How Learning An Instrument Affects Mental Health In Adults

This is a guest post written by Aeyons drum teacher Magesh.

I have taught hundreds of students in my 22-year career as a music teacher. I've learned that when teaching adults, there are certain factors of playing music that positively impact their personality. They range from affecting memory, anxiety, depression and their general level of happiness. I would like to talk about a few personal cases where I clearly noticed how learning a musical instrument benefited adult students mental health.

I recently started teaching a male student in his late sixties. He asked me if we could learn his favourite song 'What a fool believes' by the band 'The Doobie Brothers'. I was happy to do this as I also played it as a teenager. This student loved playing the drums and asked me if we could learn it without having to read music notation. I explained to him that that would be like asking me to teach him to read a book without teaching him the alphabet first. Having a student wanting to play a song and having the motivation to practice it is most of the battle as a teacher. A pop song might be three and a half minutes long and over 200 bars of music. It is no easy feat for someone to learn this! 

I have a system of breaking each section like a verse, chorus, intro down into small pieces of information. Once the student can read it I ask them to memorize it as quickly as possible. Playing the whole song gave him an amazing amount of joy. He said to me two months after learning this song:

 “My wife says I always forget my wallet, keys and phone'. I told her 'Yeah, but I can now remember over 200 bars of music!”.  Studies have shown that learning a musical instrument can not only improve memory but also in some cases help the brain fight off early stages of dementia.

Several years ago I taught another student in his thirties. He told me in the first lesson that he suffered from performance anxiety. I really felt he had a lot of natural talent on the drums and this could only improve his condition. He told me he was confident when playing the drums in his bedroom but would almost have a panic attack when someone would ask him to play something on the drums. I suggested the best way to overcome this obstacle would be for him to play at a concert. He immediately started laughing and told me he would probably have a heart attack if he had to play in front of a lot of people. I suggested we do this in small steps.

I played at a local bar every Friday night. It was a small venue with a maximum capacity of around 80 people. I invited my student down to have a drink. Halfway through the second set, I had the keyboard player announce we had a special guest in the audience.  He then went on to invite my student on stage to play a song. The look on my student's face was priceless. It was made up of pure terror, confusion with the smallest part of excitement. As he sat on my drums I said ' You've got this, the song is Uptown Funk' which he learnt several months ago. In this situation, there simply wasn't enough time for him to get anxious so he just got on with things. He played so well he asked me if he could come back the following week to sit in with the band.

 During his next drum lesson, he told me that being thrown in the deep end made him get out of his head and into the reality of what was happening. It was a great life lesson as he told me that the anxious thoughts he imagined very rarely, if ever, came true.

In closing, I have noticed that learning an instrument gives a person a real sense of pride and achievement simply because it is something they have accomplished by themselves. This can affect their self-esteem and confidence even when they are away from their instrument.

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