Music Changes One's Brain and Heart

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This week, my husband Dave and I were proud parents at an incredible holiday concert by Joe Hodgin, Claire’s guitar teacher since July, at the Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts. Wow, 22 children ages 8-14, played either guitar or piano with a band (2 vocalists, 1 pianist, 1 guitarist, 1 drummer). Her teacher made beautiful video introductions of each child in an interview about what Christmas meant to them, then the lights came on and each child played a Christmas song of their choice. By the end of the evening, listening to John Lennon’s "Happy Xmas" (The War is Over), with a great guitar player (age 12), the band, with the girls singing, I melted into a moment of complete gratitude.
Dave and I are privileged to have watched Claire in countless concerts, since her first at age 5 or so. This past weekend, she played "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas", with grace and elegance, hiding her nerves, and with the accompaniment of a great band. If only my mother could see and hear her.
The entire evening, I was in awe of each of the children: their innocence, individual personality, laughter, joy, and love of music. When they shared what Christmas meant to them, every child said “time with family and friends”. We are so lucky to have found a guitar teacher who is passionate about what music does and means, the same criteria I had for finding her piano teacher who is an incredible role model in Claire’s life. Years of piano paid off; it almost seemed too easy for her to learn guitar. Shout out to Taylor Swift who inspired Claire to be interested in guitar!
You see, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, actually changes one’s brain and heart. 
As a child, being raise in Taiwan, especially as a girl, I can’t remember how early my parents started me in piano lessons. Family members seem to remember by age 4. Playing the piano, (or violin) for Chinese children, is perhaps a birthright, a privilege for those who can afford it, mandatory instruction, and frankly just expected. I remember many many evenings as a first and second grader, sitting at the piano that was in my parent’s very small master bedroom in our “condo” in outskirts of Taipei, forced to sit there and practice despite barely being able to stay awake. My mother took me week after week to my piano lessons, taking two buses and us walking down long dark alleys to a lady who seemed pregnant every year and wife of a pastor. That much I recall. My mother died from breast cancer in 1979, I was 9, then my father remarried soon after.
After we immigrated to Los Angeles in 1980, despite shopping for furniture at a Salvation Army store for our 2 bedroom apartment (after 3 months living with relatives) my father and stepmother purchased a top of the line gorgeous YAMAHA upright piano. Money was not a factor. What was critical apparently was that my piano lessons continued. In fact, I had lessons until the end of high school. If there was a way to ship a piano to Ithaca, New York and it would fit in my dorm room at Cornell (no way), perhaps they would have forced the issue.
Years later, while out of practice, I will always be grateful that I am able to play the piano. I am certain that my emotional intelligence, capacity, empathy, and ability to experience joy, grief, and all aspects of human emotion in a more colorful and intense way. 
During my miracle pregnancy, I remember warning Dave that our child WILL play the piano, and music will be a part of his/her life no matter what. I knew that the connections between the right and left brain, the learned skill to use both hemispheres at same time will increase skills that serve a human for a lifetime. Not to mention it makes you better at math! The science (functional MRIs) show how playing an instrument (not just listening), is practically the only activity that “lights up” both sides of the entire brain (not even sports do this)! Studies show that it increases cognition, increases neural connections and the size of the corpus callosum is much thicker (this part of the brain connects both hemispheres). I knew that my child must be given the gift I have, even though it takes years to get there and requires persistence and not giving up too soon. In Taiwan, music was a mandatory part of elementary school education, if only here in the US it is mandatory also. Music should not be accessible only to the rich or those who can afford instruments or access to them. In fact, music can and should be an equalizer for children who may be at risk due to their social determinants of health. 
I am inspired to start practicing again this month, and especially to play Christmas music. I will listen to Christmas music over and over and allow myself to be surrounded by the feelings of warmth and love. Start your child or yourself on a musical instrument. Your brain will be better for it, as will your heart.

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