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Can learning to play saxophone or clarinet improve your physical and mental health?

A warning before I start - this blog deals with some serious issues relating to mental health...

November 11th is the beginning of Anti-Bullying Week. This is a nationwide event to raise awareness of the issue of bullying. This is a very important issue to me, not least because two years ago a friend of mine committed suicide in response to workplace bullying.

As a former classroom teacher, I have seen the impact that bullying can have on people, and it is important to me that we raise awareness of bullying so we can work to stop it happening.

Don't get me wrong - bullying is not just a thing that happens at school. Bullying is any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. Bullying can have significant long term effects and have on-going implications for your mental health long after the bullying has stopped.

There's a perception of bullying being a thing that children do to each other, but bullying and harassment amongst adults in the workplace is also increasingly common. Schools often do a fantastic job of raising awareness, identifying and responding to incidents, and supporting children in the aftermath. But it's not always like this in the adult world, and may happen in the workplace without an employer's awareness.

Bullying and mental health is getting increasing focus in the media recently. More and more charities are being set up to tackle bullying in the workplace. November is also a focus on Men's health, with the Movember Foundation raising awareness of men's health and encouraging men to get up the courage to talk when they're worried about their health - mental or physical.

This is a common theme across the groups working to improve mental health, especially in men: talking about it is the first step to recovery. However, there is a stigma associated with mental illness that means that it's even more taboo to talk about than physical sickness. It is still perceived as being permanent and even contagious - something that should be hidden and secret. But this could not be further from the truth - hiding it away can deepen the damage until it is much harder to treat, and its impact much longer-lasting.

I said this was a serious blog, and it is - but it is also a music blog, so here is the connection...

Playing saxophone and clarinet is who I am and at every stage of my life has provided an outlet and a voice for my emotions and experiences. I have also seen music-making have a hugely positive impact on the children and adults whom I have the privilege of teaching. It feels like there is a wellbeing benefit to playing music, and I'm not alone in this opinion: behold the 'Weekend Warriors'...

It is a national recreational initiative that encourages adult music lovers to become music makers. Over a month or two of weekend lessons from professional musicians, the participants - often beginners - work towards a performance at a local venue. The program was launched in 1993 by Skip Maggiora of Skip’s Music in Sacramento, California, and was designed to encourage older adults to play for real. As a result, thousands of career-minded adults from all backgrounds can live out their rock star dreams on the weekends.

Some amazing research has been done connecting music and health, including: improvement in stress; better vital signs in convalescence from surgery; reduction in the incidence and severity of depression.

In the USA, 'Recreational Music Making' has been found in some studies (see below) to be beneficial for business too - by encouraging employees to engage in it, businesses can improve the wellbeing of their workforce, hence reducing turnover and the costs of illness.

Whatever the science is behind this, it is clear that music is something that people find highly enjoyable to participate in. Moreover, it is something which allows people to collaborate with a common goal, and to share some time with other people socially. These three aspects of music making are also often recommended by mental health organisations.

Put another way: if you're feeling down,

  1. Do fun things.

  2. Do things with other people.

  3. Do things with a purpose.

Learning music hits the jackpot!

Here's the takeaway message from this blog:

If you are worried about your health, or that of someone you know, then talk about it. You might make a huge difference, and even save a life.


1. Playing music reduces stress and has been shown to reverse the body's response to stress at the DNA-level (Dr. Barry Bittman).

2. Playing music "significantly" lowered the heart rates and calmed and regulated the blood pressures and respiration rates of patients who had undergone surgery (Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Neb., and St. Mary's Hospital in Mequon, Wis.)

3. Blood samples from participants of an hour-long drumming session revealed a reversal of the hormonal stress response and an increase in natural killer cell activity (Bittman, Berk, Felten, Westengard, Simonton, Pappas, Ninehouser, 2001, Alternative Therapies, vol. 7, no. 1).

4. Anger Management Music therapy can help people identify the emotions that underlie anger and increase the patient's awareness of these feelings and situations that can trigger them. If a situation or emotion is presented in a song the healthy options for expressing that feeling can be discussed and conflict resolution and problem solving can be practiced in a positive manner.

5. Drumming is also used by music therapists to help patients appropriately vent anger and other emotions. Another use of drumming can be a non-verbal conversation on drums where the ability to listen to the other person's drumming is needed to "converse" on the drums. Playing a musical instrument can reverse stress at the molecular level, according to studies conducted by Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Bio-systems (as published in Medical Science Monitor).

6. Making music can help reduce job burnout and improve your mood, according to a study exposing 112 long-term care workers to six recreational music-making sessions of group drumming and keyboard accompaniment. (As published in "Advances in Mind-Body Medicine")

7. Engaging in playing music reduces depression. Recent research with long-term care workers showed reduced depression (21.8 percent) six weeks after the completion of a music-making program consisting of one hour per week (Source: A 2003 study conducted by Trip Umbach Healthcare Consulting, Inc.).

8. Parkinson's Disease and Stroke: Rhythmic cues can help retrain the brain after a stroke or other neurological impairment, according to Michael Thaurt, director of Colorado State University's Center of Biomedical Research in Music.

9. Researchers have also discovered that hearing slow, steady rhythms, such as drumbeats, helps Parkinson patients move more steadily (Friedman, “Healing Power of the Drum,” 1994).

10. Cancer Subjects who participated in a clinical trial using the HealthRhythms protocol showed an increase in natural killer cell activity and an enhanced immune system. While this does not indicate a cure for cancer, such results may be of benefit for those facing this disease. (Bittman, Berk, Felten, Westengard, Simonton, Pappas, Ninehouser, 2001, Alternative Therapies, vol. 7, no. 1).

11. Playing music increases human growth hormone (HgH) production among active older Americans. The findings revealed that the test group who took group keyboard lessons showed significantly higher levels of HgH than the control group of people who did not make music (University of Miami).

12. Researchers from Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center looked at how different types of music and silence were processed in the brains of 21 people with epilepsy. Whether listening to classical music or jazz, all of the participants had much higher levels of brain wave activity when listening to music, the study found. Brain wave activity in the epilepsy patients tended to synchronize more with the music, especially in the temporal lobe, the researchers said (Robert Preidt, HealthDay, August 10, 2015).

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