To Play, or Not to Play, That Is the Question

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My wife and I recently enjoyed dinner with another couple, parents of a son in the same grade as one of our three boys, when the unexpected topic of piano lessons came up.

With both families parenting high school boys, we discussed the juxtaposition of growing up now versus when we were younger, and our friend Susan brought up fond memories of playing the piano as a teenager, having grown up in a family of musicians.

Music education stuck out as a particularly noteworthy point in the “then vs now” contrast we reviewed over dinner, and I found Susan’s perspective compelling because -surprisingly – it dovetails with some of the topics we deal with in our wealth management practice.

Our conversation was so intriguing that I asked Susan if I could conduct a follow up interview with her for the benefit of our clients, many of whom are raising kids and grappling with how to best invest in their children’s education in a sea of competing priorities.

I hope you learn as much from her perspective as I did!

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Susan, why is music education so valuable?

So much of our society in general today, and especially the way our kids are growing up now, is about instant gratification. Between video games, iPhones, and other technology that’s ubiquitous for them, the kids we’re raising today don’t have the same drive that we did growing up because they expect and are used to receiving instant pay off.

Music education- especially learning to play an instrument – takes a personal investment of time, hard work, and patience to build the skills that ultimately pay off. That, alone, is a skill worth cultivating in children regardless of whether they ever choose to perform or compete.

From a physiological standpoint, playing an instrument helps the brain’s improvisational skills, which are invaluable in whatever path a child chooses for their future career. Studies show that playing an instrument also leads to more brain connectivity, improves executive function, and even boosts standardized test scores – all while giving kids a constructive creative outlet.

If music education in general is beneficial, why start the piano vs another instrument?

Piano is the basis of all instruments. Playing the piano takes a special kind of coordination because of the instrument’s complexities. You use many different areas of your brain to play – for example, you must activate your visual cortex to read music, while activating your motor skills ambidextrously to play the instrument including your feet, all the while your brain processes the sounds to correct for accuracy. It is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time, while alternating your hands simultaneously tapping your feet.

One of many studies confirming this point, a University of California study, showed the students who took piano lessons scored 34% higher on general tests.

Don’t kids learn the same skills from sports though?

They can, however playing an instrument is more individually interpretive versus a sport. Kids pick up critical skills that set them up for lifelong success by participating in a range of activities. And you never know what hobby or activity will capture your child’s attention and become a passion.

I’m an advocate of having children participate from an early age in a broad range of activities – from music to dance to sports – to help them figure out what they enjoy. But the thing to remember is that if you don’t force them to try and stick with activities for a reasonable amount of time, they’re not going to doit on their own. The exposure to a variety of things, including music, is part of what enriches their development. And it’s up to use as parents to encourage them to stick with these efforts long enough o give them a fair trial.

When is the optimal time to start learning an instrument?

Most schools, like Westminster where our sons attend, have the requirement beginning in 3rd grade. But that’s too late in my opinion. Sooner, around age 5 ideally, is better. Much like learning a language, starting early when the young brain is such a sponge for new knowledge can be incredibly advantageous.

Skills like persistence and diligence also get hard wire early in life, so developing those traits through early music education can yield an extraordinary lifelong return on your investment.

Speaking of investments, you drew an interesting parallel between investing and learning to play the piano. Can you explain the relationship?

The patience that investors must exercise through market cycles resembles the discipline successful musicians develop early on.

I liken learning to play the piano to a buy and hold stock; there will be ups and downs along the journey but ultimately the discipline of your strategy usually pays off. The Robinhood day trader is looking for a quick win, but any instrument that allows short term success (think of harmonica or recorder for example), doesn’t yield the same developmental benefits of sticking with the discipline of learning a more sophisticated instrument like the piano.

But the good news is that in both investing and piano, patience is a skill that can be built over time with practice. Which is important because as our kids grow up, they must learn financial management and literacy skills that will protect their own futures. So many of today’s young workers change jobs frequently or are gig workers. If applied to their investment philosophy, that kind of sporadic cadence can impact not only short-term portfolio performance but also financial and retirement planning success.

Developing a “long view” mindset early on by learning to play the piano frames so many life and financial concepts that can lead to long term success if we instill them in our children at an early age.

So much has changed since we were growing up. To start with, in our day, most houses had pianos as a standard part of the décor – but I’ve noticed that’s no longer the case. What are your thoughts around the physical presence of pianos in homes now?

You may be surprised to know that pianos still hold their financial value.

They cost between $5000 and $100,000, but as an investment you don’t generally have to worry about their depreciation.

The bigger challenge people have now is where to keep a piano, or they want to see if their child likes it before they buy a real one, so they say “oh, I’ll just make do with a keyboard.”

It’s funny you should mention that. One of our clients is embroiled in an ongoing “battle” (her words!) with her husband as they discuss this very topic. She grew up playing piano and feels strongly they should purchase one for their daughter’s lessons. He grew up in a completely non-musical household and says the child can get by with just a keyboard. What are your thoughts on this topic?

Nothing is as good as a real piano. The keys are different, the sound of the instrument and the touch. No two pianos’ are alike. Your brain and hands are muscles which need the heavier action to be beneficial. Weighted keyboards can work for the short term, by the good ones are expensive (around $5000), so you’re not really saving a lot as opposed to a very basic actual piano (even a smaller upright) – other then the space savings, which can’t be denied.

A small electronic keyboard is useless in learning piano, though. It doesn’t have the same touch, feel, or experience as actually playing a keyboard and simply doesn’t carry the same benefits as a real piano. Just like baseball, if you use an aluminum bat vs a wood bat the weight is different and while they will both work, one requires more strength to be successful than the other.

A true piano is an acoustic instrument where the keys hit small wooden hammers to create the sound. Because of this structure, piano keys are heavier, and the pianist has to build their muscle to have more control over dynamics. Real pianos typically have more keys than do electronic keyboards as well as pedals. The range of 88 keys as well as the damper and soft pedals are superior learning experience for children to reap the full benefits of lessons.

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Huge thanks to Susan for lending her insights on a topic that weighs on the minds of many parents. If you’re interested in learning more about investing in a piano for your children, or would like for them to take piano lessons, please email Susan.

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