Playing an instrument requires closely controlled motor skills. It takes long, deliberate practice to automate the movements and learn to play. It is clear to me that knowledge of the development of children’s motor skills and, not least, how those skills are affected during periods of growth, can help us in instrumental tuition. Recent research has shown that children’s motor skills are being affected by the decline in physical training.
Children’s movement patterns affect their motor skills
Children’s movement patterns have changed a lot over the past few decades. In addition to a growth of sedentary activity in front of the computer or while using a mobile phone, car travel has become more common at the expense of cycling and walking. And when children do move about, most of them do so more monotonously, walking more often on level surfaces than on uneven, variable ones, such as woodlands or forest floors. They use lifts and escalators instead of climbing stairs. All together, these changes in movement patterns result in less of the practice the body needs for the development of motor skills. A good many research findings indicate risks associated with less exercise during childhood. Insufficient movement and physical activity impact, for example, bone density, weight and health, and can also affect the development of motor skills. Furthermore, it is a fact that children with inferior motor skills are less active. As a group they are less fit and physically weaker than others their age, and a larger proportion of them are overweight. Furthermore, their powers of concentration are inferior to those of physically active children.
Motor skills affect instrumental playing
Probably, these changes in children’s movement patterns also affect their instrumental playing. Many music educators find that motor skill problems are becoming increasingly prevalent among their students and that more children now have difficulty learning to play an instrument compared to ten or twenty years ago. We therefore need to advance our knowledge in this field and to find methods for helping our students in the best possible way.
Distinguishing between musical and motor skills problems
A distinction needs to be drawn between motor skills problems and musical problems – the two have to be addressed in different ways. A child who has difficulty in doing a certain thing is often advised to practise more, but sometimes practising ‘the difficulty’ itself doesn’t help. Perhaps the child’s motor skills have not matured sufficiently, in which case some other kind of training may be need in order to lay the foundations of those skills.
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