Music changes brains and lives


So here I am, sitting at the teacher’s piano in her comfortable living room, her friendly white terrier snoozing at my feet. I’m about to play the piece I have slaved over for hours in the preceding 7 days. It sounded excellent half an hour ago, when I played it to an audience of one (myself) at home. Now my fingers are shaking a little, and is it me? Or is this room really hot? My fingers stumble, hesitate, do a good impression of knitting and wave in greeting to not-quite-the-right keys and then flutter to rest, finished.

“Well, it’s coming on.” This, I have learnt over the past few months, is piano teacher speak for ‘still a long way to go.’

However, back home and undeterred, I study the piece again, breaking it down, bit by bit, painfully slowly, inching forward through the notes. Sitting at my piano in the sunshine in solitude, just me and that sheet music, solving that puzzle, I couldn’t be happier. And it’s doing me good.

Learning to sing or play a musical instrument can have long-term beneficial effects, especially when we are young. Recent research by Dr Nina Kraus at Northwestern University in the US suggests that early music training can improve the reading skills of disadvantaged children. Working with the Harmony Project at high schools in Chicago and Los Angeles, Kraus and her team found that the reading scores of 9-10 year-old kids with one year of music tuition held steady, compared with kids of similar age and IQ who received no tuition. It seems that music strengthens important neural functions which help learning. Kraus reports:

While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and offset this academic gap.

In other research, Kraus has found benefits for older adults who learn music in terms of faster speech processing into old age. Both studies are heartening news to me. The interesting part for me is that this musical training for older adults can be effectively delivered via a computer. However, the real deal instruments capture hearts, minds, emotions and commitment in a way that computers never can.

With great synchronicity, I discovered that a music initiative with kids in mind is being launched in the UK in September. Jamie Oliver (the chef who championed the provision of proper school meals and education about food in schools) is now backing The Great Instrument Amnesty campaign led by pianist James Rhodes. He wants to make us aware that music tuition in state schools is disappearing fast, as precious funds are diverted to other areas of the curriculum deemed worthier. His passion is evident:

Music saved my life. It’s that powerful. It is, and must continue to be, a basic human right for every child to learn an instrument.

Rhodes is advocating that families donate unwanted musical instruments via their local Oxfam shop to be reconditioned and distributed to primary schools. Rhodes has also used his musical network to provide free tuition to these schools by students of the highly respected Guildhall School of Music. A three-part TV series, made by Oliver’s production company, will be shown on C4.

It’s all good.





Don’t panic, parents


I just listened to an excellent feature on BBC R4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ (which I believe will be available via iPlayer soon). The A level exam results are out tomorrow. So in many households across the UK, parents and their offspring may be anxious and awake at the crack of dawn (if anyone manages to get any sleep at all). Been there, got that t-shirt, twice.

In fact, with my son, he didn’t get the results he needed to go where he wanted. It can seem like a major drama. It doesn’t have to be. However, your young adults need to navigate their way through the UCAS system themselves, upset and downhearted though they might be. Your job is to provide support, encouragement and plenty of tea/coffee/food to get them through the process.

There are three main options if your young adult has missed out on the place s/he has been counting on:

1. Get an exam remarked if your young adult has missed the grades by a whisker. This needs to happen quickly.

2. Go through the UCAS clearing system to find an alternative course at the same or a different university. Again, there is no time to dawdle as the available places will be snapped up.

3. Take time out to re-consider whether university is the right choice at all. If your young adult wants to re-apply, it must be done by January 2015, so leaving the country for a year out is inadvisable as s/he might need to attend interviews.

As it turned out in my son’s case, he graduated a couple of weeks ago from the course he took with flying colours. He’s staying on at that university to do an MSc. So it worked out pretty well.

I wish all anxious parents and their young adults a successful day tomorrow. If it’s a slightly bumpy start, I hope it’s not too long before they’re all flying.

Protect your boredom


The title of this post comes from Jonah Lehrer, author of the recently published book on creativity, Imagine. I just heard him taking part in Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on BBC R4. (Which you can listen to here in the UK.)

One of the interviewees mentioned that air travel was a favourite time to think creatively, as there were none of the usual distractions of land-based routine, plenty of blue sky and nothing much to do but daydream. Lehrer commented that not being able to access your email and phone messages was a distinct aid to creative thinking. When we are bored, he argued, instead of compulsively checking for new emails, we can allow our minds to wander freely. These ‘voids’ can be extremely valuable for letting new thoughts get through.

“Protect your boredom” he said. It sounds like good advice.

Introverts and creativity


I came across this TED talk by author Susan Cain. I find her messages about our current pre-occupation with working together in groups interesting.

In my experience, companies tend to believe that the most creative ideas will emerge from group activities such as ‘brainstorming’ and team meetings. As an introvert, I have always known that my best ideas come to me when I am quiet and alone. Conversations and meetings beforehand will definitely have been an influence, but the creative spark happens alone in my case.

How about you? And if you are a leader, how are you catering for the needs of the more introverted people in your company? Do they have opportunities to create too, or do their quieter voices get drowned out by the more extroverted types?

Don’t give a speech. Put on a show.


Today I bought Paul Arden’s book, It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. I finished it on the 20-minute train journey home. Arden worked with advertising agencies, including a 15-year stint with Saatchi & Saatchi. There he came up with some of the best known straplines in advertising (“the car in front is a Toyota” being just one).

The book is full of wisdom on cultivating a creative approach at work. It’s as useful for most managers as for art directors and copywriters in an ad agency, I believe.

One page is worth repeating. It concerns presentations.

How many speeches have you heard? How many of them can you remember?

Words, words, words.

In a song, we remember firstly the melody, and then we learn the words.

Instead of giving people the benefit of your wit and wisdom (words), try painting them a picture.

The more strikingly visual your presentation is, the more people will remember it.

And, more importantly, they will remember you.