Music for the mind: “it’s not just fun – you really have to think”

Can music improve your mental health? Various studies have proven that learning a musical instrument from a young age has long-lasting benefits on the brain and develops children’s intelligence in various ways. But what benefits would learning a musical instrument at a later stage in life have?

Nick Davis, 40, is a neuroscientist and a senior lecturer in Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. He admits that learning new skills after the age of 25 is psychologically proven to be a bit more difficult, as the brain is not as plastic and able to change after that age – however, Nick believes that taking extra effort in learning new skills can only help keep yourself mentally active.

The advantages of learning a musical instrument are numerous, but from a mental health perspective they can be split into two aspects. They are of interest to both psychologists and people who might want to learn a musical skill, because it means that different experiences and benefits appeal to different people.

First of all, there is experiencing music in an artistic and aesthetic way, which means “learning to understand a new sort of artistic feel, the same way that you can’t really appreciate poetry without sort of thinking about it”.

The other feature of music is that it is an activity, a movement, which involves training your brain to coordinate better. For instance, if you want to learn how to play the piano, you have to coordinate your fingers or if you want to learn how to play the saxophone, you have to coordinate your fingers and your breath. This type of psychological process is very useful, as Nick says that “people who want to learn a new instrument have to develop new motor skills, in the same way that learning to drive a car involves learning new motor skills. “

I was interested in how mature women see their musical instruments learning experiences and here is what I found.

Jill Bentley, 77, used to play the piano when she was a child and has been playing the violin since she was ten. But exactly 20 years ago, before she retired, Jill wanted to take on a new challenge which reflects her rebellious attitude. So she decided to start learning how to play the double bass and she admits she was fascinated by its huge dimensions and the deep sound it makes.

20170523_174231_resized (1)

“I just thought ‘this is a really ridiculous thing really to take on at my age’. I am the only one in the small orchestra that I play in, so I suppose in that way, some of my friends think I am a bit crazy.”

It was when Jill got breast cancer that she realised how isolating it felt not being able to play the double bass in her orchestra, because there is a social side to it, as well as an “artistic challenge”. “You can get sort of wrapped up in trying to make it sound beautiful, trying to fit in with everybody else.”

While she felt frightened about her life-threatening health verdict, Jill was still able to play double bass on her own. She believes that getting lost in playing the double bass improves her feeling of wellbeing. Focusing on it means she could and can stop thinking and worrying about anything else: “I like just playing it to myself, I find that quite therapeutic”, she says.

Now that her operation was successful, Jill feels like her life got back to normal by simply being able to play the double bass with her friends again: “I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but it might have helped improve my mood, just getting back to normal life really and going out and meeting people again. Playing a string instrument is very social because you can go and meet people in an orchestra and make new friends.”

Jill also admits that there are many advantages in learning how to play a musical instrument after the age of 50, but she also says she found it a big mental challenge and she still sees it as a challenge.

“You have to do a lot of working out towards where to put your fingers to get the notes. It’s like doing a crossword or something, you have to work it out. My hope was that it would keep my brain active and I think it is true.”

She is not only trying to keep herself mentally healthy, but also made resolutions about enjoying every single day without getting upset about small things.

“I am aware that it’s worth making the best of every day, especially as you get older and I think playing an instrument enhances this attitude towards living your life at its fullest.”

Seeing how passionate and excited Jill was about the double bass, 50-year-old Penny Pullan, who plays in the same orchestra, started to consider learning to play this outstanding instrument. Penny has a wonderful story about how she was separated from her first love, the violin, and rediscovered it as a mature woman. When she was about six or seven, her grandparents bought her a beautiful little violin and she loved playing it. But her mother decided to sell the violin after six months, because she believed Penny wasn’t practicing enough. “I think it was that SHE didn’t like practicing, because in the Suzuki method they had to play along with you”, Penny recalls. Vanessa Moore, a violin player who uses the Suzuki method when teaching children says this original Japanese technique means “involving the parents in every stage so that they become confident to help teach their child at home between lessons.”

Penny does agree with Jill on the benefit of clearing your mind which a musical instrument offers, because there are other things to think about when playing. Penny says that five years ago, when she started playing the violin, her then nine-year-old daughter found it easier to learn and remember music. She managed to become better than her daughter through hard work, despite admitting that her memory and concentration power are not making learning music as easy as it was when she was her daughter’s age.

unnamed (1)

“There’s reading the notes, and then a hand has to do stuff, the other hand has to do stuff and there are all sorts of bio-mechanical things and all the things that my now 14-year-old just does easily.”

Penny admits that relaxing and practising can get a bit too much sometimes, with all the motor skills she has to use simultaneously: “it’s not just fun – you really have to think.” But she believes finding a community, be it physical or online, can be extremely helpful and the retired people in her orchestra now have connections they would otherwise not have in the community if it wasn’t for music: “you will find other people who are struggling with exactly the same piece and they might be doing the same and say ‘try this finger on this bar as it makes it easier’. If something goes wrong, other people will want to help”.

