Music Instruction Develops Executive Function Skills

music instruction develops executive function skills

I don’t want to practice my instrument? Are music lessons and the struggle to practice worth the effort?

My daughter often doesn’t want to practice her instrument, so much of my time and effort has been spent figuring out how to get her to practice her instrument, but I do because music instruction develops executive function skills and will improve other skills like math.

Yesterday I  attended a yearly Martin Luther King event that the city of Boston hosts with music by the Intensive Community Program of the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. My daughter has been part of this music program which provides high-level instruction for string and percussion instruments to city kids. As I sat there listening to her orchestra play I cried. I was amazed by what she had learned. But, let me tell you a secret! Every single year she begs to quit!  She tells me she hates the viola. In reality, she hates to practice (who doesn’t?), and sometimes the time commitment interferes with other pursuits (there are only so many days in a week).  As a matter of fact last month we had another argument about quitting when rehearsal interfered with a track meet.  I coerced her into finishing out this performance year. In July, after her auditions when she is feeling good about her performance I will re-enroll her and we will be in this program for another year. It’s like this every year.  I can tell you all the reason I wouldn’t mind her quitting, but let me tell you why I continue to make her participate in this program and practice the viola an hour a day. 

Music Instruction Develops Executive Function Skills

Because of my work as a speech pathologist, I have researched and taught executive function skills. Did you know that developing executive function skills through music really works! Through the process of learning to play an instrument, children develop a range of executive function skills including learning to attend, problem-solving,  memorization, self-evaluation, and prioritizing to name a few of the skills, and all are generalized to academics. Let’s see tutors for academics or music lessons. I love natural settings, meaning no one is sitting there just teaching executive function out of context. Some kids have to be taught this way but if you can support that with other pursuits it’s great.   I chose music lessons and sometimes we do need additional tutors to help with executive function but not as much. Music lessons aren’t just for the love of music, music instruction develops executive function skills.

Ways to encourage participation

So, how do you get your child to participate and are there times when you really should let them quit? First, my daughter chose her instrument, but after that first choice, she didn’t get to choose to practice or not. That was my job to make it happen.  I asked other parents with older children what they did?    All said it was hard. Most commented that their child didn’t want to practice no matter how accomplished. Whew, good to know.  One parent’s response was, “Would you ask a child if they should learn to read? Music is learning another language.” I had never thought of it that way, and that stuck with me. ” So how do you get them to practice. Some people reward their child for practicing. I heard about earning candy to gift cards. I think you have to be careful with this approach. Monetarily rewarding a child can undermine developing their own internal motivation. Rewarded occasionally not regularly. Allow the child to pick something they do like, so they are doing one thing you have chosen and then another that they have chosen. ( Be careful keep it simple) 

Regular Check-ins 

These are some of the questions I regularly ask myself to determine if we should continue:

  • Are they good at it?
  • Can they still learn from this experience?
  • When they say they hate the instrument do you see other evidence of that?
  • Do they often want to quit activities they start?  (indicator of difficulty with sustained attention)
  • How long and how much effort has been putting into this activity? Have you seen improvement over time?
  • Is there something else they are passionate about that might be easier to keep them pursuing?
  • Do they have good musical instruction that includes problem-solving and discussion or are they simply being told what to do? (I observed a lesson to determine this)
  • Is there a social aspect? (Do they have fun with other kids when playing?)

Building Skills Takes Effort

As parents, we are often concerned about building executive function skills and self-esteem.  You can only build those things through effort.  Do I think music lessons is the best thing for every child? I can’t imagine anything that every child should do, but I do think that for many children music lessons and playing in community orchestras can offer another avenue to improve executive function skills and build self-esteem. Finally, ask yourself if someone told you that you would have to practice an hour a day every day for even a year, would you like it? Could you do it?  As adults, we know the value of being able to work on something a little every day, so I believe it is worth the effort to teach our children valuable skills whether they like it or not that is our job! 

There are definitely some days I wonder how I got us into this intensive music program. But yesterday, I remembered why and I absolutely love the fact that music develops executive function skills too!

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