I’ve been thinking a lot about regret these days my girlfriends. I’m not talking about the usual things we wish we had not done- you know tequila, old boyfriends… that period where we only dated musicians and that little black dress that does not quite fit.
I imagine we all have regrets in life. Perhaps they shape our future choices; perhaps they challenge our behaviours gone by. All in all I’d like to think that I’ve learned a little bit more from roads I’d wished not taken than from the times I was pleased as punch.
Could it be true? Could it be that those art house musicians we dated while drinking tequila wearing a black mini skirt and pink leggings really were the most heightened educational experiences life had to offer us? Is it not basic psychology that life is learned through mistakes made and not successes achieved?
When I was 8 years old my parents signed me up for violin lessons. Let’s be clear- I was no Stravinsky. Frankly I lacked neither the patience nor the foresight to be really good at a musical instrument of such magnitude.
Let me clear- as a kid, I was a smaller, marginally less mature version than I am now. I do not say this to elicit the usual, ”no, that’s not true” response. I am, if anything, my girlfriends, quite self-aware. I don’t propose that I am immature now. Heavens no. In fact, it is quite the opposite- I was a pretty decently self-actualized kid. The problem is that when you are a somewhat bossy, self-important eight-year old- you are going to find it more than a challenge to listen to grown ups about the importance of playing a musical instrument that is neither comfortable nor easy to excel at. As far as a violin goes- I was destined to fail.
Firstly, I hated practicing the damn thing. I lacked the physical prowess to be any good at the violin. You see I was a rather compact chubby kid. Holding a musical instrument up to my face only served to remind me how big my cheeks were. This is a fact that no eight year old can face with humility and grace.
Secondly, my violin teacher, although a lovely man- was terribly passionate about his art- and I… well… I failed to share his appreciation. I was, in short, a musical lost cause. I wanted a musical instrument that I could sing to…. Musical theatre style. A violin just does not cut it when you want to be the next Bernadette Peters or Patti Lupone. In my young mind, I saw a violin as the kind of instrument a young delicate girl plays in servitude while her overbearing parents stand by.
And so because of a conceptual misalignment between what I perceived a violinist should be and who I was as a self-actualized eight-year old- I quite violin lessons after about 3 horrific months.
This is my first memory of a true regret. Now thirty something years later, whenever I see someone mastering an instrument I look on in longing and remorse. I atone for what could have been had I just stuck it out long enough to self-actualize into a true musician.
Since then there have been regrets to follow. I think of the little ones I’ve made along the way- bad meal choices and bad fashion moments. I think of moderate regrets that range from my third ear piercing to some seriously poorly thought out haircuts.
Finally I think of permanent regrets- friends lost and things left unsaid.
I am fortunate that the five star regrets are few and far between. I can scarcely recall them as I write this piece, which is of course a good sign after all.
However, I do wonder if my musical follies impacted me in the long term. A study published in Nature in April, 2007 showed that taking a music lesson before age 12 significantly influence a person’s brain patterns.
The study began with 20 healthy regular every day people. The adults watched and listened to a movie of their choice.
As they watched movies, the volunteers also listened to Mandarin words that sounded like "mi" continuously at conversation level in the background. Mandarin is a tone language, where a single word can differ in meaning depending on its tone. For example, the Mandarin word "mi" means "to squint" when delivered in a level tone, "to bewilder" when spoken in a rising tone, and "rice" when given in a falling then rising tone.
Researchers recorded the neural responses of the volunteers using functional MRI’s and PET scans. Half the volunteers had at least six years of training in a musical instrument starting before the age of 12. The others had no more than three years of musical experience. All were native English speakers who had no knowledge of Mandarin.
Even with their attentions focused on a movie, the musically trained subjects were significantly better at tracking and distinguishing the three tones better than those who had very little musical training.
What was even more surprising was that the brain patterns of these musical volunteers were different.
Surprisingly, the researchers found these changes occurred in the brainstem, the ancient part of the brain responsible for controlling automatic, critical body functions such as breathing and heartbeat.
What is even more interesting is that music was thought largely to be the responsibility of the cerebral cortex, where higher brain functions such as reasoning, thought and language are seated. The brainstem was thought to be unchangeable and uninvolved in the complex processes linked with music.
The researchers concluded that this study showed us how malleable the brainstem is to experience. Much of course remains to be seen. For example how long do you have to take musical lessons in order to engage your brainstem? Could musical training affect other brain systems and what does this mean in the long-term?
I’ve always been a fan of music of every kind, my girlfriends. You can easily see me on any given day running the sea wall while singing out loud to anything from show tunes to hip hop. Could my exposure to music also change the way my brain adapts to the world around me? Further studies suggest that this is in fact the case.
And so, I will no longer live with regrets about my lost violin solos. Instead I will dwell in the fact that I did in fact have 10 years of piano to shape my brainstem.
Between that and music appreciation runs, I continue to live in the moment and dwell in the possibilities that my brain will continue to grow and change along with me.
Of course my girlfriends, I can only hope that my closet learns to expand with the change.