notes require harder air flow. The lower notes actually require more strength. Just being able to change the air flow takes a lot of control and helps develop your stomach and core muscle groups. In playing the ocarina I definitely can feel those muscles working even though I am not moving around much.
I also find when I am playing ocarina my hands get tired if I play for a really long time. But the more I play the more I build up stamina, enabling me to play longer without fatigue. That to me is proof the muscles are getting stronger.
Learning to move fingers independently of each other, strengthening and relaxing muscles and improving posture are a few ways playing music regularly can help improve health and fitness. There are many other health benefits, including relieving stress and improving memory and concentration.
Playing music is not strenuous exercise and won’t by itself make an overweight adult or child lose a lot of weight. But it is a great way to enjoy regular physical activity that can help improve posture, breathing, dexterity, muscle tone and overall fitness. Those are big added benefits for an activity that is fun, stimulating and enjoyable for life.
About the Author: Laura Yeh is a performer and music educator trained in the Suzuki method of instruction who teaches violin and ocarina at the St. Louis School of Music to children as young as 3 and adults. Laura and her husband Dennis have collaborated with ocarina makers around the world to produce new models of the ocarina, an easy-to-learn wind instrument with ancient roots. They have designed and produced many unique and innovative ocarinas sold by STL Ocarina. For more information, visit http://www.stlocarina.com.