By Rougine Kazemi

Ginny Kim, soft-spoken and gentle with long blue hair and star tattoos wrapped around her finger, writes lyrics in her journal, eventually putting it together with guitar chords and finally creating a song. 

Kim is a songwriter and student at Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) professional music program, where she learns to produce music using software. Since her early teenage years, Kim has been exploring the world of pop and rock with her guitar and is currently in a band called The Neverminds

She loves it now, but it hasn’t always been this way.

The start of her musical journey goes back to her early childhood, in Korea. Kim was seven years old when she first started learning the piano and violin. Her music lessons were sometimes intimidating and stressful, and she was only allowed to play classical music – not the genres she was interested in.

Her tutors would encourage her to join different competitions, causing a lot of stress for the younger, shyer version of herself. The constant pressure to practice and perfect classical songs led her to stop playing the piano and the violin.

“I guess it kind of prevented me from loving music… It wasn’t like I loved playing the piano, it was more that my parents wanted me to play,” said Kim.

According to the Niagara Conservatory of Music, 66 per cent of Canadians learned to play an instrument as a child. Out of the 66 per cent, only ⅙ still play their instrument at least once a week.

Learning to play an instrument has been proven to have various positive effects on people. So, why is it that lessons are often abandoned, and how can the music industry change so children, teens and adults can simply enjoy the art of playing an instrument without feeling so much pressure?

Although she has since picked up the guitar as her main instrument and plays the piano whenever she needs it for songwriting, Kim is not the only musician who often feels the stress of learning an instrument.

Marmara El Masri recalls the beginning of her musical journey in Lebanon, where her interest in the piano sparked. Both her parents had a passion for music, which was passed down to El Masri and her siblings. Since she can remember, there was a piano in her house, and at the age of three, she started taking piano lessons under her uncle’s instruction at a music conservatory. Much like Kim, her lessons followed a strict curriculum and included taking regular tests to measure her performance levels. She was also to be involved in competitions in which the other musicians were older than her.

“When it came to that competitive aspect of piano playing, I was much less interested. There was a lot more anxiety around that,” explained El Masri.

She remembers having to sit down and practice the piano every single day in order to catch up to the older, higher level musicians, which often left her stressed and dreading the next lesson. As the years went by, El Masri began to voice her frustration, sometimes asking to skip her lessons.

Eventually, at the height of all the pressure, her family moved to a different country and her music classes stopped. She no longer had immediate access to a piano and only got to practice from time to time. However, music stuck with her forever.

Now, it brings her peace. When she listens to music, she appreciates the technical side of it and the melodies calm her down. El Masri attributes this experience to her childhood lessons. When she plays around on a keyboard whenever she gets the chance, she feels joyous, and her childhood memories come back to her.

El Masri shared one of those memories with me. She told me about her uncle, who was also her music teacher. When she was 11 years old, he passed away, leaving her unable to play the piano for a while. Every time she would sit at the keys, she would remember her uncle and burst into tears. As time passed, she grew to learn that music isn’t just about hitting certain keys properly, it’s about imitating those real-life, raw emotions into the piece you’re playing. Like many other musicians, she was able to tap into the very personal and emotional side of playing an instrument.

El Masri talks about dealing with the passing of her uncle, and how it affected her relationship with music.
(* Michael Tilson Thomas: Grace by Jennifer Check, soprano; Laura Ward, piano via Free Music Archive)

According to the University of Alberta, playing a musical instrument has physical and emotional benefits for the musician: “Music is recognized as an effective form of emotional release because when you are playing and making music, your levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreases and so does your blood pressure and heart rate”.

Maureen Bursey sang for her son and played Mozart because studies had shown it developed babies’ brains.

“I gave birth with Mozart playing in the delivery room,” she said laughingly.

Bursey is a clarinet player. Her relationship with music is a long one, and I could hear her passion for music through the phone when we were speaking.

She first picked up the clarinet in a high school music class. She learned to love music, and joined the Junior, Intermediate and Senior bands, being president every year. As life got busy, she took a break, and just recently started playing the clarinet again within a band at a music school in Brantford, ON.

As Bursey started to get back into the groove, she was moved to a higher-level band. Instead of having four songs ready, she sometimes had to learn 10 songs in a short period of time. At one point she remembers feeling like a mess because it was all too much and rejoined the intermediate band.

At the end of our chat, Bursey jokingly said she hoped her story was different from my other interviews so it could add perspective to the story. As I think about Kim, El Masri and Bursey’s journeys, I realize even though they all share a love for music in a way unique to them, they also shared similar feelings of stress, burnout, and anxiety at some point in their musical careers. The curriculum was too strict, they couldn’t play the music they liked, or it took an unreasonable amount of time to keep up.

“I think a lot of the pressure also comes from parents. They’re thinking their kid’s going to be some child prodigy in music,” said Bursey.

She thinks music should be a more integral part of every kid’s life, that way they could progress at their own pace instead of having to push themselves to meet certain standards through testing.

In a research study done at Uludag University in Turkey, it was found that children aged seven  through 12 who received one hour of piano lessons a week for 14 weeks showed an increase in attention and reading skills, compared to the children who did not take piano lessons.

Dr. Norah Lorway, a professor at TMU’s professional music program says burnout is common within the music industry, especially within the classical world. The pressure to memorize and replicate songs perfectly becomes very stressful. She believes setting up boundaries and learning when to say no to can help avoid burnout, but she also understands this would be difficult to do as a kid.

Kim is now writing music for herself and her band. El Masri plays the piano from time to time, and Bursey has since rejoined the more advanced band. Their relationship with music has changed over the years, but their appreciation has only grown more as they’ve been able to connect with music at their own pace.

“The thing about music is that it’s math, it’s emotive, it’s energizing or it’s calming. Music does everything,’ said Bursey.