Sunday, December 06, 2009
Did my own piano lessons make me a good student as a kid? Probably so.
I checked into some scrapbook paper records of my own piano lessons today. It looks like my parents purchased the Kimball spinet piano in February 1951, when I was in second grade (I was born in July 1943). But my first recital took place in June 1952 in Falls Church, near the end of my third grade year. I played the “Tom Thumb March” which is the first piece in John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”. (The First and Second grade books got more interesting). The piece comprised all middle C’s.
I did well in school the first two grades, but had trouble getting along with my third grade teacher right off the bat. I fell behind physically, a problem that would always nag me, and I actually suddenly had learning difficulties (doing poorly on a “My Weekly Reader” test that fall). But it seems that I started taking piano from a certain Mrs. McDermott in the basement of an Arlington home in November 1951. Curiously, I snapped out of my learning doldrums and by fifth grade was a consistently good student, as I would be from then on, all the way through college. Did the music help? The evidence is certainly that it did.
On the other hand, the "space" or resources in my brain used for music could have detracted from normal physical development. But generally that has not been the case for other male musicians. So I don't know why this happened with me. Maybe a case of measles after first grade (in 1950) did some subtle damage.
Does learning an instrument help with academics in general? There’s a good chance it does. Kids who perform (music, drama) tend to do better in school as a whole. Most movie studios have to hire studio teachers, and it seems like usually only the smartest kids consistently get parts.
The Kimball got out of tune over the decades, and was given away in 2003 before I moved back to the DC area from Minnesota.
Some experts on autism and Asperger's say that developmental issues like mine are the result of a "slow brain reaction time." I could become good at piano (and develop a musical ear) because that involves turning on one "brain application" and letting it run -- in a manner similar to what a computer has to do to start a service when it boots up -- the brain works very efficiently once it is engaged on something, and develops a narrow range of interests. (Can any concert pianist explain how he can play a Rachmaninoff concerto perfectly?) But slowly this range still expands, as into academics, anyway, but always at a measured pace. Playing the piano well (an entire composition) engages the brain very differently than does driving a racing car or hitting a fast ball in MLB.