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Omaha Magazine

Create Myelin with Music

Jan 23, 2014 02:50PM ● By Katie Anderson
Martin Fischer, a famous physician, said, “I find four great classes of students: The dumb who stay dumb. The dumb who become wise. The wise who go dumb. The wise who remain wise.”

As each new year begins, it’s always a time of self-examination. We are more willing to ask that difficult question, “Which class of student am I?” We often resolve to start that “new” activity, either for ourselves or with our children. Understanding the learning process and its impact on neural connections can be just the spark we need to really begin that new adventure.

Repetition enforces knowledge

Myelin, a brain connection insulator, directly affects our ability to develop any new skill.

Imagine a cloudburst shape representing a neuron. When you learn something, a dendrite grows out of this cloudburst, creating a new pathway to other neurons. As you repeat a new activity, myelin begins to wrap that connection. Each correct repetition creates another layer of covering. Just like a well-insulated electrical cord, this myelin coating provides better speed and implementation to whatever skill is deeply practiced.

Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, a well-known Japanese violin pedagogue, defined skill with the following equation: Skill = knowledge + 10,000 times. In other words, having skill (doing something well) occurs when you have the knowledge (that’s the learning part!) and then repeat it many times. Once the knowledge is taught, a student can begin the 10,000 repetitions required to achieve high levels of ability and create strong myelin coverings. During the initial spread of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy, the world was shocked to see a child in diapers playing a very complicated violin piece. How was this possible? Knowledge wrapped with heavy myelin.

It’s a great plan to learn something new and then repeat it enough times to form a skill, but we need the motivation to do it!

Well, here’s some motivation for potential learners (which includes everyone!):

  • Up to the age of 30, naturally occurring waves of oligodendrocytes (or oligos, for short) create myelin.
  • From 30-50, we can still create strong myelin, but we no longer have naturally occurring waves of oligos.
  • After 50, our existing myelin begins to deteriorate, but at least 5 percent of our oligos stay immature and ready for use throughout life. As the old myelin is deteriorating, you can create new myelin, which keeps your brain alive and well.
  • Incidentally, when Einstein’s brain was examined, they found no greater number of neurons or bigger network of dendrites than any other brain. What they did find was massive amounts of myelin. Einstein himself stated, “I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas.”

Master teachers provide motivation

So how can we take advantage of all those oligos waiting to transform into myelin? As a musician and parent, I would be remiss not to mention the advantages of choosing a music education. Playing an instrument is one of the few skills that requires the correct “answer” (playing the right note) within a specific time frame (in the correct rhythmic structure), while also engaging the amygdala—the brain’s emotional center—as well as integrating the right and left hemispheres.

Developing a new skill always requires dedication, and finding a master teacher is essential to this process. Input from an expert fuels motivation, encourages repetition, and facilitates learning. Being a part of a music studio connects a student to a community of peers, all working to develop expertise on their instruments. A great teacher brings targeted knowledge to each student’s specific needs, as well as innumerable ways of approaching the same concept if it isn’t grasped the first time. Experienced teachers have developed sturdy myelin wrappings on their “how to teach” connections.

Each day is an opportunity to challenge ourselves and our children with something new. It takes courage and energy, but the result will most certainly be a higher quality of life with quicker neural responses and connections. This is our mission, should we choose to accept it. However, this message will self-destruct in 30 seconds, unless repeated through deep-practice to create 

The Omaha Conservatory of Music has an outstanding Artist-Faculty who are highly qualified music instructors, as well as active performers in the community, offering private and group instruction in strings, piano, guitar, voice, winds, brass, and percussion. Join our musical community today by calling 402.932.4978 or through our website at

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