In a previous column, I touched on how classically trained young musicians gain wonderful life-long experiences from their participation in youth orchestras. Whether they play the string bass, the piccolo, or the xylophone, they greatly benefit from simply being in a community that creates such a musical and social environment. However, one cannot actively be in a youth orchestra unless one masters a musical instrument to some degree of proficiency. Joining a youth orchestra is just a small drop in the lake; learning an instrument provides endless opportunities and perks.
Speaking only from my own experience, I would assert that when people hear the phrase “musical instrument,” the first thought that comes to mind is definitely not the voice. This occurs most often in a classical music context because mainstream pop, rock, hip hop and R&B involve a tremendous amount of singing. However, many people seem to disregard the voice as a valuable device when it is really the most natural musical instrument we humans possess. Certainly there is classical music that has a voice part, but most people simply define these pieces as “opera.” Aside from all these classifications, singing is fun to do and has surprising health benefits. According to a research article by the University of Oxford, singing improves memory, reduces stress, and forges communal connections. As a person who practices singing regularly, — though I don’t take lessons — I’ve found it helpful to take deeper breaths and relax my body. It is also a great way to memorize things; the more practice I have with remembering lyrics and melodies, the better my working memory is. There is also the pure enjoyment of just singing and listening to songs too. Overall, in the classical music world, the voice should be viewed the same way as other orchestral instruments are and not just in an operatic sense.
Now we come to the most well-known family of instruments outside of the classical music community: the strings. Although pianos technically have strings, they aren’t usually thought of as being related to the violin, viola, cello, and bass. These instruments get their name from the four strings they each have, and they vibrate when a bow is pulled across them to produce sound. What’s wonderful about string instruments is how “social” they are, as there are many opportunities for fellow string players to form groups and play the expansive repertoire written for ensembles. I can say from my own personal experience that chamber music has helped my mental health incredibly this year. I have been meeting in person with my string quartet every other week, and it has made me realize how much I miss playing music with other people. Learning the viola and violin has been one of the greatest activities in my life because I have met so many amazing people and have grown so much through my musical experiences. However, I won’t say that there aren’t tough moments in this whirlwind of playing music; performance anxiety, tight muscles and pain, and long hours of repetitive practicing occur too. However, I wouldn’t call these difficult incidents “downsides” of learning a string instrument because they’re just life-learning experiences that you can work through. It’s impossible to avoid every problem in music, so you adapt and change the best you can. Practicing an instrument may seem like the most troublesome thing in the world, but you’re picking up excellent problem-solving abilities along the way.
In general, playing an instrument helps you develop great skills that you can use in your daily life, and it is never too late to start. I would strongly encourage anyone who’s reading this to frequently indulge in some music-making — it doesn’t have to be classical — because you will find that it is not only a tool for self-improvement, but it will enrich your life.