Don't Leave Music to the Pros

Recent studies have shown that playing an instrument reduces stress, prevents hearing loss and may even stave off Alzheimer's disease.
06/14/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

You know the scene from Anchorman, where a reluctant Ron Burgundy improvises a killer jazz flute solo much to the surprise of his date? Well, that happened to me.

I was at a party with my boyfriend, Steve, who used to play flute in high school. Months of cajoling had not elicited a single toot from him, but after a few drinks he began jamming with my friend's band. Right before my eyes, my unassuming date turned into a jazz flute virtuoso, and he didn't stop 'till the neighbors shut the party down.

Though Steve has yet to repeat that performance, I suspect that many of us have an inner Ron Burgundy that's just itching to take the stage. In fact, some 50 percent of children in the U.S. take music lessons, but fewer than 8 percent continue to play our instruments as adults -- and that number is on the decline. So chances are, you sweated through years of piano lessons, played clarinet in marching band or sang in a choir. But at some point, you packed up your instrument, never to play it again.

That's unfortunate on a personal level and just about tragic on a national scale. After all, study after study shows that music lessons makes kids smarter -- that's why you schlep Timmy to piano lessons week after week. But did you know that playing a musical instrument is good for adults, too? Recent studies have shown that playing an instrument reduces stress, prevents hearing loss and may even stave off Alzheimer's disease.

So why have so many of us left out instruments to gather dust in the closet? I blame technology -- why bother playing violin when you can just put on some Joshua Bell? -- and the fact that we often focus kids on playing sheet music rather than discovering their own muse. Most of us lack the drive and talent to become professional musicians, and it can feel pointless to persevere when we reach a technical plateau or simply decide to put our energy into other pursuits. But what many people don't realize is that you don't have to be great, or even good, to have fun with music and tap into it's many benefits.

I would know. After college, I put away my violin, only occasionally taking it out to see how far I could get through an old recital piece. But then something happened that changed my life. A cute guy overheard me practicing and asked if I would like to play with his bluegrass band, just for fun.

"Can you play fiddle?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

I was lying. While violin and fiddle are the same instrument, fiddlers play by ear. Without a scrap of sheet music in front of them, they can invent a slew of funky, fast notes that somehow mesh perfectly with the rest of the song. In two decades of playing violin, I'd never strayed from the explicit directions of Bach or some other major composer, and I doubted I could. But for the cute guitarist, I'd give it a try.

I followed him to band practice, where I played along very, very softly. Most of the time, I sucked. But occasionally, I played a few notes that sounded OK, maybe even good. I had no idea where these little fragments of songs were coming from, but who cared -- I was making up music! It was a crazy, exhilarating feeling -- like waking up one morning and realizing you can fly. Well, maybe not fly, but at least hover a few feet above the ground for a moment or two.

If you have ever played an instrument at any point in your life, you have got to try this. You don't have to follow a cute guy to band practice. You don't even have to go out in public. Just get that clarinet out from under your bed, put on your favorite song and play along. Or, even better, search for backing tracks on YouTube and just mess around -- play little tunes, scales, or even the same note for measures at a time. You will be amazed at what magically flows out of your fingertips.

This works because, as children, we all absorbed basic rules about music, even if you never had a single lesson. That's not to say we can all improvise with the panache of Ron Burgundy, but remember, the goal is to play, not to quit your day job. Get a few friends together and have a hoedown, a blues jam, or make up your own genre as you go. If your neighbors complain, just explain to them the many health benefits of playing a musical instrument, or say that you're trying to be a good example for your kids. The real reason behind your cacophony (or symphony) can be our little secret: Music is just too much fun to leave to the professionals.