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.

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“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.

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“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.”


Jèrriais – a documentary about Jersey’s fight to preserve its old language

It is not commonly known that the Channel Islands have their own unique languages. Jèrriais is one of them and it used to be the main language of Jersey. As the spoken language becomes lost knowledge to new generations that speak English, both young and old people are making efforts to keep it alive.

I have always been passionate about learning foreign languages and, while a lot of hard work and committment are necessary in the process, every effort was worth it for me. The language skills I gained developed my brain, complemented my learning of musical instruments and made it very easy for me to learn shorthand, a very useful tool for a journalist. Other benefits include knowing words in one language that might not exist in other languages and thus being able to express some of my thoughts and feelings better… and, of course, being able to get close to people so much easier when travelling. Some people feel more comfortable speaking in their mother tongue, while others simply appreciate the efforts taken by those speaking their language because they know themselves how hard it is to learn other languages or because they find it so hard to learn a language that they haven’t even tried.

I can currently speak Romanian, English and Spanish fluently and have also studied French for four years and have basic knowledge of German and Turkish. When I faced the pressure of picking a good subject for my final year radio project, Jèrriais  seemed to be the perfect topic. It meant I got to mix so many of my passions, from travelling to Jersey to finding out about a foreign language I wasn’t familiar with, from music in Jèrriais to the historical and human importance this language has to the islanders. Jèrriais wasn’t something I knew anything about, so I seized the opportunity to learn new things and get out of my comfort zone. Getting out of my comfort zone also meant doing night and day shifts as part of my university jobs to afford five days in Jersey. I don’t receive a maintenance loan and, although my parents would have definitely supported me, I prefer to cover all the extra expenses including leisure and business travel on my own. I grew up thinking that just because I have access to stuff, doesn’t mean that I am entitled to it and it seems only fair to me to work for the additional things I want, not need, if I feel capable of handling it. This was very tiring considering how much third year uni work I had to do and the fact that I had to prepare for a work placement in Leeds, and it basically meant I had to give my holiday up once again in favour of work, work, work.  I had so many doubts as to whether my efforts were going to be worth it and there were times when I thought I could have gone for something that would have been easier to plan and would have required less stress, worries and financial efforts –  but risking a university grade and sticking to my instincts to pursue something I was truly passionate about proved to be the best decision, and not because my documentary was awarded a first, but because…

…I had the opportunity to spend more sunny days in beautiful Jersey, which made work more bearable. I even managed to pay a visit to BBC Jersey, a place I loved doing a work placement at, partly due to how friendly and supportive everyone is there;

…even though I picked Easter days for my stay in Jersey, everyone agreed to meet me. They were all very helpful and made me feel extremely welcome and become even more interested in Jèrriais. All my efforts suddenly seemed so small compared to how many efforts these people make every single day to keep their language alive, despite the younger generation speaking mainly English;

…I met an incredible, unique band called Badlabecques, whose songs are in Jèrriais. Vanessa, who plays the violin, came to pick me up from the airport and drop me at my hotel, not before dropping me at the pharmacy because I was very ill throughout my trip (but that didn’t stop me from squeezing conversations with as many amazing and inspiring people as I could every day and recording hours and hours of interesting stories and facts, which I somehow managed to cut down to 12 minutes). She then drove me to interview her and Monty, who plays the accordion and is a Jersey politician as well! Kit, who sings for the band, flew to Sheffield to meet me and showed me some songs they recorded for the new Badlabecques album. I fell in love with their music and I included some of their most recent work in the documentary;

…I met people working at L’Office Du Jèrriais, a place where they try to spread awareness of Jèrriais through all sorts of ways, including teaching the language formally and informally – in a pub. Geraint, who leads the pub sessions, blew me away with his knowledge and I could probably rightly associate him with a “human encyclopedia”. I consider myself so lucky to have had him share so much of his valuable knowledge with me;

…I met people from all the generations who joined the fight to preserve Jèrriais, from adults whose grandparents found Jèrriais helpful in World War II to children whose parents didn’t stay indifferent to their children’s knowledge of the language and realised the importance of teaching and speaking Jèrriais at home;

…Jersey’s identity now means so much to me and posting my documentary here is my attempt to spread the word about why this language is so important and how much poorer our world would be if places like this would lose their original cultural elements.

Enjoy and please share!