Nov 2013

How Learning Guitar Can Improve Your Life

At face value the guitar is really just a few pieces of (sometimes) finely shaped wood glued together with six strings. It’s an instrument recognized by almost every major population in the world, but is still considered one of the least popular instruments (though very popular in North America.)  It has become an instrument synonymous with Rock n’Roll, the Blues and heard on almost every Pop song you hear on the radio.  But, at the very heart of the guitar, is a deep tradition rooted with many benefits that are mostly forgotten or unrecognized.
The Emotional and Mental Benefit
How many times have you caught yourself singing in the car, at the café, or in your home and felt more relaxed? Why do you listen to music? Perhaps you listen to music to help you concentrate, maybe it’s a companion while you do chores or maybe it’s the one thing that helps you wind down after a long day. How many times have you, or someone you know, say they wished they played an instrument? Fulfilling this desire and learning a song that you really love, in most cases, magnifies the positive feelings and emotions you experience from just hearing it. It also teaches you to control these emotions, which for children prone to hyper-activity can greatly improve their disposition by giving them another outlet of expression.
I always tell people that guitar is not a “linear” instrument. Linear in the sense that you can’t start at point A and go to point B and experience everything in between. While the guitar does contain linear elements it is essentially a non-linear instrument that requires people who play it to think in many directions: up, down, left, right, backwards, forwards, diagonally and horizontally (sometimes all at once). It helps you to recognize patterns, understand number relationships and greatly improves your mathematical skills. It teaches you to listen, not only to the notes, but also to yourself, which gives you greater sense of accomplishment, particularly if you are learning it for the first time. With an increased sense of motivation the “trickle down” effect cannot be emphasized enough. As it seeps down through your day-to-day activities you will see an increase in the quality and care for what you do.   
How the guitar impacts you physically
If you think of someone you know who plays guitar and is self-taught then there is a high probability that they learned incorrectly. Hobbyists and amateur guitarists have a high occurrence of back, shoulder and hand/arm pain - this is not a coincidence. When learned improperly the guitar can be a vicious adversary to everyday life. Because of this the guitar has developed a reputation for being hard on the hands and back, but in reality that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Proper guitar technique does not put much pressure on the hands and uses the body as a way to support the instrument. As complicated as that may sound it’s just as easy to learn as bad technique is and any qualified teacher will be able to explain the differences between what you do and what you should do.
A Quick Exercise
I have been teaching the guitar as a way to alleviate symptoms of arthritis and carpel tunnel syndrome by highlighting how playing the instrument can ease the pressure on the joints and relax the hand and arm to increase blood flow. Though I am not a licensed practitioner of anything related to medicine, I have seen the benefits of this exercise in my own life and my students.
1.)  Make a fist with a hand and squeeze. Notice how quickly the pressure builds up in your hand and how tired that makes you.
2.)  Now try to pick up an empty cup or some sort, but pretend it is full. Notice how you squeeze the cup. The pressure should be significantly less, but still present.
3.)  Look at the profile of your hand and try to make a fist with the least amount of effort possible. Do it slowly and notice how the hand moves. You should see the big knuckle move first and once you get halfway you should start to see the 2nd knuckle begin to move followed by the 3rd. Once you complete the fist there should be almost no pressure on your hand at all. Repeat about 10-12 times.
4.)  At this point there might be a slight sensation of warming or tingling in the hand. This is the feeling of increased circulation.
As a teacher I use exercises such as this one to highlight the minimal amount of effort it takes to play an instrument, not just the guitar. There are many parts of the body that can ache from learning an instrument incorrectly including the shoulders, back or knees; all of which are involved with playing guitar. If you have minor aches or pains in these areas then the guitar could help subside the symptoms and improve your quality of life as well as give you a new outlet of expression.
Whatever your reason is, now is always the best time to start learning something new. Whether you’re learning the guitar or any other instrument please be sure to find yourself a qualified instructor. Our great area has afforded us some of the most amazing musicians anywhere in the world who are here to help you. With 2014 in sight maybe it’s time you gave it a shot.
Tony Rizzotto, M.M Longy School of Music, B.A. Berklee College of Music, is an accomplished performer and educator in the New England area. He’s been heard from as wide a range of venues as the House of Blues, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and Distler Hall. Visit www.tonysguitar.com to learn more.