Key To Success

Keys to Success; Early Music Education Takes Students Further, Researchers Report:[Orange County Edition]

Lisa Richardson. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Mar 15, 1999. pg. 1

Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1999 all Rights reserved)

They don't even know the alphabet yet. Their fingers are too small to play more than three notes consecutively, and six or seven years will pass before their feet can touch the piano pedals.

But the 2- and 3-year-olds taking piano lessons at Patrick Music School in Fullerton are not working on technique.

Instead, by hearing melodies over and over, playing with the keyboard and learning to tell the difference between the black keys grouped in twos and those in threes--a real challenge for toddlers--they are paving the way for academic excellence later in life.

Showing that piano lessons prepare the mind for higher-level mathematical thinking has been part of the continuing research of UC Irvine scientists for five years.

Their latest results, published today in the journal Neurological Research, show that piano lessons accompanied by computer work on specific types of math puzzles dramatically improve certain math skills of elementary school students.

It is the latest in a series of studies that link musical training to the development of higher brain functions.

For the study, researchers worked with 135 second-grade students at 95th Street School in Los Angeles. Some children received four months of piano keyboard training and time playing with newly designed computer software.

Those children scored 27% higher on proportional math and fractions tests than other students in the study.

Also, students who took piano lessons but did not work on the computer scored better than students who were given computer training but not piano lessons.

"We think this is something new and will lead to dramatic change in how mathematics is taught," said Gordon Shaw, a UCI physicist and biologist who led the study. Shaw is known for his research in which college students scored higher on spatial-temporal reasoning tests after listening to a Mozart piano sonata.

The most immediate result of the continuing research has been a boom in piano lessons for children at younger ages than before, as parents aware of the research try to give their children a developmental head start.

Many piano teachers in Orange County said that parents aware of the research often ask them to take children at very young ages, but not all music instructors will do so.

"A few years back people would inquire if age 5 or 6 is too young to start their child," said Anaheim Hills piano teacher Julie Neal. "Now I'm getting calls about whether 4 or 3 or even 2 is too young."

One woman asked Neal to take her 22-month-old child as a student. "I said, well, for one thing, I like them to be potty-trained first."

Piano instruction is believed to enhance the brain's ability to visualize and transform objects in space and time, Shaw said.

The computer game, which is nonverbal, is intended to boost students' ability to manipulate shapes in their minds.

Ann Patrick-Green of Patrick's Music School in Fullerton has been keenly aware of the brain research involving music. Five years ago she met with Shaw after reading about his work and keeps a close eye on her students to see how quickly they learn.

"I knew it was true the moment I read about it," said Patrick-Green, backing her beliefs with stories of Ivy League-caliber high school students who started piano as toddlers.

To teach children that young, Patrick-Green said teachers mainly expose them to musical sounds, let them play with the keyboard and help them learn to differentiate sets of two black keys from those with three.

The main teaching hurdles are the students' lack of coordination and short attention spans. On the other hand, while very young children may be immune to formal instruction methods, they soak up melodies and sounds even when they don't appear to be paying attention, she said.

Educational adaptations, however, are probably some years down the road as the research is fine-tuned and new software and teaching methods filter into the schools.

Also it is virtually impossible to teach music without teaching math.

At the Junior Music Academy in Orange, teachers work with students on what they call music-math. Although unaware of the study at 95th Street School, Junior Music teachers do exercises almost identical to some of those that Shaw's researchers practiced with the school children.

"We'll take a half note plus a quarter note {which makes three counts}, plus a half note, {which makes five counts} minus a quarter note, which makes 4 counts, so the answer is whole note," Grimm said.

"But I don't think about it in terms of teaching math."

Neal takes no student younger than 3 1/2, and then only if the child knows the alphabet and how to count.

Those requirements, however, are commonly met in the affluent community where she teaches. "I have preschoolers and kindergartners who are quite literate and can fully read," Neal said.

"But I've been teaching for 16 years, and even before the research came out all this was clear to me," she said. "The kids involved in music do better in school. Take a musical kid, and there's your honor student."

Pichak Kelka's daughter Sadaf was Neal's youngest student, beginning at age 3 last year.

Kelka, a dentist in Anaheim, said she had read news stories about music's effect on brain development before bringing her daughter to Neal.

"I really want to develop her intelligence, so if she can learn more now, then I don't want to wait," she said.

Sadaf also takes art and ballet lessons, Kelka said, and will be allowed to focus on the one or two activities she likes best when she gets older.

"I think the music really helps," Kelka said. "At her pre-kindergarten school they have started to give her homework to do, and it's so easy for her."

Exactly why piano lessons seem to help with math skills, however, is not entirely clear. More studies need to be done on various aspects of music and learning, said Shaw, who plays no instrument.

"I didn't get into this to teach music," he said, "though the bottom line is that these kids learn math."

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