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Leah McLaren: The key to smarter children? Music lessons – and nagging Add to ...

My parenting style is a haphazard mixture of blind instinct and willful redress. I mostly just do what my parents did, except when I go out of my way not to repeat what I perceive as their mistakes. Signing my three-year-old son James up for Suzuki piano lessons was a mission born of the latter impulse rather than the former.

My mother never took us to piano lessons because she couldn’t be bothered to nag us to practise. Now that I’m a mother, the body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of nagging your kids to practise is so vast, it’s overwhelming. Study after study by respected international neuroscientists show that small children who creak away on their mini-violins daily reap astonishing benefits.

The most recent study – published this month by researchers at the University of Vermont – analyzed the brain scans of 232 healthy young music students. They found that the more the child practised, the higher his or her levels of “cortical organization in attention span, anxiety management and emotional control.” Which explains everything you need to know about my cortical organization skills.

Becoming that nagging mother can be difficult. I’ve tried everything, including cajoling, pretending it’s a game, bribing him with Jelly Bellies, but James’s resistance to the ritual of daily practice seems to be almost innate. “Piano is bum bum!” he declared the other day as I tried to persuade him to sit still and play the first three notes of Hot Cross Buns with his right hand, to no avail.

“So you practise with him every day?” asked Ivana, his pretty, cortically organized Serbian-born teacher with a skeptical arch of her finely plucked brow.

“Maybe not every day,” I said. “But most days. Or at least some days.” In truth, we practised on the days we were not late for nursery school, which lately had meant zero days. But I wasn’t prepared to tell Ivana that. I was paying her too much.

“He needs to practise every day,” she said firmly. “And you need to practise with him. Otherwise there is simply no point.”

“Of course,” I agreed, thinking of the information I’d gleaned from the website of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which has an early childhood music program designed at an in-house research institute led by a world-renowned neuroscientist.

In recent years, researchers there have been able to find out all kinds of new things about the brain through advances in techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), which allow scientists to see how our brains react to stimuli, i.e., what makes them go zzzzz or light up like a switchboard. Aside from longer attention spans and the rest of it, they’ve also discovered that musical study can actually stave off dementia and improve hearing loss.

It all happens through a process called neuroplasticity, which basically means if the brain were a set of muscles, playing an instrument would be the equivalent of the Tracy Anderson Method. This made intuitive sense to me, because trying to persuade a recalcitrant three-year-old to practise Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star each day felt very similar to that Tracy Anderson exercise where you jog on the spot and make teeny, tiny circles with your arms extended.

At first you think, “This is cool.” But after five minutes, you’re, like, “KILL ME NOW.” Stick with it, however, and your child’s brain will have the supple tone of Gwyneth Paltrow’s fortysomething butt.

One Conservatory infographic, entitled “Benefits of Musical Education,” showed two cartoon brains, one grey and one bright yellow.

The yellow “musical brain” belonging to a stick man playing guitar had a list of benefits beside it, including “more grey matter, improved brain structure and function, better memory and attention, higher IQ.”

The grey brain belonging to the stick man with no guitar had nothing written beside it. That, I realized with shame, was my brain. But it didn’t have to be my son’s.

And so, armed with my compelling new research, I did something I’ve rarely done in my life: I formed a new morning routine and stuck to it. For almost a month now, I’ve made James sit down at the piano after breakfast. After a while, he stopped fighting it. He resists as a matter of principle, but ultimately, he knows it is futile.

At his lesson last week, Ivana and I were amazed as he played the first three notes of Hot Cross Buns unprompted. We praised his efforts as if he’d just surprised us with a Chopin nocturne. Brimming with maternal pride, I thought of his improved neuroplasticity and magnificently developing cortex. “Are you proud of yourself, my darling?” I asked.

He asked for a jellybean, which I produced from my pocket. “Bum bum,” he said and popped it in his mouth.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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