I have just finished a lesson with one of my young learners where I witnessed a small miracle. A few weeks ago, we started learning scales on the piano and, as is my custom, we started with his right hand only. Gradually his fingers got accustomed to the motion needed to realise the required sound and soon it was time to learn to play the left hand. Again, gradually, he was able to realise this also and we then started on him playing both hands together. The first few times he attempted this, the results were not pretty at all. He stumbled and fumbled and got all mixed up. I left it with him, gently coaxing and encouraging him each lesson to keep trying. And he did. Today he played that scale hands together, effortlessly. It was as if he was always able to play it just like that. The pain and frustration of the past had become a distant memory. And my heart was filled with joy because of what I realise had happened, unnoticed, in his brain to allow him to execute a near flawless scale.
Neurology helps us understand that when playing the piano with both hands, we are forcing both sides of our brains to work together and by so doing, we strengthen the nerve cells that run between the left and right sides of the brain – the corpus callosum. A strong corpus callosum enhances the brain’s capacity to process information faster. By being persistent at learning this skill, my student had strengthened the section of his brain that was needed to process this particular task. And those “brain muscles” are here to stay. The more he continues to practice this and similar skills, the stronger that part of his brain will get and he will be able to use that enhanced processing capability in other areas of life. Not just music.
Neurology tells us that learning to play an instrument permanently alters the shape of a musician’s brain – for the better. So, when we moved on to his next task, which was to play the left hand of one of his pieces, I smiled to myself as he exclaimed – “but that’s impossible!”. Slowly, we worked through each bar of the piece and when we got to the end of the first page, he exclaimed – “actually, that was easy!”. And it was easy – due in part to the fact that his brain recognised some of the patterns in the piece and was able to quickly direct his hands on how to move.
I love the fact that my music room – both virtual and in-person – is in some ways like a laboratory and a gymnasium combined, where I get the satisfaction of watching my learners develop muscles and tone in places they never imagined they could. This is one rewarding experience that I will never tire of. Ever.