Opinion » Bill Cope

Your Brain on B-Flat

Advantages of not using your skull as a battering ram


To all the musicians I have ever known, going back to Mr. Cherry's sixth-grade band class, I invite you to join me and donate your brains to science. I feel it is our obligation to future sixth-graders. They need to know what doesn't happen to the brains of those who choose clarinets over cleats, French horns over football helmets... running scales over running scrimmages.

I've been writing about the advantages of playing music for years. And before we go any further, let me make it clear that by "playing music," I do not mean plugging in your ear buds and humming along to Adele while you vacuum or do whatever it is you do on the Greenbelt.

No, I mean making music. And I don't believe the venue one chooses or the level one achieves is that important. Picking an instrument, as is playing a sport, is one of the few educational decisions a kid makes in his or her early years that is his or hers alone, and every year he or she decides to stick with it is confirmation of his or her commitment to, and satisfaction with, that decision.

There is a growing body of evidence that active involvement with music comes with multiple benefits to youngsters. Intellectually, emotionally, socially and creatively, the child expands, and that expansion carries over to the adult. In one of my earliest columns, I suggested someone take a survey among penitentiary inmates to see how many had ever played in a high school band, been part of a string quartet or one of those funky OktoberFest tuba ensembles, even a bagpipes band or a zither circle. My hunch was then and still is, you would find few old piano students or lapsed flutists on death row.

With the social benefits of music instruction in mind, I maintain we are doing a disservice not only to kids, but to society as a whole when music programs are cut from public school budgets. Of course, the argument has fallen on tone deaf ears. School boards and legislatures, particularly in hickacratic zones like Idaho, are often comprised of spiritually-monotonous drones for whom creativity is viewed as unnecessary, especially in an atmosphere where education is rapidly becoming a process not to turn out well-rounded, emotionally-fulfilled individuals, but to turn out replacement parts for economic engines.

Yet there is an aspect, advantageous to both individuals and society, of providing youth the opportunity to participate in the act of making music that has not been explored. It occurred to me after reading an article on Ken Stabler, the '70s/early '80s football star who died last summer after years of deteriorating mental facilities. He knew something had gone wrong with his brain, that it was getting worse, and he donated the organ to researchers that they might look for any relationship between his mental degeneration and his 28 years of taking it on the bean, from age 9 to age 37, as a football player. What they found was chronic trauma encephalopathy—"concussion disease"—the condition that, after decades of being a largely unrecognized plague among ex-footballers, has now become boiling news. Up to 100 ex-NFLers have been diagnosed with CTE, and as such a diagnosis can't be made currently except through autopsy, that number comes only from those who have donated their brains to post-mortem research.

For the last 10 years of his life—he was 69 when he died—Stabler had experienced cognitive impairments common among victims of CTE. These symptoms range from memory loss to suicidal tendencies, from aggression to depression, chronic headaches, problems with judgment and concentration, anxiety, a proclivity towards Parkinson's and early dementia. Problems might not show up for decades after the football career has ended, and the specter of CTE must be terrifying to the thousands of ex-pro, ex-college, perhaps even ex-high school players waiting to find out if there is such debilitation awaiting them.

I was impressed with Ken Stabler's decision to donate his brain to further the understanding of this affliction, and I was inspired. It was clear he made the decision in the interests of other football players, both past and future. And while reading about the misery he experienced, I found myself thinking, I bet none of that would have happened had he picked up a trombone all those years ago instead of shoulder pads.

This isn't to suggest that aging trombonists have no problem with forgetfulness or lapses in concentration. But mental deterioration is terrifying enough just as a natural accompaniment to aging. The thought that anyone would increase his chances for such deterioration if he were fully aware of what he might be doing to himself is almost beyond my comprehension.

So with Ken Stabler's example in mind, I intend to donate my brain to science in hopes researchers might learn more about the absence of damage that's done to a brain when it spends football games in the stands, playing the school fight song, or lining up on the sidelines in preparation for the halftime show. And if generations of future children benefit from the example of a youth spent not crashing craniums together as forcefully as possible, it will be well worth having my brain spend the afterlife soaking in a bath of formaldehyde. Join me, fellow band geeks. And who knows? Perhaps we can finally get some of that attention that always went to the jocks.