Have you ever felt you had to take your brain to boot camp? Psychotherapist Robin Roger certainly did, and her brain-building efforts were chronicled in The Globe and Mail. As part of this project she returned to piano study after a 40-year absence, enrolling in Brush up Your Piano Skills at the Royal Conservatory School, The Conservatory’s community music school. We sat down with Robin to catch up on her progress and learn more about the cognitive and emotional benefits of making music.
Why did you decide to pursue your brain-building “boot camp?” Why did you decide to include piano lessons in your project?
II pursued this for a few reasons. The main one was discovering that the brain retains plasticity throughout life BUT to benefit from this fact, it has to be challenged by learning new things. I figured it had been so long since I'd played piano it would count as a new learning experience. I would be combining a learning challenge with the enrichment of music.
Describe the challenges of returning to the piano after 40 years.
It was an extreme learning challenge. I couldn't remember how to read music – which was a shock – and I lost my spatial sense of the keyboard, so that I had to look down at the keys, which meant losing my place in the score. My finger strength and dexterity was also reduced. Once I encountered these realities I realized "use it or lose it'" is the literal truth, and I had almost completely lost my piano skills. After two years I am still trying to rebuild them.
How has your musical training helped you in your career as a psychotherapist? How has your career helped your musical growth?
Sensitive musical expression and sensitive psychotherapy work both rely on finely-honed listening skills. Both also require a large emotional range. You can't convey a musical mood if you can't feel it and sometimes music will enable you to encounter feelings that are difficult to locate in yourself in isolation. Also, playing piano can be a great mood booster, because there is ongoing, small-step progress. As long as you stick with it, it delivers a sense of mastery, which is good for everyone whatever emotional challenges they might be facing.
What are the cognitive and emotional benefits of musical study?
One of the common components in the lives of people who claim to be happy is the regular, ongoing pursuit of an activity that requires deep concentration and focus. This can be in many spheres such as athletics or other areas of skill, and certainly includes musical study. Another intellectual benefit is that music can be studied on many levels, in terms of technique, expression, interpretation, and also theoretically and historically.
What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing musical studies as an adult?
Practice enough that you get a sense of progress. Be prepared to be frustrated. I still hit the keys with a fist when I can't seem to get a particular bar or phrase right. Also, if you can afford it, take private lessons. I began with the group lessons to see how I would like playing piano again and they are a great low-cost innovation, but they aren't the same as one-on-one learning.
Looking for a music teacher near you? Consult The Royal Conservatory’s Online Music Teacher Directory.