Change Your Brain: How Learning Music at Any Age Makes You Healthier and Stronger

Change Your Brain: How Learning Music at Any Age Makes You Healthier and Stronger

Often, adults say to me, “I wish I’d never stopped playing ___________ (insert instrument here) when I was a kid. But it’s too late now.” I have news for you: it’s never too late to come back to your instrument or pick up a new one, and there are actually innumerable ways you and your brain will benefit from it. 

Before you get started (or restarted), get clear on what your goals are. You shouldn’t set out by expecting yourself to perform at Carnegie Hall or win the National Fiddle Championships. You’ll have opportunities for measurable accomplishments such as fiddle contests and performances along your musical path, but for people who stick with the instrument once they start, those flashy achievements are not the goal. The goal is to enjoy yourself and become a more whole person by feeding your creative side. Everything that you do as a musician should serve those ends.

When you’ve decided to pick up an instrument again and you’ve got your motives straight (enjoyment and improvement, not fame and fortune), the voices in your head might be loudly protesting. “You’re too old! You’re not good enough! You won’t be able to learn this!” You might hear many variations on this theme, even after you begin playing. But according to Norman Weinberger, a neuroscientist at University of California Irvine, 

“A lot of people believe the brain isn’t very plastic after puberty. In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change,” Weinberger says. “Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes.” (NPR)

If you’re returning to an instrument, it will challenge you in a different way than it did in your younger days, but that means nothing about your ability to learn. If you’re picking up the instrument for the first time, know that your age is no reason to miss out on the benefits of playing an instrument, which are vast.

I know it can often feel like you’re trying to pat your head, rub your tummy, drive a car, and pay your bills at the same time when you focus on the many skills that go into playing an instrument well. But when you put yourself up to the challenge, think of the workout you’re giving your brain. You’re performing different physical operations with both hands, maybe tapping your toe at the same time, thinking ahead to what notes you’ll play next, subconsciously (or maybe consciously) calculating rhythm and timing, and so much more. This is why, unlike with language, there is no one music center in the brain—there are many (NPR). It’s incredible that our brains can perform these functions, and when they do, they become much stronger in many places. 

Musicians, no matter their age, see improvements in brain function ranging from mood to executive functioning and more. According to Dr. Ronald Devere in Practical Neurology,

“Musicians have been shown to have greater volume of the auditory cortex (surface), premotor regions, cerebellum, and anterior corpus callosum compared to non-musicians. Musicians are likely to recruit both halves of the brain when performing music tasks… Studies have shown that elderly musicians outperform non-musicians on tasks assessing auditory processing, cognitive control, and comprehension of speech in noisy environments. This has also been shown to occur in elderly persons with minimal early music training and even after a short period of music training in those with no previous music training. In addition, music training early in life was associated with faster neural responses to speech in elderly individuals.” (Practical Neurology)

That means that, even if you only had a little musical training in your younger years, it had a lasting effect on your brain. And what if you haven’t had any musical training yet? Here’s what Devere has to say:

“In one study, musically [untrained] participants (ages 30-85) who received six months of piano lessons compared with no treatment control group showed improved performance on specific cognitive tasks that represent executive function, such as speed of processing information, verbal fluency, and enhanced mood. These studies suggest that music training may have a protective effect in the face of age-related mild cognitive changes and can occur even after short periods of training in the elderly.”

To sum up: no matter how old you are (the oldest participants in that study were 85!), even a short period of musical training can help protect your brain from cognitive decline as you grow older.

Every time you play music, you create new synapses between your brain cells. When kids play music, they actually build new brain cells. But we’re stuck with the ones we have, so building new synapses is the way that we learn new skills. Sure, kids have some advantages when they learn to play music, but you as an adult have plenty of advantages too. You can hear things in music that would’ve escaped you as a child, you have knowledge of a much broader range of music to inform your learning, and you have a lot more resources to draw upon (like virtual learning, for example). 

All the advantages you have as an adult learner combined with the benefits of learning music at any age put you in a great position to pick up an instrument or continue exploring and learning on an instrument you already play. You’ll strengthen your brain and cure yourself of the “shoulda coulda wouldas,” as my mother would say—not to mention have a great time. You’re up to the challenge, and in fact, this musical challenge is one of the best ways to prepare yourself holistically for the other facets of life and anything they may bring. So get playin’!



