What do you do after a long, stressful day at work?
Have a drink?
Sit semi-comatose in front of the TV?
Go to the gym?
When I worked in the Corporate world I did all of these, but found that none of them really helped me switch off from dwelling on the latest dilemma. And – much as I love reading – I found I could rarely get lost in a good book as my mind would still be churning over the events of the day. Reading became a luxury that I saved for my vacations, where I was able to leave work behind for days at a time.
However – when my job allowed me to get home at a time that would not cause serious disturbance to the neighbours – I found that the most effective way to completely switch off was to sit at the piano and really focus on my practice for 30-60 minutes.
Like many with stressful careers, I’d often find myself awake at 3 or 4 in the morning, my mind on auto-pilot and firmly back in the office! But by visualising the playing of the piano (often testing myself on various melodic minor scales) I found I could calm my mind and soon drift off back to sleep.
The act of playing the piano – at whatever level – requires real concentration and full engagement of the brain. Depending on the type of practice, different parts of the brain may be used. Focusing on a difficult passage – through analysis, repetition and various technical exercises – will predominantly use the so-called ‘left brain’ – the logical and analytical thought processes which you engage to fully understand musical patterns and to utilise the best type of exercise to enable you to grasp it fully.
Playing through a piece with which you are already confident is a more creative act and therefore the ‘right-brain’ is probably dominant. You have already worked through the technical difficulties and can apply your own creative interpretation to your ‘performance’ – even if the only audience consists of your cats!
Other aspects of your practice will also engage different parts of your brain. Scales, aural and sight-reading (which I believe to be important for anyone serious about learning the piano whether or not exams are taken) require concentration and analytical ability. I often find that adult learners love learning (or re-learning) their scales as they treat them as a real intellectual exercise – and it’s interesting how adults and children approach the learning of scales very differently.
One of my adult students loves to improvise and always finishes his practice with 10-15 minutes of improvisation – usually in the style of Philip Glass. He always gets up from the piano on a creative high!
Given the variety of activities that may be undertaken in a practice session, and the full engagement of the brain that these involve, it is no surprise that there is no room in the brain for any other thoughts to disturb your focus and creativity.
There is also a positive physical impact of playing the piano. One of the adult returners I have just started working with, Alison, 43, remembers the effect of playing a traditional piano. “There is something about the vibrations caused by the strings and the impact that has on the wood – and therefore the impact on the rest of the body – that actually has a calming effect. I remember as a teenager working towards my Grade 8 I would be aware of this during my practice and feel physically more relaxed afterwards as a result of this – this is why I am returning to the piano after so many years as I am looking to recreate that sense of relaxation I remember from those years”.
Studies also back this up. The hormone cortisol is associated with the damaging effects of stress such as hypertension and impaired cognitive function. Many studies have shown that listening to music reduces the levels of this hormone. In 2011, however, a study specifically looked at the effects on cortisol levels of playing the piano and compared these to participating in other creative activities. Whilst all the creative activities involved led to markedly decreased levels of cortisol, piano playing was found to be significantly more effective than the other activities involved (e.g. calligraphy and clay-modelling) at reducing levels.
This comes as no surprise to me given the positive impact it has had on my own life. I have always played the piano for pleasure but returned to it more seriously when I was going through a particularly stressful time in my life, and I found that it made an immeasurable difference – so much so I gave up the Corporate world to set up my own Teaching Practice! I am also working with a male student, 45, who suffers from anxiety and depression. He started learning the piano a few years ago (he is now working towards Grade 4) and also finds that the focus and engagement of the full brain really works for him as a way of alleviating his symptoms. He says, “Focusing on playing pieces or practicing technical exercises takes my mind off negative things. Even slowly picking through a piece is a positive experience and, as I improve with practice, I get the benefit of achieving something positive and rewarding. I always feel happier and more relaxed after even fifteen minutes at the keyboard”.
So if you are looking for a way to relax, unwind and take your mind off your daily worries – as well as learn (or re-learn) a wonderful and creative activity that will be with you for life – then taking up the piano may well be what you are looking for!
Ref: ‘Plano playing reduces stress more than other creative art activities” Toyoshima, Fukui, Kuda, Nara University of Education, Japan, August 2011.