This help goes beyond musical training – the friendships that music bonds seem to help even in the most difficult situations. For instance, when one of the orchestra members fell and hit his head, everyone in the band raised money to help with his hospital recovery.

But there is more to the support you receive from learning a musical instrument, from Penny’s point of view. She found playing the violin an “escape from the full-on relentlessness of being an entrepreneur”. It also helps with going through difficult moments, as she remembers feeling incredibly sad when her family friends lost their daughter to cancer. Playing slow Scottish Laments were Penny’s perfect escape from the painful reality: “they are really sorrowful and all these feelings just pour out of you. After an hour of doing that, I feel much better.”

She admits playing solo is fun , but it can get quite lonely, while also risking getting you more nervous in public performances: “the best thing about playing an instrument, especially in a group is that it does ease loneliness for many types of people. You don’t have to be extroverted to be part of this group doing stuff together.”, Penny says.

She feels like being a violinist in an orchestra means “you’re in a mix of others so you are creating the music as a group and there is something quite magical about that.” That doesn’t mean you are pressure-free as a musician in an orchestra though: “It is harder learning as an adult, because when you’re an adult, people expect you to be competent.”

Now, Penny’s father, who is 82, is getting her a new violin to celebrate his daughter’s 50th birthday.

If Jill and Penny’s stories about learning a musical instrument don’t inspire you to try it out, maybe Nick’s advice as a neuroscientist and psychologist will encourage you to give it a second thought: “I would recommend you try to acquire new skills both because it can protect your brain from mental decline, but also because it’s enjoyable. There is something about engaging in something new that is fun. I think that could be a bonding experience if you do it with friends.”

 

New song by Naked Canvases coming soon! Live teaser and interview for Forge TV’s On the Beat

Naked Canvases came all the way to Sheffield to talk to me and perform a teaser of their next song, “Songs Apart”. Enjoy!

 

Naked Canvases are “painting” their first Official Video

It is happening tonight. Tonight, between 9 and 10pm, Naked Canvases will be releasing their first official video for “Insane (Hey Now)” – after having launched their audio version less than four months ago.

The event is going take place at Cogs Pub in Birmingham, but Andrei Tiu said the venue choice for tonight is not arbitrary: “The venue is modern and the standard of performance there can be pretty high. So we want it to be a very good performance, good sound, we have the means of exposing the video on  high-quality screens and it’s also in a very good area of the city, so it kind of helps our brand in this way and we can also bring the kind of people that the club would like there. So it’s not just a pub – it’s a higher quality pub! And this is why we try to be a high-quality band and want to have high-quality material…”; “…we are aiming for what we are supposed to”, added Andrei Dutu.

They didn’t want to give me a lot of details about the video and, of course, I wouldn’t want to give you too many spoilers either. But what they did give me was a special kind of enthusiasm for what is coming and a lot of inspiration – and through this exclusive interview, I am hoping to make you as excited as I am now about the first canvas they are painting tonight.

Andrei Tiu, lead guitarist, PR, manager, co-songwriter and co-founder of Naked Canvases said the video director “had the musical knowledge of how music videos should be done, as well as the film knowledge to make it cinematic and the approach of making it commercially appealing as well”.

The band takes pride in managing to achieve the highest level they could possibly reach at this point in their career. They say they are very pleased with what they call a high-quality final product and said the director was able to put into images exactly what they want to express through their music video. The live show taking place in Birmingham tonight will not only mark the launch of their music video, but will also be broadcast through Facebook live so that their family, friends and fans can watch them from whatever part of the world they are in.

The other Naked Canvases member, Andrei Dutu, who is the singer and rhythm guitarist of the band, as well as co-songwriter and co-founder, said the video captured exactly the way they see music videos but also their energy as a new band and their indie approach towards music: “I can’t wait to actually release it”.

The video shows two different timeframes in parallel, telling a love story which is relevant to both  past and present. Their favourite part of the video is the bridge which, they say, looks really good.

While only giving out the fact that the video shows a couple wandering around London, Andrei Dutu explains the story behind it: “There is this couple and they live close by when they are kids, then they become teenagers and fall in love, but at some point one family moves away and they lose connection. And the idea of the song is that they meet up when they are a bit older, more mature, they experience life, and there’s this question there, ‘we’re back in this situation again, but it feels INSANE, I am not sure that we can do this’ ”

WHO ARE NAKED CANVASES?

“Naked Canvases” was formed in October 2016 with only two members, but a lot of motivation to work hard and give music a meaning they believe in.  Andrei Tiu (23) and Andrei Dutu (22) are both from Bucharest, Romania.

