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Learn a musical instrument for your health

Posted: April 23, 2011 - 5:48pm

The little ukulele has a beautiful sweet sound and a gleaming wood finish.

A gift, it sits placidly in its case on my closet floor. I have repeatedly told myself that I will learn to play it, but I still have not found the time to do so. Recently, however, I learned that wellness employee programs are now promoting, among other things, learning a musical instrument. Questions about the connections between music and health led me to search for answers that might make learning the ukulele a priority for me.

In a town full of talented musicians and music-lovers, it was easy to locate a few who would share their thoughts on how learning an instrument can be good for the health. I first spoke with Sherry Anderson, a local piano teacher at the Thrushhill Music Studio in downtown Juneau. Despite being a busy professional, Sherry still makes time for music in her schedule because she finds teaching and playing the piano to be a great way to relax.

“The piano is where I take out my frustrations if I’m having a bad day,” she said. “For me, it’s therapeutic and soothing.”

The therapeutic qualities of music empower people to express themselves, whether the emotions are joy, fear, frustration, or hope. For people of all backgrounds, abilities, and ages, learning to play a musical instrument helps build confidence as well as a skill that can be appreciated and shared with others.

“Anyone can learn to play an instrument. Rhythm is strong and instinctual to people,” said Tasha Walen, a music teacher at The Canvas, Juneau’s community art studio.

Among its many therapeutic and community art classes, the music program has been around since 2009 as a day habilitation for people who experience disabilities. The class meets for one hour, five days a week. Participants choose their own music to learn, practice, and perform. Though the group is no stranger to performing in public, this year was the first year for them to perform on stage at the Alaska Folk Festival.

“For people who play in a group, it’s a good time to practice social skills and to encourage problem-solving within a group,” said Sara Franzoni, another music teacher at the Canvas. “Everyone has to listen to each other. Our musicians practice and learn life skills while having a good time.”

Meanwhile, Walen praised music as a motivator.

“Participants have goals that they’re working on, and the music is an effective and fun way of helping them achieve those goals,” she said. “There’s so much you can do with music, and it’s so well-disguised.” Walen adds, “Music improves memory, develops fine motor skills, and helps people get mentally organized.”

These days, much of our lives is spent multi-tasking and preoccupying ourselves with doing too many things at once. The result is fatigue, stress, and even lowered productivity. Perhaps part of the reason that learning to play a musical instrument is now being promoted as a healthy activity is because it takes us away from situations that are physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Walen agrees.

“When you’re playing music, you can’t do anything else but focus and be present,” she said.

An article on WebMD titled “How Making Music Reduces Stress” by Susan Kuchinskas describes how making music can “short-circuit the stress response and keep it from becoming chronic.”

According to Kuchinskas, research studies have shown making music reduces the incidence of burn-out for high-stress jobs and it has also been linked with improved school performance in at-risk youth.

As with all new things, sometimes taking the first step is the most difficult. Time can be an obstacle to learning a new instrument because, as with anything worthwhile, practice and perseverance is essential. At the Alaska Folk Festival, I met Mike Sakarias, a long-time festival volunteer, who mentioned that he learned to play the hammer dulcimer after having little previous experience in music.

“It helps to have a goal in mind for motivation,” he said. “Maybe you aim to perform at the folk festival one day. Or perhaps you want to build up your skills.

“Just remember that every time you practice, you’re better than you were before.”

Though I never mentioned anything about my ukulele, Sakarias shared one other valuable tip.

“Don’t keep the instrument in its case. Leave it out somewhere you can access it easily.” In other words, make practicing and playing the instrument convenient so that you can play it as often as possible, even if for just a short moment.

The ukulele’s case still sits in my closet, but the instrument has now found a new home at eye-height and arm’s length to encourage quality wellness time in preparation for learning some simple tunes by the end of summer. Though the folk festival may be over, Juneau’s musical seasons never end with the upcoming Juneau Jazz and Classics festival, summer concerts in the park, and musicians who offer lessons year round. Whether you are looking to play an instrument for therapeutic reasons or just for fun, the music you create will be good for your soul and for your health.

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. She can be contacted at jennu.jnu@gmail.com.

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