How learning an instrument can soothe your mind and body

You don’t have to take centre stage to be a musician, nor do you have to study music to be musical – music is inside us all, says Jennifer Phin. Lift your spirits by learning to play an instrument

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So you have an acoustic guitar gathering dust in the corner of your house? Has your teenager moved out and ditched a drum set? Are you starting to regret your 2010 ukulele impulse-buy?

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Stop right there – go fetch that lonely instrument! Playing music isn’t just a fantastic creative outlet, it can improve your concentration and dexterity, reduce stress-levels, and it’s a brilliant way to socialise too.

Playing the piano

How music affects the brain

Research has shown that learning to play an instrument can change both our brain structure and function for the better, boosting long-term memory and increasing our mental alertness.

A study published in February 2017 by the University of Montreal in Canada, found that musicians have significantly faster reaction times than non-musicians, suggesting that learning to play a musical instrument can also help to keep our brains sharp as we age.

“Music-making is linked to a number of health benefits,” says Suzanne Hanser, chair of the music therapy department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA.

“Research shows that making music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, reduce stress, and lessen anxiety and depression. There is also increasing evidence that making music enhances the immunological response, which enables us to fight viruses.”

The Hoxton Ukulele Hootenanny

How to learn to play an instrument

These days, it’s easier than ever to teach yourself to play an instrument, even if you are a complete beginner.

YouTube is packed with video tutorials for almost any instrument you can think of, plus a quick search online will turn up tuning guides, advice forums and downloadable music to learn at home, so you can build up your confidence without an audience.

If you’d like to learn along with others instead, ask around or log on to www.meetup.com to find out about clubs or events in your local area.

Tablature explained

Don’t read music? Don’t worry! Tablature (also known as ‘tab’) is an easy-to-understand form of music notation. Rather than a series of notes corresponding to a pitch, it simply shows you where to put your fingers on the instrument. Search online for ‘copyright-free tablature’ or check your local music shop for books of tablature from your favourite albums, movies or stage shows. 

TK Hammonds

The recent trend for folksy ukulele has created some great events all over the UK and beyond. We love the Hoxton Ukulele Hootenanny, a weekly play-along night at the Queen of Hoxton bar in London.

The Hootenanny is for “regular ukers, beginners or anyone who is just uke-curious”. If you can’t find anything similar in your town, put the word out and try to convince a musical friend to build a group together – even experienced players love having someone to perform with. As you build your own skills, you can teach others, so your resident expert won’t always have to be on-call.

Alis Reid plays the piano with her dog

How to make music fun

Some of us have been put off playing music by the memory of demoralising (or just plain boring) school lessons, but it can be empowering to pick up those skills again and use them your way; to arrange and play the tunes that you love.

Videographer Alis Reid has recently shaken off the shackles of her childhood piano lessons and started to enjoy herself.

“I pretty much got kicked out of lessons for teaching myself pop songs by ear instead of learning classical pieces,” says Alis. “From the age of eight, lessons usually started with me being literally dragged out of the car by my mother every Thursday. I was never particularly skilled at the theory side of things and I despised playing anything classical, which for some reason seems to be the only genre expected of a child, resulting in my irrational fear of Thursdays. But once I had learned enough technique, I realised I could play things by ear. This opened a whole new world of enjoyment and I found my love of piano.

“It’s really satisfying hearing something on the radio then going home to create an arrangement just for the fun of it. If I feel like I’m swamped with work and chores and nothing is getting done, it’s really calming to just sit down and concentrate on completing a piece.

Music is definitely a great icebreaker – if there happen to be a piano around, whether it's at a party, or a new job, or just someone's flat, people love to sing along.
Alis Reid

“Music is definitely a great icebreaker when you’re meeting new people too – if there happens to be a piano around, whether it’s at a party, or a new job, or just someone’s flat, people love to sing along. I’ve worked at various hostels while travelling, and people love to be taught to play something, and those who already know how to play are usually keen to chat… or show off!”