Andrei Dutu grew up in a family with a strong focus on classical music, as his mother used to be an opera singer. He studied Drama at an arts school in Bucharest and then started studying music as well, having performed pop, jazz and even opera. When he first moved to the UK, he went to a music college in Wigan, he did a lot of auditioning for musicals but at the same time started gigging on his own. Moving to London, he said, was a life-changing decision – everything felt as if it suddenly evolved, as there he met Andrei Tiu and they decided they wanted to do music professionally together.

img_8556

Andrei Tiu had already been part of a few bands by then, one of his bands back in Bucharest having been quite successful and making it hard for him to leave: “I felt attached to it so I thought if I am leaving this here I want to make sure I am going to do something better”.

Tiu studied an undergraduate degree in Marketing and although it is currently helping him promote Naked Canvases, he admits his decision was also influenced by his parents’ distrust in whether music would work or not as a career path: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell parents ‘Oh mum, you know what? I think I am going to study Music in London for four years, 2000 miles away from home and, you know what? I can’t work for a few months, maybe one year, so I am going to ask you for the money. Is that okay?’ Probably not.”

Their first song, “Insane” (Hey Now)” was launched at the National Palace of Parliament in Bucharest, where they had their first concert and ever since they’ve been gigging in London and Coventry. After their launch in Birmingham today, they are planning on gigging in many other cities across the UK.

THEIR MUSIC HAS NO LIMITS

Naked Canvases is open to everyone who want to give variety a go. It ranges from pop and a pinch of rock to soul and even R&B but, as lead singer Andrei Dutu said: “We kind of approach a folk genre, but in an indie way”. Errr, they already got my interest!

Being open to exploring a variety of styles is one approach they take, as Dutu added: “We are not shy about exploring music. Because creation is about exploring and we are trying to incorporate a lot of ideas from any genre that we feel that would fit and would tell our story better.” The golden rule is trying to put feelings into every sound they produce and translating them into something the audience can relate to.

They think Naked Canvases has an advantage in being international, as that means having been part of a variety of societies and countries makes it easier to approach an international audience.

WHY “NAKED CANVASES”?

One of the first things that got my attention about this band was their name – and, as I thought, the guys chose it after careful consideration. Dutu confessed there was an interesting debate around their band name. While trying to suggest an artistic perspective on music, the band name was also received with funny reactions by some: “We decided we want to become a mirror image in an artistic way. We try to show people pure emotion. So we started thinking about how we actually write music and we’ve noticed that both of us are using images when we’re trying to write music. From images, we went to painting and then I ended up thinking ‘what about canvas?’ and then the idea of Naked Canvases just came into my mind! We had a lot of comments like ‘What is this naked word, is it supposed to be dirty?’”

untitled-1-copy-2

Andrei Tiu added that “painting on naked canvases” is what they based their band name on because they hope the audience will picture the stories that they are telling while immersing themselves into the music.  What is more, it directly reveals what their target audience is: “We are appealing to everybody that really is a bit artsy and tries to see a bit further down in what music is and how to experience a live performance.”

THEIR IDEA OF SUCCESS?

When I asked them to tell me the top three things that make Naked Canvases stand out from other bands, Dutu pointed at himself and Tiu and said laughing “One, two…”. He then enumerated imagination, mindset and charisma, which Tiu translated as being their love for connecting with people and living and breathing their passion.

“Success means doing something that you love every day and getting better and better every day and I think that our journey goes on this path” said Tiu, while Dutu thinks that, besides this, success means becoming so influential that you get to change people’s lives.

When you first see them, you might wonder how they can deliver the unique performances they are claiming since there are only the two of them. But Andrei Dutu said it is not all about friendship: “We are two minds but we have the same goal. Starting from this, we have so much opportunity of having a certain direction and we are going to follow it without hesitation.” What’s more, even though they do consider gigging as a bigger band in the future (providing they find people as committed to their aspirations as they are and with a similar approach), they find it easier to agree on things in the current formation. They do admit having more people helping them in the studio, but they also think moving around for concerts would be more difficult if all of them were to attend live performances.  Many artists, such as John Mayer, were more efficient when not everybody was taking the decisions, but focused instead on a nucleus and had other people enhancing it. Naked Canvases aim to follow a similar pattern in their musical activity.

ONLINE PRESENCE – FROM VISUAL ILLUSION TO HIDDEN SURPRISES

Another thing that caught my eye about Naked Canvases was the photoshooting they have done to promote their band, as this photograph seemed to stand out:

bla

It creates a visual illusion in the way that Andrei Tiu looks like he is sitting, but he is actually laying on the ground and the photo was simply rotated. As expected, it is all part of their artsy approach and, as Tiu said, the twisted buildings’ perspective puts a further emphasis on thinking outside the box.

They also explained the #UKNakedHideAndSeek hashtag they have been posting on social media, which stands not only for the name of their summer tour, but also suggests that they are hiding surprises for their supporters and fans, who can only find out about them if they follow the band’s activity.

They haven’t announced this yet, but good news for those of you who are already interested in their activity or will be after tonight’s launch: they started recording more songs last Friday and they have an idea of what they want to put out next!