Learning How to Play an Instrument
My nephew just started his first year in band. He’s learning how to play the tuba and when I sat in on one of his parent-mandated practice sessions, it made me think about my own beginning in music and some of the things I’ve learned while learning how to play different instruments.
The first instrument I dedicated myself to learning was the trombone. I come from a musical family, and growing up, playing music was a family activity. I grew up with instruments being learned, practiced, and mastered, so there was a sense of a specific “path” in learning an instrument.
When kids start off with an instrument, unless they are some sort of prodigy or have the phenomenal ability to concentrate and focus on learning for long periods of time, there will inevitably be a period of “jacking around” on the instrument. As a kid, the ability to make noise is one of the only powers you have when you are short, broke, and have no autonomy. As such, it is tempting for kids under a certain age to get distracted and experiment with the instrument, making noise not related to any specific learning task. This is natural and can actually be very helpful for the learning process as a young student learns the range and scale of sound he or she can make on an instrument. It's like watching a baby learn to stand up and walk: it looks ugly at first, but the kid will find the right muscles, the parents will give lots of encouragement, and small victories while learning technique and tone will pave the way for advanced development.
There is a certain point where the small victories end and the "getting one's sea legs" must give way to maturity and focus, and a commitment to spend quality practice time with the instrument. All students of instrumental performance will hit a plateau when expanding a performer's range and general ability. This is a natural process and the eventual satisfaction gained from learning these more difficult concepts will shape a person. Taking private lessons takes on many of the more difficult aspects of academic learning, coupled with the physical requirement of learning the actions necessary to make sound and play songs on an instrument.
It is hardly ever considered as such, but in addition to the listening and technical knowledge aspects of playing music, there is a significant physical experience that is often overlooked. Playing any kind of instrument involves coordination, muscle exertion, in the cases of wind instruments, the production of air to cause the internal mechanism of the instrument to work. These physical movements can be awkward and challenging to learn for a beginner of any age and is a critcal part of learning how to make a great sound.
For your benefit, or the benefit of a young person in your life who is just starting his or her musical journey, here are five helpful tips to aid in learning how to play a new instrument.
Take Private Lessons - Get a great private lesson teacher. This can't be stressed enough. Learn the fundamentals of an instrument and learn to walk and run before you try to fly in an untraditional direction. You'll the need the technical and musical tools to make any type of sound worth listening to. Depending on your instrument, there may be a lot of options for this type of instruction. A good way to find a competent private lesson instructor is to visit or call your local music store. The staff at instrument shops will know the best performers and teachers in your area and will know the teachers who are best trained and experienced in instructing young students. Students often form a mentorship with these instructors and this positive early interaction with a trained musician provides an important early role model outside of a typical teacher or parent.
A private lesson teacher will also help direct your instruction. While it might be attempting to let yourself fuddle around on the instrument, only learning barely enough to play your most favorite songs, a lesson teacher can correctly identify what skills needed to be learned in a certain way and order to allow the student the best chance to succeed. This role of the private lesson teacher becomes important when a student does encounter the performance plateaus mentioned above.
Take care of your instrument
Most traditional rock instruments are quite easy to maintain and repair. This is where I have to make an important distinction between types of instruments. Clearly, no beginning trombonist will have the equipment to roll out dents in his or her slide, but the materials to clean and maintain a guitar, for example, are quite affordable.
Indeed, part of the process of learning how to play an instrument is actually learning what the damn thing is made of. There are plenty of YouTube videos which might explain this, however, I prefer for students to learn this with a qualified teacher or luthier (for guitarists).
The most fun and kind of bittersweet thing I did after I saved up money for my first new guitar was to promptly disassemble and inspect the first guitar I ever owned. It is much more difficult to fix things (especially in crunch time type of situations) if you do not have the experience of taking something apart and putting it back together again successfully. You should explore anything you don't understand about your rig. Know what the component and installed parts of your setup will give you a special type of command over your instrument--more so than people who view their instrument as something to be coddled and feared.
Play with other people
A lot of your musical development will, and must take place by yourself in the privacy of your personal practice time. Playing with others, however, allows you to test the techniques you learn out in the field with other musicians possibly of different ability. This special type of rehearsal is great becoming a well-rounded musician. It teaches you how to work with others, listen, make compromise, and perhaps pick up techniques from other musicians.
Find people in your city or town who want to play music and go for it! Go for it even if it is a style of music not in your wheelhouse. This type of experience helps you grow as a musician because you are having to stretch yourself to play for the enjoyment of someone else. This is a type of playing at your frontier which will be addressed below. They key is, do a GREAT job. Hate country music? Do you think all those guys are redneck, religious hillbillies? Get into that music and figure out why people like it. Are there opportunities to make money in a type of music you normally don't play? Why not if it means you will improve your chops, make some friends, and progress as a life-long musician?
Play and learn at your "frontier"
There are countless books and semi-helpful blog posts which purport to give the secret of successful and virtuoso musicians. Malcom Gladwell thinks it takes 10,000 hours of practice. The real answer is a concept called playing at your frontier. The concept was explained to me as such by Professor Don Lucas many years ago while I was taking trombone lessons from him as a relatively new trombonist.
You should play at your frontier. What is your frontier? It is the point in your playing where things start to break up and are difficult. Your frontier is the place just beyond your best ability. When you start living in your frontier, the frontier doesn't become the frontier any longer--it becomes your ability. This is a moving target and it should be. True practice is always a movement of ability. Some of it is painful and no fun some times. For some people it is meditative in a way like an athlete might practice and work out like a runner will pushing himself to break a previous time. Ideally this is something you want to teach students when they plateau, but most students will need a push in this direction to learn how to play and practice at their respective frontiers.
I hardly ever hear of folks putting this into practice, but it's made a huge difference in my playing and I've observed it make a difference in the playing of others. When I have spoken to musicians about the way they play and practice, I always ask if they ever record themselves. They typically respond with a shocked and embarrassed expression and say something to the effect of "Oh, no. I'd never do that. I hate to listen to the sound of my (instrument, voice, etc) on a recording.
For those of you who feel this way, I have some tough news: the way you sound on a simple live recording is the way you sound to other people. Good, bad, or whatever is in between. The modern human mind can tell the difference between "digital hiss" on a lo-fi recording and overall bad playing. If it makes you cringe to hear yourself on a recording, what do you think others think about it?
Everyone should make a habit out of recording themselves play. Listen to yourself play or sing new songs as you learn them and identify the "pain points." Where are you weakest spots? What stands out in the recording as being amateurish or not sounding good? These pain points in your playing are where you must focus your work. A private lesson teacher will be useful in guiding your practice toward the specific techniques to master to correct those failures. Some private lesson teachers will even allow you to record your lessons, providing an invaluable tool for retention of key concepts.
It is also encouraging to go back and listen to one's progress, either on one song or over months or years. Recording has always been one of my favorite things to do. The nature of music is temporal, and capturing it and reveling in it on a recorded medium provides a special type of musical satisfaction. I have profoundly improved in my guitar playing, songwriting, and singing as a result of recording frequently and often, and then making a point to listen to the recording at least once.
The technology is easy, available, and pretty cheap for what skillful hands can turn into great results. If you have a smartphone, there are many inexpensive and free apps that can create high quality recordings using the smartphone's built in microphone. Do it. LISTEN TO IT. Get great!
If you are learning a new instrument I would love to hear from you.