“That’s a Talent I Have!”: Music & Self-Esteem

While we can’t yet say with confidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, we can breathe a small sigh of relief as variant-specific booster shots are widely available for people of most ages, and kids have safely returned to school and extracurricular activities.

But what about the toll this global crisis has taken on our kids, as they go back to their “normal” routines and programs? We can’t deny the effects of the psychological, emotional, educational, financial, and physical upheavals that all kids have been through just because the pandemic itself is (mostly, hopefully) over. Indeed, the proof is in the numbers: math and reading scores for students in grades 4 through 8 dropped significantly compared to before the pandemic, and so did students’ confidence in their math and reading skills; college enrollment as well as enrollment in kindergarten has declined; the US Preventive Services Task Force has recommended “screening for anxiety in children and adolescents ages 8 to 18”; and, alarmingly, hospitalization for eating disorders among adolescents increased significantly, as did the number of teens who have suicidal ideations.

But it’s not as grim as it sounds: there are things we can do as parents, caregivers, friends and loved ones of kids to help boost their confidence again, relieve their anxiety and help them ease back into an active social life. Clinical psychologist and assistant professor of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University Eileen Crehan says starting with small social gatherings, turning to group interventions that use techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, using one-on-one tutors, and finally, talking about all of it openly and compassionately are the first steps.

And there’s one thing that can help facilitate all of these aspects: music! Of course we are biased, but there is proof that music and music therapy can, indeed, lead to improved self-confidence and to imagining new ways of being. So much of the stress of childhood and adolescence (and adulthood!) comes from feeling stuck: in a certain social, family, or academic dynamic. If a child is made to feel unpopular, “uncool,” not smart enough or not having the right clothes or accessories, they can begin to believe that that is their identity, that there is no way out, that this undesirable self-image is unavoidable. Music, however, allows for new ideas about one’s identity, fosters social relationships, and increases communication skills, all of which are significant factors in confidence and self-esteem. How does music do all this?

Social Relationships & Communication

Even with one-on-one music instruction, music is a shared subject with which to connect to another person. You don’t have to talk about your relationship with your parents, or go into the painful saga of the kid at school that is bothering you; instead, you can come together with another person over the precise fingering of a G chord, or over how perfectly some songwriter captures your feelings. It is a safe way to be vulnerable, and, according to Brené Brown, vulnerability is the basis of our ability to love, and therefore to have healthy relationships.

But it’s not as abstract and vague as all that: music also chemically disposes you to connect to other humans. When people sing together, clap out a rhythm together, or play music together, their brain waves actually sync up and generate dopamine and oxytocin, the pleasure hormones, flooding participants with good feelings and warmth toward each other. In fact, these feel-good hormones get activated even when just listening to music.

Anxiety Reduction & Self-Esteem

A study conducted by the Northern Island Music Therapy Trust and Queens University Belfast found that students with emotional, developmental, and behavioral challenges who received music therapy in addition to traditional therapy for a period of 3 years had increased self-esteem and decreased anxiety and depression at the end of the study, compared to those who only received traditional therapy.

This makes sense as playing an instrument and singing require skill, and when students put in the time and effort to learn this skill, and can see their improvement each, day, week or month, that contributes to a sense of self-confidence and accomplishment. In our interview with one of our long-time Musication students, we asked, “What do you enjoy most about playing an instrument and taking music lessons,” and Max answered, “It’s nice to know: I can play the piano, and that’s a talent I have!” Beyond the sense of accomplishment, music and learning to play music also allow for a sense of order and process, or cause and effect, concepts that are frequently absent from the brains of those with anxiety: if I put my mind to something, I can—if not master it—get better at it.

Identity Formation

Do you remember when you first heard some music that cracked open your brain and changed the way you saw yourself and world forever? Marc Joseph Stern, writing in Slate, explains how we now know that “our brains bind us to the music we heard has teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults,” and that those neural connections that are made in everyone’s brains when listening to or playing music are supercharged for younger people. Many adolescents struggle with who they are: who they want to be versus who their parents or society want them to be. Discovering someone signing about and modeling a different way of being or even just loudly expressing familiar feelings; zeroing in on a piece of music that captures and deepens a non-verbal emotion or affect–these experiences can have profound effects on a child’s wellbeing and sense of themselves, offering relief, release, and wonder, and radiating into every area of their lives.

While learning the piano or popping on your favorite playlist is not going to solve all the world’sor even just your own—problems, it can certainly make all of us, and especially our children, more able to take on those challenges, to tackle them with grace and empathy and intelligence, and to learn from them. To quote our wise long-time Musication students once again, who spoke to what they like most about taking music lessons: “Being able to perform for people and getting a positive reaction”; “It’s fun but it also uses your brain. I feel proud when I complete a song I’ve been working hard on”; “It’s a good hobby to have. It’s nice to know: I can play the piano, and that’s a talent I have!”