The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

By Celeste Johnson

People often ask me why I like fiddle contests. They seem like an odd thing to many people. “So you’re telling me that you get up on stage to be judged on purpose?!” And when it’s put that way, I see how contests can be off-putting. But when I go to a fiddle contest, I don’t go up on stage to be judged. In fact, that is the least important part of a fiddle contest. So let me paint a different picture of fiddle contests—let me show you why I love them. And spoiler alert: it’s not because I like to compete.

When I was a child, I heard the fiddle for the first time and have not stopped thinking about it since. When I first got a violin of my own, I marveled at it every day, looking at it and gliding my fingers over its cool strings and smooth body. I thumbed through pages of sheet music I did not yet know how to read, coursing with the excitement that I might one day play the notes written there. Every week when I walked into my teacher’s warmly lit house, I felt like I was entering a different, magical world. I quickly fell in love with everything about fiddling: the beautiful instrument, the challenge of learning, the happy tunes, and the way that it made me feel like I belonged to something and something belonged to me.

About a year and a half after I began taking lessons, my fiddle teacher Chris Daring suggested that I enter the state fiddle contest that was approaching a few months later. My stomach plunged with fear at the thought of entering a contest, but I felt an electric excitement at the same time. I decided to do it and began dutifully preparing my two tunes for the novice division (I believe they were Arkansas Traveler and I Don’t Love Nobody).

Months passed. The contest came closer and closer. I circled the date on my family’s calendar and watched for its arrival. Finally it came. I woke up around six in the morning, feeling like I would throw up. Despite my mother’s urging, I refused to eat much for breakfast. My hands were shaking before I even got to the contest site due in equal parts to nerves and excitement. When I walked into the practice room for the first time, I was taken aback. There, fiddling, were several other kids like me, small and scared and excited. Some of them loved playing, you could tell, and some of them were there because their moms wanted them to be. Regardless, they were there and so was I, and we were all part of this thing. I remained nervous but my excitement grew to tremulous new levels as I unpacked my fiddle among these newfound peers.

The rest of that day is a blur in my recollection. The few snapshots that stay with me are feelings more than memories: the warm comfort of getting ready with my guitar player, the breathless terror that overcame me in the moment before I walked onstage, the explosive joy I felt each time I met a new person who shared the same love for the music that I had.

I left the contest hungry for more chances to immerse myself in fiddle music and discover the rich community I had glimpsed there. After that day, I went to as many fiddle contests as I could. Each one was a little different, but they all had one thing in common: every contest exists because of a community of people who love fiddle music and care about it deeply. That feeling of community was what made my first contest experience so transformative. It is without a doubt what has kept me fiddling and attending contests all these years later.

That community stretches across the country and brings the same people together year after year to connect to the music and to each other. Never have I been part of a more intimate, passionate, and generous community than the one I’ve discovered through fiddle contests. The community I became part of by participating in contests has shaped my very concept of what it means to belong to something.

I made my first great friends at fiddle contests. At first, my “friends” were people I would briefly talk to in my uncomfortable seven-year-old way before I went back to practicing in my corner. But year after year, as I kept going to contests and seeing the same people return, I got to know them. Some of them I know in friendly, familiar passing. But some of them I know almost like family. We help each other warm up for our rounds and cheer for each other on stage. Afterwards, we stay up late into the night laughing and playing tune after tune together, relishing the specialness of each other’s company. The happiness that sparks between us is pure and infectious, the kind that comes from people doing what lights them up together. It is rare magic to spend time with people who love what you love as much as you do.

When each contest ends, we all go back to our “regular lives.” Most of the time, it feels like the shock of waking up from a good dream too soon. After being immersed in fiddle music for several days, it’s jarring to hear a pop song in a restaurant or to be met with silence, rather than a late-night jam, when it’s time to go to bed. It’s odd to try to explain what just happened to people who weren’t there. “How did it go?” they ask. I realize they’re asking how I placed in the contest. “It was incredible,” I usually respond, and leave it at that. It doesn’t come close to describing the experience of a fiddle contest, but it must suffice. I want to capture the experience in words. I want to hold onto it for a lifetime, but I know it’s impossible. Instead, I hold onto the idea of what the future holds: another contest, another jam, another night among friends. Rare magic.

Back to School (kind of…): How Music Helps Your Kids Learn at Home

Back to School (kind of…): How Music Helps Your Kids Learn at Home

Raise your hand if you’ve got a kid learning from home this year.

Yeah, that’s a lot of hands out there. If your other hand is busy wiping the sweat off your forehead right now, it’s normal. Schooling from home for the first time is a lot to handle, especially if you’re trying to balance it with a job. For those of you with kids in online, part-time, or home school, adding music to the daily routine can offer huge benefits for both you and your child. Here are some of the ways it can help your child thrive in these changing times:

It promotes hands-on activity. Even when your child learns music from an online source, playing an instrument is an opportunity to create results with their own two hands. This helps counteract burnout from so much sedentary mental work and allows kids to engage rather than just responding passively to a screen. 

