Playing a musical instrument could be just about the best thing your child can do. And I should know – giving up music is one of my biggest regrets.
Music teaches you discipline, concentration and to delay gratification. It’s the perfect antidote to a generation brought up on plenty of screen time.
I come from a very musical family. My parents came from a small town outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My father played rhythm guitar in a rock band in his late teens. Coming from a poor family, he never had the privilege to own a musical instrument when he was young.
By chance, he had a friend who could play the guitar and wanted to form a band. Out of desperation, he turned to some of his friends, including my father, and asked him to join.
“Nevermind if you can’t play,” he said. “I’ll teach you.”
And so, the band practiced until they were good enough to go on local TV to perform.
There was only one problem. They didn’t have a singer.
Dad remembered a girl from the town where he grew up who could sing. She also happened to be quite attractive. Quickly putting two and two together, he invited her to become part of the band.
And so, the band went on TV and performed, my mother was unable to escape my father’s charm from that day forth, and the rest is history.
When we were young, our parents encouraged us to play plenty of musical instruments. We started out with the piano, like most children do, then graduated to the violin or cello, clarinet or saxophone.
I can’t imagine how my parents tolerated the sounds that came out of the living room at the time. It takes a special kind of parent to not only put up with, but actively encourage the screeches of an amateur violinist.
And let’s not forget the recorder. We all played the recorder at school. I shudder to think how that sounded in the hands of a five year old.
While my elder brothers were great at music, disciplined, and practiced studiously, I never took to music as enthusiastically. I preferred to be outside, playing on our swings or bowling a tennis ball up against the wall, pretending to be a famous cricket player.
At the age of ten, I approached my mother, knowing that she had a soft spot for me. I begged her to let me quit playing piano. She acquiesced.
Giving up music is one of the biggest regrets of my life.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to “keystone habits” – habits that encourage other positive habits. The habit, such as exercise, may be healthy. But it’s the other habits, such as improved diet, that it also encourages, which bring greater benefit.
Playing a musical instrument is one of them. It forces you to be disciplined and to concentrate. It forces you to delay gratification as you learn. You don’t see an immediate reward for your effort – that takes months, if not years.
I’ve spoken to a number of people who played musical instruments as children, and more than one of them has spoken about the change that occurred when they started.
One person said that she wasn’t doing well in school, or socially, until she learnt a musical instrument – in this case, as a singer, the instrument was her own voice.
Once she started to apply herself diligently, saw progress and kept on practicing, other parts of her life began to flourish.
By comparison, giving a child an iPad may have the complete opposite effect. There is little to no learning involved. If you’re as old as I am, you remember the days when computer games came with thick manuals that you had to read first. In 2016, no app developer wants you to read a manual.
Using an iPad gives instant gratification. By in large, it doesn’t involve much concentration – especially if the user is switching between different apps.
“But what about those educational tools on the iPad that children can use?” you are wondering. I don’t claim to have any expertise in parenting.
But given the choice of placing an iPad or a flute in the hands of your child, the instrument would have to be the better option.
As for me? As a younger person, I’ve started and given up on a list of instruments that is almost as long as the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody.
The piano, the recorder, the violin, the clarinet, the guitar.
How am I going to turn around one of the greatest regrets of my life?
I’m going to start by changing my Sunday routine. Every Sunday, I put my SIM card in an old Nokia, to get away from using screens for the day. Instead of screen time, my plan is to start, and hopefully stick with, another pursuit.