Alis now makes promotional travel films, but her early forays into filmmaking included YouTube clips of her playing the piano, made to entertain her friends and exorcise exam stress. They include her playing seated backwards, upside-down and even with her dog.

Woman and man sing together

How singing can improve our mental health

But what if you don’t have an instrument to hand, or if your hands are literally full with a new baby? You can always use that unique instrument, your voice. Swedish research has suggested that singing in a choir not only increases oxygen levels in the blood but triggers the release of ‘happy’ hormones such as oxytocin, which is understood to help lower stress levels and blood pressure.

“There is just something so unique about the synchronicity of moving and breathing with other people,” says Nick Stewart, from Oxford Brookes University, who led a study into the how singing in a choir boosts our mental health. Previous studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have found that a group of singers actually synchronise their heart beats.

It is not surprising, then, that people who sing in a choir have a stronger sense of being part of a meaningful group. Nick Stewart explains: “At the moment it is speculative, but it could be that singing in a group gives us something that we have lost as a society.”

Choir Baby meet up for a rehearsal

Join the choir

Choreographer Lise Smith joined North London’s Choir Baby group after the birth of her daughter. The choir rehearses and performs with their babies and toddlers on-stage, so there’s no need for members to find childcare or miss out due to naps or feeding.

Lise explains: “Drop-in rehearsals are weekly and an hour long – you come when you can and new members are absolutely welcome at any time. I think given that, and the fact that everyone has babies, it’s amazing that our director Naomi gets us sounding as good as she does!

“Some of the girls are very experienced singers and sing a lot, but the majority either haven’t sung much at all or maybe not since school. The babies are a range of ages, from newborns all the way to almost school-age. During rehearsals, the little babies sit on their mums’ laps, the older babies will sit on the floor and play with simple instruments and the proper toddlers will run around and scream like banshees in between songs! But then there’s a magical effect when we start singing – all the toddlers immediately quieten down and listen, and some of them will join in. There’s something very magical about it, really.

“We have concerts throughout the year, some at events like the Crouch End Festival or Oxjam. We usually find out who’s turning up about five minutes before we go on stage; we’re very flexible like that. Audiences love to see the babies, especially when we sing at hospitals. True story: we were singing outside the maternity ward once and a woman in the audience went into labour. That’s not something I had on my CV before!”

Playing the piano

Practise makes perfect… and really good fun

So whether you’re ready to try something new, or rekindle skills long-forgotten, fetch a neglected instrument, get it in tune with an online tuner then let your hands and brain explore. You might find that melodies and rhythms come naturally, or you can search online for free, easy-to-read tablature to help you get started.

Enjoy the process, get lost in your music, and let everyday worries fade into the background as you practise, practise, practise… not because it makes perfect, but because it’s life-affirming, joyful and frankly really good fun.

5 musical online resources to get you started

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Online guitar tuner

Get your guitar tuned and ready to rock with this easy-to-use tuning guide from legendary guitar manufacturer Fender.

www.fender.com/online-guitar-tuner

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Ukulele lessons

Learn the basics and then strum along with gorgeous ukulele covers by jazz uke diva Cynthia Lin. We want her hair. Oh, and her house.

www.youtube.com/user/cynthialinmusic

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Piano teaching

Dust off that 1980s keyboard and start playing today with Pianote. Option to skip straight to the ‘Glissando’ lesson so you can impress with flamboyant keyboard slides at parties.

www.pianolessons.com

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Vocal coaching

Kimberley Smith is a friendly Australian singing teacher who wants to help you find your voice. You’ll soon discover your inner karaoke queen with her pro tips and technical exercises.

www.youtube.com/user/inspiredtosingtv

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Hand drumming classes

Hand drumming can be so relaxing and meditative, and many families can muster up a bongo, bodhran, or djembe from the corner of the attic – just ask around! Get hooked on rhythm with this gorgeous introduction to Cajon Box beats with Heidi Joubert.

www.cajonbox.com

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Photography by Jennifer Phin and Kaela Speicher.

This article was orginally published in In The Moment Magazine, issue 5. Discover our latest subscription offer, or buy back issues online.

In The Moment issue 5 cover