It’s an opportunity to connect with a community. Music is one of the best ways to overcome isolation and build lasting connections through jams, webinars, lessons, and group learning.

It teaches kids how to learn independently. Of course your child might need your help from time to time, but there are certain parts of learning music that only they can accomplish. Not only does this help create independence, but it also gives a sense of accomplishment.

It adds variety to nurture different learning styles . Kids who learn best through sound and movement face special challenges with online learning. Incorporating music into the school routine adds more balance to their activities and can even help them learn better in other subjects.

It expends energy in a positive way. Parents, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why this is a good thing.

If you’re sold on music lessons for your kiddo but you haven’t found a good online resource for them yet, Fiddle School can help. We offer:

  • bite-sized, self-paced lessons that you can adapt to fit your school routine, whatever it may be. 
  • lessons designed with at-home learning in mind to offer all the resources your child needs, including one-on-one support and group learning. 
  • An alternative or a partner program for in-school music.

However the next school year unfolds for your family, here’s hoping it’s musical.

The Three Pillars of Motivation

The Three Pillars of Motivation

Even when we’re not in the midst of physical distancing and a sea of canceled events, everyone struggles with low motivation from time to time. But you don’t have to bend to the whim of motivation; instead, you can cultivate it consciously. Here’s the recipe to keep motivation flowing: 

feel capable + connected + empowered with choice.

If your musical activities provide you with just one or two of these feelings, you’ll probably notice a slump in your drive to play music. But if you strike a balance between the three, you increase your chances to feel engaged, satisfied, and passionate about your musical life. 

What can you do to get a mix of these three elements in your fiddling? Check out the categories below to get some ideas.

To feel connected:

  • Play music at home with your family
  • Start a music listening group
  • Attend or host a (virtual) jam (you can join our Fiddle School virtual jam here!)
  • Start a fiddle club (learn each other’s tunes, learn a tune together, practice playing guitar with each other, etc.)
  • Attend a (virtual) camp
  • Participate in a group class (check out our webinars here!)
  • Start a musical book club (take a look at the recommended reading list in the Fiddle Lounge for inspiration)

To feel capable:

  • Start using a practice journal (here’s how)
  • Do a 30-day practice challenge (you can use our habit hacks to help you along the way)
  • Take some fiddle lessons (read some ways to play better at lessons)
  • Write a song
  • Reinvent your practice routine (here’s how)
  • Enter a fiddle contest
  • Post a video in our Fiddle School Facebook community
  • Learn a new tune or technique
  • Find a fiddle buddy and help each other progress

To feel empowered with choice:

  • Attend a music camp that looks exciting to you
  • Learn a new tune that you like
  • Learn something on a different instrument (e.g. try learning some rhythm guitar)
  • Host your own music gathering (here’s how)
  • Read about music subjects that interest you (musicology, learning strategies, different styles, etc.)
  • Choose three ways to actively participate in music each month (for example, “this month, I will attend the virtual jam, meet with my fiddle buddy, and post a video to an online group)
  • Join/form a musical group or orchestra that you’ve always dreamed of being part of
  • Attend live music (or watch it virtually)
  • Go busking (play in public)
  • Play for people in need (in normal times, playing for retirement homes or hospitals is a great way to share. Right now, consider sharing with an organization online, like a church or another social nonprofit)
  • Teach your kids or grandkids a fiddle tune

These are just some of the many ways you can cultivate feelings of connection, capability, and choice in your musical life. When you create balance between these three elements, you’ll be amazed how your motivation grows and your fiddling feels more fulfilling. 

The care and keeping of your hands: a fiddler’s guide to fingertip maintenance

The care and keeping of your hands: a fiddler’s guide to fingertip maintenance

We often discuss the loftier aspects of musicianship, but today we’re getting into the nitty gritty: how should you care for your fingertips, and nails? These simple things can make a big difference.

Where should I expect calluses to form? As your calluses form for the first time, you’ll feel some initial fingertip discomfort from the friction and pressure of pressing down the strings. Hang in there through the discomfort. In a couple short weeks, you’ll notice your fingertips begin to develop calluses and playing will quickly become more comfortable. You might even get a callus on the tip of your right thumb where you hold your bow. Many folks also develop a “fiddle hickey,” which is a mark (and maybe a rougher skin texture) just below the left side of your jaw where you hold the fiddle.

