Music and the Brain

 

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Recently, I came across an inspiring article about music in the October 2010 scientific journal Neuroscientist, “Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity across the Life Span” by Catherine Y. Wan and Gottfried Schlaug, both from Harvard Medical School.

The article has two parts. The first is a review of various recent studies about the side effects that regular music practice has. This is an impressive list. Children who practice music consistently show greater skills in auditory, motor, and vocabulary tasks, as well as abstract reasoning and mathematical functioning, than those with similar backgrounds who do not.

The article also reviews recent studies about music and aging. As is relatively well-known, active engagement with cognitive activities of all sorts is good for slowing mental decline. Music making seems to be especially effective.  A 5-year study, following people over 75 for the onset of dementia, indicated that regular playing of a musical instrument seemed to be the best way to provide protective benefit against dementia, more so than reading, writing, or doing crossword puzzles.

The second part of the article is an investigation of the effects that music has on the brain. And to make a long story short, the article shows that at all stages of life, the tangible benefits of regular practice on instruments are accompanied by impressive effects on brain structure and function.

Needless to say, playing music and entering into the feelings, ideas, and aspirations of great artists are, of themselves, inspiring and uplifting experiences. But practicing can sometimes feel tedious, and when our children complain, it is good to know that playing an instrument has important indirect educational and developmental benefits for them. So when we all as parents hit those inevitable moments of discouragement when we wonder, “Why are we insisting that our children practice their instrument every day?” we can remind ourselves that this musical practice is having profound effects on our children’s future capacities for life, potentially up through their old age.

~Eleanor Winship – Music Director

This article was originally published in the 2011 Spring Edition of the Garden Breeze Newsletter of the

Waldorf School of Atlanta 

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Waldorf School of Atlanta Reaches Worldwide

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I have just returned from an inspiring trip teaching toning and singing, music pedagogy, pentatonic lyre, and anthroposophical music background to Waldorf teachers in Thailand and New Zealand.  WSA is part of a worldwide movement with over 900 Waldorf schools. To actually meet and get to know some of my overseas colleagues and be able to picture them in their own environment with all their challenges brings this picture of Waldorf as a global, mutually supportive movement into much more concrete perspective. It was invigorating to experience these wonderful colleagues on the other side of the world. They met our work with great enthusiasm!

My first impression of Bangkok was of an overcrowded, unplanned, sprawling, hectic megapolisa city badly in need of a human vision such as Waldorf education inculcates. In the last fifteen years, Bangkok initiatives have created two Waldorf schools, one independent kindergarten, and a kindergarten training. It was inspiring to see how the pioneers of the Thai Waldorf movement combine the spiritual traditions of their own country with Anthroposophy to bring Waldorf to Thailand. In the course I taught there were around sixty teachers and student-teachers, some from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and India, as well as Thailand itself. I worked with a translator, but the students were enthusiastic, and especially satisfying were the moments when we were all communicating through the music we were creating (also satisfying were the delicious homecooked dishes with which the students treated me!). Flood waters were steadily rising as I was teaching in Bangkok. The river overflowed after I had left, causing many thousands to flee the city. I was glad to hear that my wonderful hostess was safely at her mother’s home.

New Zealand, whose population is less than half the size of metro Atlanta’s, has a flourishing Waldorf movement with nine established schools and new initiatives springing up. Most of their schools are integrated into the state educational system, which is a mixed blessing, since they are also required to follow state regulations and organizational requirements. I heard my colleagues’ concern as the state continues to assert more control along with its financial support.

The theme of the New Zealand conference was “joy.” I was the main speaker and artist, and any worries I might have had about delivering on that theme were quickly lifted by the joyous musicality of the hundred or so teachers in attendance. We were soon launched into lively musical and movement exercises, ringing six part rounds, and beautiful group lyre playing and improvisation.

New Zealand seemed like a green, uncrowded paradise, although the problems of the world were literally lapping against its shores as I arrived. The conference was in the oceanside city of Tauranga, and from the house where I was staying I could see the tanker which had run against a reef the previous week and created the largest oil spill in New Zealand’s history. You could smell the oil from the conference, the beach was closed, and the local economy was reeling.

It was amazing to fly back from the New Zealand springtime to our colorful autumn here, and it is good to be back again. I’d like to thank the Core for giving me the professional release time and everyone for supporting the music program and teachers in my absence. As a world wide movement, we have a lot to give to and learn from each other, and it was important and generous of WSA to show this support.

~Eleanor Winship

Music Director

 

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of the Garden Breeze newsletter of the Waldorf School of Atlanta. 

Linden Tree Photography 2011 Lantern Walk 025