Why Music?
By the Director of Music, Michael Stinton

For those of us who work as musicians, the question of why we pursue music as performers, composers or as listeners, seems too obvious to even think about. We do it because we love it – we know that it enhances our lives, it brings us joy and it promotes lasting friendships. Some people think that you should only take up music if you have a gift for it, but the truth is that anyone and everyone can study music – and, until you give it a try, you will never know! In fact, regardless of what level you achieve, there are so many mental, psychological and social benefits to be gained.

As the new academic year at Abingdon gains momentum, as new musicians settle into their instrumental lessons and as the recruitment of first year musicians is fully underway, it is worth stopping to reflect on why we do take up music and what are its benefits.

Playing music is a discipline that requires us to challenge ourselves. It encourages us to master a skill which requires regular, ideally daily, practice that enables us to develop the necessary techniques and to master the craft. If you can get into a regular habit of practising, with good teaching you can become an excellent player – and that can give you a great deal of satisfaction and a sense of “can-do”. This skill is also a transferable one which can promote progress in other subject areas, too – and there is plenty of research that shows that it can sharpen your memory.

Playing music gives your brain a good workout – both sides are stimulated, the logical side, requiring finely honed motor skills and brain/eye/muscle coordination and the aesthetic and emotional side, requiring interpretation and communication. Music Therapists know that music connects pathways in the brain and can stimulate repair when something is damaged. Physical stamina is required, too. Just like sport, you need to develop toned muscles in your embouchure if you are a woodwind or brass player and strength and dexterity in your fingers whatever instrument you play.

Playing music requires communication with others, which can be one of its greatest joys. The pleasure of making music cannot be quantified, nor easily described. It can stimulate an understanding which is somehow beyond that of mere words. During our 2019 trip to Japan our orchestra gave a joint performance with the skilled marching band of Toho High School from the city of Nagoya, our musicians played music at a high level with young Japanese pupils, despite the potential barriers of language. In that situation, it was music that was the universal, common language and the players’ shared enjoyment built a rapport that extended beyond the concert to social interactions, with lasting friendships being formed.

Playing music can give you a creative and emotional outlet. Somehow, the playing of an instrument enables the communication of something more profound. I think it can come as no surprise that composers might name a piece, “Vocalise” or Lied ohne Wörte”, a “song without words”, as if to say that words are just not needed. The impact of performing, of embodying an emotion, can have a remarkable impact on your psyche and can play a role in relieving stress or anxiety, especially in an ensemble performance with other musicians, where the endeavour is a shared one.

Playing music can sharpen your mind. I have often considered why it is that some of the academically most gifted pupils tend to be our leading musicians. Studies have shown that the study of music can promote overall performance at school in many disciplines from maths and science to literacy and language.

Playing music fosters teamwork in a group environment such as a band, orchestra or choir where you work together to perform larger more complex pieces of music. The enjoyable process of playing together brings many benefits, not least the making of progress without being aware of anything but just “having fun” and a sense, perhaps, that it is beginning to sound better. The weekly practices bring a routine and a discipline into our lives.

Playing music in performances gives us presentational skills which, in an age of screens, social media and societal lockdown, seem to me to be more important than ever. The regular concerts that we give at school require pupils to develop a resilience and a confidence that can so easily be transferred to another situation such as an interview or a lecture.

Playing music introduces you to some of the most amazing music created by genius composers over many centuries, which can be fascinating, extraordinary and beautiful in equal measure. As teachers, we are always encountering new works to teach and to get to know analytically – it’s a truly life-enhancing subject to teach and study as a musicologist.

Playing music gives us a lifelong skill, whether as a novice, amateur or as a professional. Choral societies, brass bands, amateur orchestras the length and breadth of the land offer opportunities for people to come together in a shared purpose. At school, university and beyond, musical activity is promoted as a way of demonstrating the cultural health of an institution and to give pleasure to parents and concert-goers. I believe that our GCSE and A level musicians develop the ability to understand music at a profound level and there is no doubt that this understanding can enhance their performance and composing, as well as enable them to talk about music knowledgeably with their families and friends.

I often reflect that music has brought me and my family so much joy. I can think of nothing better to do in life than making music with young people and seeing them develop in so many genres and contexts. It is why I believe so much in what we do in the music department and why I know that my colleagues and I feel we have the dream job!

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