These changes are all part of the deal, but muscle pain in your hands shouldn’t be. If you notice aches and pains beneath the surface, it’s worth reexamining your technique so you can nip bad habits.

How long should my nails be? We see you, manicure-lovers, but we’ve got to break it to you: there’s really no place for long nails in fiddling. When your nails extend past the tip of your fingers on the left hand, you won’t be able to push the string down and you’ll get nasty, buzzy sounds instead of that clear tone we all want. Clip your nails close to the quick, but be careful not to hurt yourself. If you’re nervous about cutting them that close, you can also use a file. You should expect to clip your nails more often than you’re used to, probably every few days or so, including the thumbnail on your bow hand.

How should I take care of my calluses? Calluses often don’t require much maintenance at all, except for regular practice. It’s normal for them to peel off every once in a while and reform, too. What about when you have the opposite problem: calluses that are too thick? You can tell your calluses have gotten out of hand (eh?) if they begin to crack or they cause your fingers to touch other strings inadvertently as you play. When this happens, you can soak them in warm water and then use a pumice stone to slough off some of the extra skin. Try not to get rid of all of the protection that’s built up, only as much as you have to. 

Fingertip care often goes unnoticed but is one of the most basic and essential things you can do for yourself as a fiddler. Now go give yourself some TLC!

How to let go of left hand tension

How to let go of left hand tension

Practicing fiddle is like stretching your muscles: it lets you notice areas that need attention and give them extra care until you notice improvement.

For many people, the area that needs a lot of special attention is their left hand, where tension commonly builds up. To counteract this, you should consciously and consistently relax your hand. 

“Sure, relax,” you say, probably doing the exact opposite of relaxing as you read that piece of advice for the hundredth time. “But how?” I hear you. It’s not always intuitive, so we’ve created a simple warm-up structure designed to help you release tension in your left hand. Look at this warm-up as some targeted TLC for the days when your left hand needs it (and sometimes, that’s every day.)

1. Begin with the Popcorn Fingers exercise.

To do this exercise, begin by getting your left hand in position with an open palm, straight wrist, and curved fingers. Then, beginning on your A string, pop one finger at a time down on the string so that you can hear the “plunk” of each pitch as your finger lands. Try this on every string with every finger. Since you don’t have to focus on bowing at the same time, you can monitor your left hand closely to notice tension and release it.

2. Move on to thumb taps.

Reset your left hand posture before you continue to this exercise. The reset is important because, even if your hand “feels right,” you might be reinforcing old habits you don’t even know you have. After you reset your hand, you’ll love how simple this warm-up is. Take your left thumb, where tension is often stored, and tap it gently three times on the neck. Then place your first finger on the fingerboard and tap three times again. Continue this process with each finger on each string. Practice pushing your fingers down without gripping in your thumb. Thumb taps are also great to mix in throughout your practice to keep your hand relaxed.

3. Practice neck slides.

Again, reset your left hand posture. This time, practice sliding your left hand toward you up the neck and then back down to where it began. Then pop your first finger down (lightly) and repeat the slide process. Go through the steps again with each finger on each string. Remember, we’re not using a bow at all for these first three exercises. That’s because the goal isn’t to sound good (or sound at all.) The focus is solely on calming your left hand, so put all your attention on that. 

4. Play mindful scales with a mirror.

By now, you’ve gotten some good practice being mindful of your left hand. You can always return to any of these exercises throughout your practice session when you need to release tension again. To finish this mini-warm-up, let’s combine what you’ve worked on by playing scales in front of a mirror. 

You’re probably accustomed to watching your right hand when you practice in the mirror, but right now your left hand is still the star of the show. Before you begin, be sure your left wrist is straight, your palm is open, and your fingers are poised to land on their tips. At a very slow tempo, play a scale (I recommend G or A), still focused on just your left hand. This is the first time in this sequence you’ve used a bow, so fight the urge to spread your attention too thinly. Only focus on your left hand. Keep it soft and open as you play on every string, and play through the scales several times. Check the mirror repeatedly to see if your hand is doing what you want it to.

Voila! You’re cured. Wait, what’s that you say? You did the warm-up and your left hand is still tense? Before you get down, know that you’re not the only one who has a hard time with this. It takes time to change habits, and left hand tension is an especially sticky habit. Despite that, it’s a challenge that you can overcome. I promise, no matter the shape of your hands or the history of your fiddling, you can get to a place where great left-hand technique feels second-nature to you. Trust the process and you’re on your way.

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