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Emily Eystad wowed the audience with "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" this holiday season. "I connect," she said of music. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Music sends kids on a path of lifetime enrichment

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Piano teacher Liz Shaw composes an eloquent cantata of music's benefits.

Music makes you smarter, she simply asserts.

"Playing music can have a powerful force on a developing brain," she said. Scientific studies support this. New research suggests just a few years of musical training in childhood can improve how the brain processes sound in adulthood, leading to better listening and learning skills.

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"Music is math, it is counting and division," Shaw said. "Music theory is the science behind it. You read music. It is cultural. It is history. It is creative expression and art. It is its own language. It is social; it is media; it transforms us. It is everywhere."

And it should start early, musician and dad Eric Bervig maintains. He got a late start, at 10, but his four children, Lael, 11, Nathaniel, 9, Elias, 7 and Ephraim, 6, were introduced to music at a young age.

"I didn't want to at that age," Bervig said of playing an instrument, "having formulated patterns in my life." But his parents triumphed.

The accomplished musician's children are now becoming adept at piano, drums and stringed instruments, the older children offering tutelage to their siblings.

Stringed instruments are the most difficult to play, Bervig said. Piano keys each hold a distinct note. "It's you and your instrument," he said of producing sound from vibrating strings. "There's nothing showing them what to play."

While Lael is adept at both the keyboard and strings - her violin a family heirloom - she can sit down and play the piano after simply hearing the music, a rare gift. She aspires to join her dad's band, Chasing Clarence, and is learning to play the guitar.

Nathaniel, who plays violin, piano and drums, aims to become a professional.

"Music, the universal language, brings joy to player and listener, enriching the soul," said Jeff Menten, the Bervig family's violin teacher.

Menten, who also teaches viola, cello, bass, guitar and mandolin, agrees that "music enhances and works to facilitate all areas of academic study. 

"Studying applied music engages the right and the left brain.  Studying a musical instrument, including the voice, builds self-esteem and self-confidence as the student progresses in ability, which gives him/her feelings of accomplishment," Menten said. 

"When you play piano, you are using large and small muscles - fingers, arms, feet and more. You use dynamics (loud and soft), tempo (faster and slower) and technique (legato, staccato)," Shaw points out.

"You do all of these things simultaneously... and/or independently of one another," she said. "Think of how many melody lines Bach has going in his organ music.

"That takes a lot of brain connections," she said. "It's a busy, firing brain when they play."

Shaw employs subtle psychology to encourage "practice," choosing words carefully to avoid the impression piano lessons are simply work. "The process should be a pleasure."

She tells them, "'You get to play.' It sounds more fun."

"As an instructor, I believe it is my role to give them the tools, motivation and foster a love for music," Shaw said.

"At some point, they stop playing notes and start to create music."

When they reach that point, the musical momentum begins. "The more they play, the better they get, and so on," Shaw said. "Music becomes part of their soul for a lifetime."

"I've never heard anyone say they are glad they quit piano lessons," she added.

Songs from the heart

Nancy Eystad grew up playing the piano where daughters Emily, 16, and Abby, 12, now practice and compose.

Practice (playing!) is part of their daily routine.

"I started practicing more than I used to, now that I know my notes," said Abby, a testimony to her teacher, Shaw's, views.

"Abby has discovered an ability to write music, which drives those of us who can't do it nuts," Shaw said, noting her "knowledge in theory" is a great accompaniment.

"Emily plays from the heart," Shaw said, citing her performance of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" at the December choir concert.

"I connect," Emily said of songs for which she holds an affinity. "It's fun to sit down and play."

"It's an emotional outlet," Nancy Eyestad said. "If I've had a bad day, I play the piano."

A shared experience

"It is helpful for parents to show interest and take the time to listen to their child practice their chosen instrument," Menten suggests. 

"Children need lots of encouragement.  Setting a certain time to practice each day is important, as well as verbally recognizing and praising their effort," he said.

"Private lessons greatly enhance the learning of proper technique, catch and correct mistakes before they become habitual, and accelerate the student's progress - all of which foster the joy and sense of accomplishment," Menten said.

For best results, he recommends a child can begin lessons once their attention span reaches the capability of at least 15 to 20 minutes of concentration.

The students agree; performing before an audience makes practice worthwhile.

"I think it's a community and family activity," Bervig said. "Young people, just listening to music through earphones are growing up engaging music sporadically. It's individualized. It's unhealthy.

"Music is meant to be a shared experience."

Beautiful black dots

"Music satisfies your own desire, as well as giving pleasure to others," said Jane Wolff, who, as teacher and accompanist for 50 years could be considered the matriarch of Park Rapids' music world.

She's the organist at Faith Baptist and accompanist for Classic Chorale and Northern Light Opera. Wolff also tickles the ivories for the Upper Mississipians.

The piano provides "whole music," she said of the versatility of the keyboard. The satisfaction comes when music entertains and inspires others, she said.

But it's also a personal experience. She remembers gauging her daughter Barbara's mood by the tunes emitted on the keyboard when she arrived home.

And when her son headed off to the military, Wolff sat down to play - and cried.

"It's a tension reliever, therapy" and a messenger, she said of a former student's use of music in his role as a missionary.

"Music is the biggest form of self-satisfaction. Taking those black dots on the page and making them sound beautiful - that's satisfying!"

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